The future of academic certification: universities, MOOCs, aggregators, and peer reputation


This morning I gave the opening keynote at the Virtual Universities: Impact on Accounting Education Thought Leadership forum in Adelaide, organized by the Centre of Accounting, Governance and Sustainability at University of South Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia. The audience was an invitation-only group of the most senior accounting academics and industry practitioners in the country.

My keynote was on the broad global context for the current changes in education. After looking at major technological, social and structural changes, the future of work, and shifts in learning, I turned to the role of certification and credentials.

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has helped bring into focus that universities have to date always bundled together three things:
– Education;
– Certification; and
– Networking.

The rise of Open Courseware and more recently services such as Coursera, Udacity and edX has now broken out (part of) the education piece.

What makes this unbundling particularly pointed for existing educational institutions is that all of these rich course materials are being made available for free.

Of course the reality is that education is itself being unbundled, into elements including course materials, lectures, tutoring, peer discussion, and one-on-one teaching. However to some degree, for some students, outstanding course materials can be a substitute for university education.

Where established tertiary institutions still hold a virtual monopoly is in certification. Recognized degrees are a pathway to employment and career success.

In fact a quality free education has always being available for those who live where there is a university. Anyone can walk into a lecture hall. To register and pay gives you tutorials, exams, and ultimately certification. That hasn’t changed. It is just that this availability of teaching materials is now scaled globally.

In a world in which education, certification, and networking have been unbundled, an absolutely vital question is the future of certification.

While it is possible that established, credentialed universities will maintain a monopoly on certification, that is unlikely in the medium to longer term.

Universities degrees have value largely because employers place value on them. However employers that are seeking the best talent will find they are at a disadvantage if they disregard people who have the same or often better capabilities than those who have a degree.

There are a number of possible future models for certification, including:

– Education and certification are provided separately. One opportunity for universities is to provide credentials to students who have studied elsewhere, including using freely availably course materials. There is no reason why new institutions cannot establish themselves as recognized providers of credentials as a stand alone service. It will take a little while for them to be recognized, however that need not take long given how quickly reputations can be established in a connected world.

– Aggregation of certification and experience. A nice example of aggregation of certification is provided by Degreed, a start-up which provides a score combining accredited and non-accredited informal education. This model could morph into certification for our accumulated experiences in the ‘school of hard knocks’.

– Distributed peer reputation measures. In the rise of the reputation economy we are building increasingly good methodologies for measuring reputation and competence in specific domains. Topcoder is a great example of a distributed work platform in which people’s capabilities are judged by peers to provide ratings and rankings. It is feasible that broader-based peer rating systems will provide far better measures of competence than formal degrees or the exam system that still largely drives them.

Many university leaders believe that they will retain a monopoly on certification of capabilities. Indeed, the very long-established brands and credibility of major universities will retain massive value into the future, if they are well managed.

However there are a number of emerging models for certification of capabilities.

Which do you think are likely to be most prominent in years to come?