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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016

A Hack Education Project

Education Technology and the History of the Future of Credentialing

This is part seven of my annual review of the year in ed-tech

What Counts as a “Real College”?

In April, the Department of Homeland Security arrested 21 people, charging them with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. These individuals were alleged to have helped some one thousand foreign nationals maintain their student visas through a “pay to stay” college in New Jersey.

The college – the University of Northern New Jersey – was a scam, one created by Homeland Security itself. The school employed no professors and held no classes. Its sole purpose was to lure recruiters in turn into convincing foreign nationals to enroll – all this in exchange for a Form I–20 which allows full-time students to apply for a F–1 student visa.

It was an elaborate scam, dating back to 2012, but one that gave out many online signals that the school was “real.” The University of Northern New Jersey had a website – one with a .edu domain, to boot – as well as several active social media profiles. There was a regularly updated Facebook page, a Twitter account, as well as a LinkedIn profile for its supposed president.

Students who’d obtained their visas through the University of Northern New Jersey claimed they were victims of the government’s sting; the government said they were complicit. According to one student interviewed by Buzzfeed, he had asked why he wasn’t required to take any classes, and he’d been told by the recruiter that he could still earn credits through working. “Thinking back, it’s suspicious in hindsight, but I’m not really familiar with immigration law,” the student told Buzzfeed. “And I’d never gotten my Ph.D. before. So I thought maybe this is the way it works.”

“I thought maybe this is the way it works.”

With all the charges of fraud and deceptive marketing levied against post-secondary institutions this year – from the University of Northern New Jersey too ITT, from Trump University to DevSchool – we might ask if, indeed, this is the way it works.

What’s a scam, what’s a crime, and – despite increasing tuition rates and growing student loan debt – what’s a “real university”?

New America’s higher education analyst Kevin Carey wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in March arguing that “Donald Trump Isn’t Alone in Exploiting the Word ‘University’.” Carey blasts both for-profit universities and not for-profit technical colleges for wielding that word “university” when they can’t deliver on the “august” promises he believes that word implies. “These institutions are not overtly trying to rip off anyone,” he writes. “But nor do they tend to have the full features we associate with universities: multiple schools and departments with a heavy focus on research, scholarship and training new Ph.Ds. Instead, they are mostly what they used to be called and have always been: colleges, with a few small master’s degree programs added in order to edge over the unofficial university line.” Too many schools call themselves a “university,” Carey argues. These schools don’t deserve the title, and “all of this creates exploitable confusion among prospective students, who have been taught by schooling and popular culture to trust any place called a university.”

Utah Valley University’s Jeffrey Alan Johnson, whose school was invoked in Carey’s piece to exemplify this problem of an unduly inflated name, responded forcefully to the NYT op-ed: “Kevin Carey isn’t Alone in Exploiting the Word ‘University,’ Either”:

Carey’s problem with UVU extends to any “public university with a compass point or city designation in its name.” Schools that evolved from teacher-training oriented “normal schools” are systematically to be denied designation as a university – schools that Carey is clear to note were designed “to train women to become public schoolteachers.” Women, and especially women who will be teachers, must certainly not be allowed to attend Carey University!

Indeed, here we start to see Carey’s problem. This piece (you can decide what it is a piece of) is about what constitutes a “real” university. And any attempt to stratify on legitimacy should immediately raise deep concerns, as they are usually about protecting someone's privilege. The pity Carey has for those who can’t tell the difference between George Washington University and Argosy University rings hollow when he says that primary and secondary education programs saw name inflation just by being called teachers colleges rather than normal schools. That’s a profession that just doesn’t deserve to be at a university. Neither, apparently, do associate’s degrees, which aren’t real degrees at Carey University.

Who might benefit from such a restrictive definition of universities? Who is harmed by calling Cal State Fullerton a university rather than Fullerton State Normal School? Interestingly, it isn’t students who think they are attending a research university. In his recent book The End of College Carey is quite supportive of other non-university universities: The University of Everywhere is his touchstone in the book precisely because it is not a traditional research university. But it does serve an emerging elite, students that Tressie McMillan Cottom has rightly called “roving autodidacts.” Those students are apparently not confused by the name.

So the non-university university is a problem when it is appropriated by institutions serving the masses but when elite-serving institutions do that it is innovation. I think we now know what Kevin Carey’s problem is. It isn’t a word. It is a class.

