In the last few months, we’ve seen a growing list of companies providing their learning resources to the broader public at reduced or no cost at all. Google is the latest to join the group and their description is a good insight into what may be a coming disruption:
“College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions — from enhanced vocational programs to online education — to help America recover and rebuild.”
The intersections of historically high unemployment rates, pending enrollment crisis at colleges, student desires for market-ready skills, and an infusion of capital at companies like Coursera are all indications that this is the start of a new era in credentialing.
Many have written about the likely disruption to higher education’s grip over credentials. Companies across the country have already partnered with universities to offer certificates or micro-credentials and the current pandemic has only accelerated the process. We will likely see more companies release learning assets which means we are at a pivot point.
There is a long and complicated history for how colleges became the defacto mechanism for cultivating and certifying human capital. Tied up in that history is a legacy of discrimination and intentional gatekeeping practices. There are many arguments to be made about the merits and flaws of the current credentialing system, but what seems inevitable is that the future of learning will be focused on skills.
As we’ve already seen through workplace learning, skills can be disaggregated from college. Skills-based learning opens up the credential market to organizations that are made up of practitioners. The future of work and education may look like, nonprofits, technology companies, financial institutions, and other organizations taking shared responsibility for credentialing students in their respective disciplines/practices. This future could provide a middle ground for those who create the dichotomy between market-based skills training and liberal education.
There are a few things that should be considered during this shift to corporate-based skills training. First, are organizations using a shared langue to describe credentials and skills? If not, how will employers recognize or understand one credential when compared with another. Second, how are students from historically underrepresent backgrounds accessing the credentials and what are their outcomes. Without an intentional approach, there is a high risk that the new credentialing landscape will recreate the inequalities that exist in higher education degree attainment. Third, how are outcomes for these credentials measured, and who will oversee that process.