Garage Universities

I am wary of playing too much into the Silicon Valley myth, and nothing can be more central to that myth than the garage start-up. Nonetheless, the idea of a “university start-up” seems almost unfathomable, outside the less-than-interesting world of for-profit universities. I may want to buy a Tesla (automobile start-ups probably pre-date the Silicon Valley garage), but do I really want to invest in a four-year degree as the first cohort?

Reputation matters for a Tesla, but I do end up with a decent chunk of steel (and plastic aluminum). And yes, I’m buying some kind of caché: I have a Tesla and must therefore be cool by extension. With the university degree, that’s all I get. I get to say “I am a college graduate” or “I am an ASU graduate” or “I am a Stanford graduate” or “I went to school in Boston.” In other words, I give up a good chunk of cash, and four years of my life, and get certified. People know that I was good enough to get into Harvard, so I must be good enough to work for them.

Yes, I hear you saying university is more than that. It’s about social networks. It’s about socializing people into a particular class. It’s about organizing your time and behaving at some minimally professional level. And maybe it’s even about learning a little along the way. But that’s not how people choose their universities, even if they could. Yes, many do come to ASU because of its reputation as a party school, but usually they also want it to provide at least some indication of future ability to pay school loans. (And ASU happens to do pretty well in that regard.)

Because of this, you are unlikely to buy into a degree from Hyundai university. It might be cheaper than the Princeton sheepskin, it might even be a much better bang for the buck, but when you are buying brand, you can’t afford to take chances. And that means it is much harder for Hyundai U to even compete with Mercedes U–it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The barriers to entry for “real” schools are incredibly high. And a lot of that has to do with the size of required investment. (I think you could make similar arguments about the difficulty of making progress on residential building for the same reason.)

Unbundling and Garage Universities

One way to address this is to unbundle the things that the university does. I’ve written about this before on several occasions. A few years ago I gave an Ignite talk at DML on the topic of Garage Universities–but few people were interested. (Ironically, they preferred the talk I didn’t plan.) The basic argument was that the linchpin that held together the university bundle was the credential: the certification of the 4-year degree. Pull that out and things fall apart.

The university structure falling apart is a scary thing to many people, but I remain convinced that many of the best parts of the university will not only survive, but thrive. I also think, at least in the US case, that what really needs innovation is schooling in K-12, but in many ways that’s harder to crack. In that realm, though, you have seen new opportunities for start-up schools, and starting a private school–because they tend to be relatively local and limited in scale–is pretty easy.

What happens when you have a new system that allows for the agglomeration of smaller learning “chunks”–a kind of rolling up of degrees through the earning of smaller certificates. Among other things, it means starting a “small school” of higher education becomes much easier. I don’t have the time, money, or risk-taking behavior to start a new university, but I could start a program, and I could definitely start a course or series of courses.

Small courses and series already exist, of course. I can go to the Learning Annex and improve my understanding of Tarot, for example. But these courses exist on the fringes and are not in any way interoperable with university credits. Of course, there are very real economic reasons for universities not to accept credit not earned at the university. At one level at least, it means that tuition dollars are going to someone else. But it also costs money to evaluate outside credit and decide what “counts.” Articulation agreements make that a little easier, but they are time consuming and difficult to manage.

Coin of the Realm

A unified set of standards around certifying learning would not change this immediately, but it would cut down in the overhead of accepting, verifying, and sharing credentials. A good set of badging structures constitutes an innovation infrastructure.

Certainly, this doesn’t save anyone from the hard part: designing exciting and effective learning environments. Or even for the slightly less difficult task of figuring out how to pay for it. Just as a number of technologies made selling online easier–eBay, Paypal, Etsy, Square–a microcredential infrastructure makes it easier to experiment. At present, it seems like MOOCs are the experiment du jour, but there are other forms of experimentation possible, both within institutions and outside institutions.


The question everyone seems to be asking is what the tipping point might be for such an infrastructure. I am a fan of the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, in part because, unlike the examples in ecommerce I mention above, it is not controlled by a single entity. There is no guarantee that it will happen, but if it does, it needs to happen at a large scale, and it needs to happen where people already are.

That means places like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, at least as a start. Ideally–and this is where it gets tricky–it means that it happens the same way across these platforms, and no one tries to own it. There is a promising mention of the Mozilla OBI in Reid Hoffman’s “Disrupting the Diploma” post. But on the other hand, there seems to be an effort to try to bottle badges up, keep them at home, all the better to monetize them. I suspect strongly that–like for blogging–the future of badges rests on understanding the sharing process.

We need to understand better the mechanisms of why people might post a badge and what they get out of it when they do. And that means more than private sharing or putting it on a personal portfolio, it means understanding how badges pass into the open, participatory worlds of social media.

It also means understanding how microcertifications relate to other forms of marking achievement and experience, both quantified and more informal. A number of systems exist for marking “karma” or check-ins. A better feeling for the range of ways in which experience is shared, appreciated, and recorded.

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  1. Posted 9/26/2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the Tesla is mostly aluminum. But your point stands.

    • alex
      Posted 9/26/2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Noted and fixed ;).

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