What is a “real college”? What is a “real university”? How and why do we recognize them as such? What are the signals that these schools send that assure us they’re legitimate? How are these signals interpreted – by students, by governments, by employers, by the general public? What are promises that – legally – post-secondary institutions can or must make? What is the implied promise?

How might new technologies – education or otherwise – and new economies reshape “what counts” as a credential, “what counts” as credit? What are the stories that education technology entrepreneurs and investors and ed-tech’s proponents tell about the need or demand to “disrupt the degree”?

Agents of Accreditation

2016 was, as the president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation wrote earlier this month in Inside Higher Ed, a “Pivotal Year for Accreditation.”

Things have building towards “pivotal” for quite some time now, not only with concerns about the questionable oversight that accreditors have provided for for-profit universities but with the push to alter accrediting rules surrounding online and competency-based degrees.

One of the longstanding complaints about accrediting agencies is that, as The Wall Street Journal reported this fall, “College Accreditors Largely Staffed by Employees of Schools They Oversee.” The WSJ article points to a report by the free market Manhattan Institute which claimed that two out of every three officials who work as commissioners for accreditors are employed by schools that their accrediting agencies oversee – a “potential conflicts of interest.” Those agencies responsible for monitoring for-profit universities have come under particularly close scrutiny, particularly in light of their low rates of graduation and high rates of student loan defaults.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was not successful in its attempts to force the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) to hand over records as part of its investigation into possible unlawful practices in granting for-profit universities their accreditation. (The ACICS is the accrediting agency for many for-profits. Or it was.)

Throughout the year, the Department of Education also took steps to strengthen the oversight of accreditors, adding requirements regarding data that they had to report to the government and to the public as well as pressuring accreditors to do more to improve “student outcomes” at the schools they monitored.

In May, Buzzfeed reported that the ACICS had held a training session at its annual conference in which it explained to for-profit universities how to avoid scrutiny and lawsuits from states’ attorneys general. A few days later, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris slammed the organization, insisting the ACICS had “greatly harmed Californian students and consumers” by continuing to grant schools like the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges accreditation. In June, the Center for American Progress issued a report that found that “ACICS is incapable of acting as a sufficient assessor of college quality and that its repeated poor judgment leaves millions of students and billions of taxpayer dollars at risk.”

As pressure mounted, the ACICS froze its membership applications, agreeing with critics that “every aspect of the agency must be re-evaluated, fortified and enhanced.”

In September, the Department of Education announced that it would move to strip ACICS, the largest accrediting body in the US, of its accrediting power. Although the ACICS has appealed the decision (and will keep appealing it says), the news has prompted hundreds of for-profit schools around the country to begin looking for a new accreditor. Students at these schools will not immediately lose access to financial aid – that’s one of the implications of an institution’s loss of accreditation – but many students are rightly concerned about their ability to finish their degrees.

ACICS wasn’t the only accrediting agency in trouble this year. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College (ACCJC), the accreditor for California’s community colleges, lost its appeal to the Department of Education in January and will have a year to resolve the issues surrounding its not meeting federal accreditation standards. In March, the majority of community college presidents in California voted to pull away from ACCJC, something that had been in the works since it had sanctioned the City College of San Francisco back in 2012.

Meanwhile… while cracking down on one of the agencies responsible for overseeing for-profit universities, the Department of Education also launched a pilot project to allow “alternative providers” to be eligible for financial aid. I wrote about this program in more detail in the article in this series on “The ‘New’ For-Profit Higher Education.” So I’ll just say this here: those “quality assurance providers” for that program – accreditors-of-sorts – are deeply invested (some quite literally) in reshaping higher education to suit their particular vision of credentialing’s future.

“Conflicts of interest” persist, needless to say, and there are multiple think-tanks and companies eager to have a role in deciding “who counts” as an accreditor and “what counts” as a “real” post-secondary education.

Jobs for Grads

One of the ways in which we define a “real college” – and perhaps punish those which might not be sufficiently “real” – is by assessing the employability of its graduates. That’s been the impetus, in part, behind “gainful employment” rules for for-profits.

The question of employability matters to not-for-profits too. We assume that’s part of the deal that comes with a college diploma. But there has been a growing chorus of voices in recent years – many emanating from Silicon Valley – that college isn’t “worth it.”

