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Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential – Reaching Critical Mass?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

“An edupunk is someone who doesn’t want to play by the old college rules. Maybe you have interests that don’t fit the academic mold. Maybe you’re in a remote location. Maybe you have a family, a job, or other responsibilities and you can’t take on life as a full-time student. Maybe you love new technology and new ways of learning. Or maybe you’re just a rebel!”
(http://edupunksguide.org/)

The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential may represent a watershed moment in the history of American education in terms of making informal learning and learning that happens beyond the walls of universities acceptable as a means of obtaining an accredited education. This initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one piece of a larger puzzle that is pushing non-traditional learning into the forefront of our collective consciousness. Here’s how and why it is important.

The following video contains a talk by Edupunks’ Guide writer Anya Kamenetz as well as a panel discussion with Peter Smith, senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education; Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy for the Smithsonian Institution; and Philip Auerswald, associate professor for the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. The panel outlines three essential areas for making DIY education a reality: learning, networking, and credentialing.

The Learning is There
There is little question that vast informal and non-traditional resources for learning exist in our world. The Internet has made every possible type of content and knowledge available at a moment’s notice to anyone with a connection. For a complete overview of free online educational opportunities check out these two articles: "What You Can Learn for Free Online – Part1" and "Part 2." Having the content is one key component in a DIY education, but having a supportive learning network is equally important.

The Networking is Also There
In addition to finding and leveraging online and other non-traditional sources of learning, establishing and cultivating a network of individuals and communities to support and recognize your learning is an essential element for making DIY credentialing mainstream according to the panel. Once again, the Internet provides a ready source of individuals and larger communities for this. Twitter, Facebook groups, online discussion boards and list serves all provide ways of connecting with others. Creating personal learning networks can be a very powerful way to share and expand your learning.

Consider a project such as Apolyton University as an example. This site was founded as an informal online gathering place for individuals interested in playing and modding Civilization. It has since grown into the largest informal learning community on the Web and houses a huge community of gamers interested in learning everything they can about this game and creating new, historically accurate scenarios to share with others. In fact, the developers of the game contacted members of Apolyton to consult on creating the two latest releases, and some members of the community now formally work for the game developer. For more information on how to establish your own learning network, read the post "The Challenge of Crafting a Liberal-Arts Education for the Online Learner."

The Credentials are Coming
Panelist Philip Auerswald states that corporations are already finding out how to assess capabilities regardless of the university credentials that an individual has. This is currently done on a case-by-case basis; however, if there becomes an automated method for assessing capabilities, credentials will become irrelevant. Lifelong and informal learning will mean as much as a college education if employers demand a demonstration of ability to level the playing field between those who do and do not have college credentials. Until that time, several initiatives are underway to formalize the acknowledgement of informal and non-traditional learning:

  • Exam-Based National Credit – The American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) bridges the gap between workplace learning and academic credit by recommending college credit for work done as part of formal training and exams on the job.
  • Portfolio-Based National Credit – Learning Counts.org, launched this spring, provides a way for individuals to gain college credit for "what they already know." This organization takes a portfolio-based approach to helping individuals receive college credit for vocational, military and life experiences.
  • Digital Badges – This MacArthur Foundation initiative aims to acknowledge learning in any context by allowing any organization that teaches to present digital "badges" to their participants that represent learning outcomes. This will be done through an effort to  create a system of badges, like those used in gaming, that are modular, verifiable, up to date, and can be taken anywhere to demonstrate levels of achievement.

These initiatives and others are just the first steps in creating a universal system for acknowledging learning outside of the college classroom. In many ways this hearkens back to earlier models of education in which much learning happened individually and beyond classroom experience. Take the scholar/scientist/statesmen/philosophers who founded this country for example. While many of them had formal educational experiences, they all took that initial learning and channeled it in new directions fueled by their personal interests. Their learning in general was much more broadly conceived of and  encompassed many ways of acknowledging it, primarily through action and demonstrating actual abilities to solve problems in a given area. A national DIY education movement could look much more like this earlier model.

The Final Challenge
One sobering takeaway for me from this presentation was Auerswald’s assertion that a change of this magnitude is going to be catastrophic for the higher education establishment. He projects a potential 20% decline in college and university enrollment for at least half of U.S. institutions if this model gains the foothold that the panelists are certain it will. That would equate to a 20% decrease in tuition revenues in the next 10 years for many schools that do not currently have a plan in place for dealing with that reality. The DIY credential, while a huge leap forward for many learners and the businesses that seek to employ them, could lead to a mass extinction of some segments of the university system. In order to survive, these unchanging institutions will have to finally evolve to embrace a less formal model of learning. The future of higher education is now, and we need to acknowledge it and adapt accordingly.

Download the Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential.