Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education?
Michael Olneck, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, kindly agreed to let HASTAC upload his paper, Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education.
Michael frames badges as a disruptive force within higher education, provoking his readers (initially directed towards sociologists) to evaluate the assumptions and norms of traditional institutions to legitimize and certify knowledge and skills. As Michael writes, his paper "establishes the need to develop sociological explanations for recent developments of certification of skill and knowledge mastery as possible substitutes for, or supplements to, conventional college and university degrees."
A portion of Michael's paper is excerpted below. To download the full version, click here.
As always, feel free to jump in and join the discussion below.
An organized, well-financed effort to develop on-line certification of knowledge and skills is underway (see e.g., O’Shaughnessy, 2011; Watters, 2011; Carey, 2012; Crotty, 2012; Young, 2012b) . The effort enjoys foundation, government, and even university support. The effort is championed by some as a challenge to the monopoly on credentialing held by conventional degree-granting institutions. Some of these efforts, such as MIT certifying completion of the open source courses it offers, extend, rather than circumscribe, the reach of university authority (Parry, 2012). Another, “Learning Counts” (www.learningcounts.org; see Glenn, 2011) offer “[c]ollege credit for what you already know ®,” and so maintains the significance of collegiate certification, even as it embraces non-traditional learning. The most ambitious effort, Mozilla’s Open Badge project (http://openbadges.org/en-US/), envisions the evolution of an ever-expanding “ecosystem” in which numerous organizations assess and certify specific skills, competencies, and knowledge, and issue “badges” testifying to what the badge-holder has mastered or displayed. The badges could be used in lieu of degrees to represent one’s qualifications to prospective employers and others (Watters, 2011). The effort has drawn the notice of, among others, the Wall Street Journal (Young, 2012a).
Sociologically, among the most interesting aspects of the Mozilla effort are that it entails exceptionally weak classification of knowledge (Bernstein, 1971); it “counts” learning of many kinds which are acquired beyond formal education institutions, including interpersonal skills and experiences (e.g., mentorship) and “new skills and literacies” (Mozilla, n.d.); it proliferates and disperses authority over what learning to recognize; and it provides a means of translation and commensuration across multiple spheres.
While explanation of the emergence of alternative certification is important, I think that this development poses an especially opportune challenge to our predictive and forecasting prowess. We should ask what our theoretical apparatus and our cumulated knowledge would lead us to expect for the further development of alternative certification in the coming decades, and the implications of those anticipated developments for the configuration of formal education, especially higher education, and for the ways in which education interpenetrates other social spheres (Davies & Mehta, 2011).
In a period of credential inflation, in which a degree has become both more necessary for occupational attainment and less certain in yielding economic rewards, as well as more costly to individuals, along with escalating collective costs to providing higher education, we should have, on the basis of historical patterns (Collins, 1981), expected the critique of higher education with which we are all by now familiar. Whether we should have anticipated the emergence of the kind of alternative pathways to certification that I am discussing is another matter. Prevailing accounts of the role of credentials in status competition anticipate an “irreversible” “spiral of competition for educational attainment and rising credential requirements for jobs” in which “self-consciously alternative forms of education end up emulating the credentially (sic) pattern of mainstream education...” (Collins, 2011 , 233). On the other hand, Collins earlier observed that when the limits of credential inflation are reached “[c]heaper or nonformalized means of acquiring culture spring up: rival schools with shorter courses or no formal (state-sanctioned) certificates...” (1981, 194).
The proposed alternatives to credentialing by college degrees challenge not only the existing credentialing system, but also sociological theories which assume that education attainment is merely a symbolic positional good, and that education credentials certify primarily prestige, not practical skills (Collins, 1981). Rather, the proposed alternatives are predicated on the validity of aspects of human capital theory, the tenets of which many sociologists are prone to dismiss , e.g., that acquired skills and knowledge contribute importantly to worker productivity (Baker, 2009).
A system of badges challenges the function of higher education as society’s primary “sieve” (Stevens et al., 2008). It also appears to challenge the widely- and deeply-institutionalized idea of the primacy of formal schooling as a source of authoritative competence in modern societies (Meyer, 1977; Baker, 2011a,b).
(Click here to access the full version of Insurgent Credentials)