Despite this narrative, workers with college degrees are still in high demand. Yes, graduates have struggled during the recent economic downturn, but contrary to popular belief, most aren’t unemployed or stuck in low-skilled, low-wage service jobs. According to a report released in June by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “Of the 11.6 million jobs added since the rebound took hold in 2010, about 99 percent – or 11.5 million jobs – were filled by people with either at least some college education, a bachelor’s degree or better.”

For those without a college degree, however, it’s a tough job market. According to a survey by the career search engine Career Builder, “Nearly a third of employers say they have increased their educational requirements over the past five years. … Thirty-seven percent of companies say they hire college graduates for positions that in the past were primarily held by people with only high school degrees, and 26 percent say they hire people with master’s degrees for jobs that used to go to candidates with bachelor’s degrees.”

And this is true for Silicon Valley too, despite all the lip service it has payed to “meritocracy” in hiring and promotion. If you want a job as a software developer in the technology industry, you’ll need a college degree. (Preferably from Stanford.) As The Wall Street Journal reported in March,

Seventy-five percent of job ads for those roles at technology companies specify an educational requirement, compared with 58% of openings posted by the full universe of employers that are hiring software developers, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market data firm that analyzed 1.6 million ads for software-developer jobs nationwide. And in 95% of the tech-sector job ads that list a minimum credential, the employer calls for a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 92% of the ads from all employers seeking developers. … Nationally, 68% of adults over age 25 don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Burning Glass found employers in Silicon Valley were the most exacting in terms of credentials, listing education requirements in 77% of developer job postings, and in those ads, demanding a bachelor’s or advanced degree 98% of the time. (emphasis mine)

This should give us pause. It should perhaps make us question what’s going on with all those Silicon Valley companies who are actively peddling their alternative credentials as a substitute for a college degree. Because despite their marketing copy, it remains important to ask: how do employers, in and out of Silicon Valley, respond to these alt-credentials – to MOOC certificates and nanodegrees and microcredentials and badges?

There’s a hint, perhaps, in this Bloomberg headline: “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.” As I’ve argued repeatedly, coding bootcamps are simply the latest manifestation of for-profit universities, as career and technical colleges have rebranded themselves in order to solve the problem of the so-called “skills gap.” Based on what we know about for-profit higher ed, graduates of these programs will have more student loan debt and fewer job opportunities. Bloomberg’s recent reporting on bootcamps seems to confirm this.

Yet investors in bootcamps continue to hype their investment portfolios. Writing in Edsurge, University Ventures’ Ryan Craig, whose firm has backed the bootcamp Revature, argued “Why Free Bootcamps + Inexpensive Bachelor’s Degrees Make Sense.” In other words, you should do both, according to Craig: get a degree and earn a bootcamp certificate.

Credential creep doesn’t solve the problem of credentialing at all, of course. But it’s great business for all these new credential providers and their investors (or so they hope).

Financial data on coding bootcamps can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.

What Counts as a Credential?

One of the organizations most heavily invested in promoting alternative credentialing is the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based non-profit whose endowment is worth over $1 billion. The Lumina Foundation was founded in 2000 using proceeds of the sale of USA Group, a private guarantor of student loans, to Sallie Mae. The foundation says it’s committed to boosting the number of Americans who have some “quality postsecondary credential” to 60% by 2025. (According to its later report from the Lumina Foundation, more than 45% of Americans between age 25 and 64 did in 2014.)

But again, what count as a “quality postsecondary credential”? How is “quality” defined? (Spoiler alert: mostly “skills” and “jobs” not “happiness” or “equity.”)

“It’s Time to Change What We Mean by ‘Credential’,” Northeastern University’s Sean Gallagher argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (He’s also the author of The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring, published this year.) “Colleges would be wise,” Gallagher argues, “not to cede their market position and their employer relationships to start-up companies or emerging degree substitutes.”

But startup companies and alt-degree providers have incredibly deep pockets, and the Lumina Foundation is just one of the many organizations that’s reframing the definition of the credential in the language of “marketplace.” (It’s also an investor in the alt-credential startup Credly, for what it’s worth.) In doing so, this language positions education squarely in the realm of business-speak and implies, by extension, that other reasons for a degree or credential – be they moral or civic or intellectual – are irrelevant at best, elitist at worst.

What does this look like in practice? In September, as Edsurge reported, a “New Lumina-Backed Registry Aims to Bring Transparency to the ’Credentialing Marketplace’.” As the press release from the The Credential Transparency Initiative described it, “Using web 3.0 technologies, the registry enables job seekers, students, workers, and employers to easily search for and compare credentials, similar to the way travel apps are used to compare flights, rental cars, and hotels.” Because credentialing works just like transportation.

