Free Range Assessment

Over the last few months I’ve been keeping a close eye on the development of the (Mozilla and P2PU) School of Webcraft. (Here’s a 103 second introduction.) One reason for this is obvious: I’m interested in how people learn to produce content for the web, and I am interested in teaching using the open web and social technologies. So, it would be hard not to be excited about the School of Webcraft.

But I am also interested because they are engaged in new ways of thinking about assessment and certification. As the name implies, learning in the program is largely peer-to-peer, and assessment needs to follow that model. At the same time, employers and others want to know whether someone is qualified, and we need to have a way of indicating that someone who has been through the school knows their stuff.

This plugs into a larger issue I have with the potential for experimentation in academia. The School of Webcraft is an exciting exception, but it’s really hard to start a school. Much harder than, say, starting a business. Part of the reason for that is that learning and education are hard to do. But there are also some pretty big barriers to entry and these are tied directly to accreditation of learning.

First, students don’t want to go to a school unless they feel pretty comfortable with the quality of the education they will receive. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of good metrics for this. Accreditation from a traditional accrediting body is one of these. But these bodies tend to be very conservative and focus on process, not on outcomes. I might have a high school or college that can produce much more capable graduates, but if it isn’t accredited, there isn’t an easy way for potential students to know whether their time is well spent.

Equally importantly, the switching costs for students are extremely high if the school isn’t accredited. In other words, not only are they taking a risk on the quality of their education while at the school, even if the quality is great, another school is unlikely to accept their “credits” if it isn’t accredited.

And perhaps the biggest problem of all is the idea that the 4-year degree, in higher ed, is your accreditation to work. It doesn’t even really matter what the degree is in. Wouldn’t it be more sensible–and more fun!–if you could make up your own degree? Yes, many universities have individualized degrees, but what that really means is that you can choose which 40 courses you want to take at that single institution. What if you decide you want to learn how to sail for a year? How does that fit in with your degree? What if you have a natural talent in programming and want to be recognized for that without sitting through ten courses.

I recognize students don’t always know what they need to know, but I think this is only barely a defense of four-year programs designed to teach a “model student” who doesn’t really exist.

So, yes, open educational resources are important, and all sorts of experimenting both inside and outside of traditional institutions is important. But the real power comes when learners can seamlessly move among institutions, building personal learning histories that not only improve their abilities, but make those improvements visible to others.

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