Think Different? Not on College Campuses

What if higher ed lost its grip on the credential business? Perhaps then administrators and professors would be forced to think that there is more than one way to provide a college education.
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When Steve Jobs introduced the "Think Different" advertising campaign on his return to the helm of Apple in 1997, the slogan was not just aimed at consumers. It was also meant to inspire those inside the struggling company to innovate for the future.

Of course, what followed is now the story of one of the most successful companies in American history: a decade when Apple transformed the music industry with the iPod, the mobile-phone industry with the iPhone, and now the publishing industry with the iPad.

Apple succeeded partly because it decided to take a different path than its competitors in the tech industry, and consumers followed. The history of business is filled with similar tales. Just look at what happened to Detroit's Big Three after the arrival of Japanese automakers in the United States.

Many in higher ed believe the analogy with businesses doesn't apply to them. They think they have a corner on the credential business and right now a credential is the ticket to most good jobs.

Whenever a new competitor enters the higher-education market and tries something different, those at traditional colleges criticize the newcomers as not understanding pedagogy. Just see the negative comments on recent Chronicle of Higher Education articles about online education or StraighterLine, which offers self-paced introductory courses but not degrees.

But what if higher ed lost its grip on the credential business? Perhaps then administrators and professors would be forced to think that there is more than one way to provide a college education.

The day when other organizations besides colleges provide a nondegree credential to signify learning might not be as far off as we think. One interesting project on this front is an effort to create "digital badges," which would allow people to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to prospective employers without necessarily having a degree.

Badges could recognize, for example, informal learning that happens outside the classroom; "soft skills," such as critical thinking and communication; and new literacies, such as aggregating information from various sources and judging its quality. And in a digital age, the badge could include links back to documents and other artifacts demonstrating the work that led to earning the stamp of approval.

Until now an interesting-but-somewhat-fringe idea, digital badges received a big boost last week, when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $2-million competition to create and develop badges and a badge system. (The contest is also supported by Mozilla and the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advance Collaboratory, otherwise known as Hastac.)

At the announcement in Washington, the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, called badges a "game-changing strategy" and said his agency would join with the Department of Veterans Affairs to award $25,000 for the best badge prototype that serves veterans looking for well-paying jobs.

Under a badge system, colleges would no longer be the sole providers of a credential. While badges could be awarded by traditional colleges, they could also be given out by professional organizations, online and open-courseware providers, companies, or community groups.

Of course, each of those groups would need to earn the trust of employers who would be asked to hire prospective employees with the badges and perhaps not a college degree. But we're already hearing complaints from employers about the quality of graduates being turned out by some colleges. So it's not a stretch to imagine some employers taking a chance on people with a different kind of credential.

Once that trust was earned, suddenly the competition in the credential market would get much more crowded. And for colleges charging $50,000 a year, it would become a lot more difficult to persuade parents and students looking solely for a career credential to spend four years on campus.

From then on, colleges would have little choice but to "Think Different."

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