More accurately, credentials work as signals. They signal knowledge attainment and task completion, for starters. They signal who you know or might know, not just what you know. They signal socio-economic class. They signal status. And that holds true for college degrees as well as alternative certificate programs. “The Thiel Fellowship was created to prove that a college degree doesn’t matter,” as Backchannel recently reported. “It became one of the most elite credentials for young entrepreneurs.” Prestige networks replicate prestige.

Credentials can also help legitimize institutions and industries. The technology industry has been doing this for quite some time – take Microsoft’s own certification program that it launched back in 1992. (This is still the most popular certification listed on Microsoft’s professional network, LinkedIn.) Udacity has taken a page from this playbook, offering certificates this year in a number of nascent fields, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and autonomous vehicle engineering.

This process of legitimization through credentialing is worth thinking about in terms of the teaching profession too. Education degrees have long been viewed as an inferior degree issued by less prestigious post-secondary institutions. (This relates to Jeffrey Alan Johnson’s response to Kevin Carey that I mentioned above.) Teach for America, which turned 25 this year, was one attempt to attract students from more prestigious schools into the teaching profession by bypassing the traditional certification process. There were several attempts this year – from the Department of Education and others – to alter teacher preparation programs. New federal rules, for example, were poised to raise the standards for these graduates. Other organizations and companies began offering “micro-credentials” for educators. (So, on one hand, as I noted in the previous article in this series, we find states and districts hiring teachers without teaching certifications; and on the other, we see this push for alternative certification programs.)

According to research published in the American Educational Research Journal and reported by Education Week, “Alternative-certification programs are bringing in scores more teachers of color, male teachers, and teachers who attended selective colleges than traditional programs. But teachers who enter the profession through such programs also appear to leave it at higher rates – and that gap has been growing since 1999.”

At the risk of extrapolating too much from this particular research, we do need to ask, in general, whether or not alternative certification programs tackle or exacerbate the diversity issues that many industries and institutions face. What sorts of credentials “count,” and which ones count against women and people of color?

The Alt-Degree

“My hypothesis,” venture capitalist Ryan Craig wrote in Edsurge in March, "is that degree exceptionalism will abate and degrees –starting with master’s, but continuing with bachelor’s – will be one credential among many. They’ll be on a leveling playing field with a plethora of novel credentials offered in blended and online modalities by colleges, universities, new postsecondary providers, bootcamps, not-for-profit organizations, museums, libraries, enterprises and solo practitioners seeking to disintermediate all of the above. For fun, let’s call these novel credentials microdegrees.

Take your pick. For fun. (For a price):

“Alternative paths to degrees.” “Alternative paths to credit.” “Flexible, stackable courses.” “Stackable degrees.” “Stackable credentials.” “Stackable credential pathways.” “Connected credentials.” MOOCs for credit. Microcredentials. The MicroDegree™. The MicroMasters™. The Nanodegree™. The Nanodegree Plus – it comes with a money-back guarantee. The Techdegree. Badges. Badges. Badges. Open badges and not-open badges. Short-term certificate programs. Fast track certification. Diplomas issued by Facebook. By Google. By Khan Academy.

And if all this pressure to “up-credential” so you can signal you’ve “up-skilled,” gets you down, perhaps you can try what Zenefits did. The human resources startup – which has raised some $580 million in venture capital – created software to allow insurance brokers to cheat on their licensing requirements by bypassing a legally required 52-hour online course. “Bypass.” “Disrupt.” “Innovate.”

Education technology startups certainly hope that the pressure for more credentials – “real” or “fake,” either way – will be provide a much needed revenue stream.

Funding data for startups offering “alt-credentials” can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.

The History of the Future of Competency-Based Education

What counts as a credit?

For the last hundred years or so, the notion of “credit” has been largely based on the Carnegie Unit – that is, based on a fixed amount of time that a student must spend in a classroom, in contact with an instructor. And for the past few years (at least), “competency-based education” (CBE) has been heralded – once again – as the “next big thing,” a way to move beyond the Carnegie Unit. Instead of requiring “seat time,” competency-based education demands students pass assessments – on their own schedule rather than, say, a semester schedule – in order to demonstrate their understanding or competency.

No surprise, with the built-in necessity of testing, competency-based education is lauded by assessment companies. Often described as a more “technical” solution than what a human teacher has traditionally provided, it’s been embraced too by ed-tech companies, by venture capitalists, by for-profit universities, and by education reform organizations.

This year, the for-profit Rasmussen College was approved by the Department of Education to offer competency-based degrees in business management and accounting. The for-profit Walden University will offer an online competency-based master’s degree in early childhood education. Purdue University will offer a competency-based bachelor’s degree in technology. Brandman University will offer an online competency-based bachelor’s degree in information technology. The Department of Education’s Inspector General announced in January that it was auditing Western Governors University over the role faculty have in its competency-based programs. Should these actually be considered “correspondence courses,” the Inspector General wondered? What’s the difference?

We must ask, as with all of the promises of ed-tech innovation, if alternative credentialing programs like CBE address or exacerbate educational inequalities. As sociology professor Steven Ward wrote in an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed,

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” [CBE programs] are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about – general knowledge available to and shared by all – a kindergarten for adults.

There is no technological solution to prestige and status.

Let’s remember: competency-based education is not new. The General Educational Development test, better known by its initials the GED, is over 70 years old. Initially designed to help soldiers who’d joined the military without finishing high school demonstrate that they had academic skills equivalent to those with a HS diploma, the GED has been a significant, albeit highly flawed, competency-based assessment and alt-credential. It’s an assessment now administered by Pearson, and since the education giant took over the GED in 2014, pass rates have plummeted. Pearson did lower the pass score this year, “to better measure student performance” it claimed. In doing so, some 20,000 additional students were able to receive their GEDs. Pearson also added a new, optional scoring level to the test that would allow students to signal they were “college ready” and to earn ACE recommendations for college credits – another one of those “alternative paths to credit.”

A Chain of Blocks and Badges

In February, Sony issued a press release, “vowing” to bring the blockchain to education in the form of a new testing platform. Although I’d been casually following developments around the blockchain and Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency associated with it, I hadn’t really been paying that close of attention to the potential for the blockchain as an education product. But knowing how much education technology loves a buzzword, I figured I’d better do some research.

Research I did, publishing two articles on the blockchain in education – its technology and its ideology. I wrote then that there were (at least) three elements of blockchain discourse “relevant to discussions about “the future of education” – that is, these elements are particularly instructive about the ideological shape of an imagined future. These are the anti-institutional bent of the blockchain; its reliance on decentralization (as a technology and as a metaphor); and its invocation of trust (and mistrust) as the key social behavior mediated by the technology.” Mostly, I concluded, the blockchain’s a bad idea.

Honestly, I was hoping that was the last time I’d have to mention the blockchain, particularly as the technology and the Bitcoin cryptocurrency itself have ties to the alt-right. I guess 2016 didn’t really turn out the way I wanted though. As one Bitcoin-related publication boasted in February, “Why Donald Trump and Bitcoin Are Both Unstoppable.”

The blockchain was hyped by the World Economic Forum – remember when it thought MOOCs were the next big thing? – and it was hyped at SXSWedu – “Imagine a future in which learning is earning.” MIT Media Lab explored using the blockchain as part of a new credentialing system. It’ll power “Uber-U,” Contact North proclaimed. The blockchain could power badges, said one group comprised of several former Mozilla employees. (Mozilla officially gave up its role in its Open Badges initiative this year.) The blockchain will make credentials more secure – because remember, at the end of the day, most ed-tech sees students (and job applicants) as cheats. It’s “the most important tech invention of our age,” several claimed. And thus, there were TED Talks.

It’s still not clear to me what problem(s) with credentials the blockchain might actually solve. The same can be said for many of the products in this article, no doubt. But when something’s a product, education technology seems duty-bound to embrace it, not with any deep critical analysis but with its typically superficial hype and hope.

Edsurge, in its description of “What Blockchain Means for Higher Education” wrote that “blockchain is literally a chain of blocks.” I assure you, it literally is not. What it is: a complex technology, one that, if nothing else, comes with steep financial and energy costs and with a particular set of Silicon Valley ideologies – neoliberalism, libertarianism, and global capitalism – hard-coded into its transactions.

In a quest to “fix” the problems with credentials – problems that are social and structural – the blockchain puts technology’s fantasies before human needs. No you can’t simply put “social capital” on the blockchain. Prestige – a fundamental part of “what counts” in credentialing – is really not an engineering problem, no matter how many education technology companies invest in the idea that it is.

This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 14, 2016. Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com. Icon credits: The Noun Project