What Can You Learn When Non-Educators Teach?

by Staff Writers

Colleges and universities need to recognize the inherent value of the knowledge available through non-traditional educational channels. However, the rise of informal education and the impending acknowledgement of it as a legitimate learning experience needs to be accompanied by a debate about the benefits and detriments of allowing non-educators to teach. That is what will be happening if the rapid expansion of our definition of education comes to pass. Here is a look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly reality of expanding the field of education beyond professional educators to include anyone who instructs or trains others.

A Brief Anecdote about the Knowledge of Others
Recently, while teaching a computer science class to a group of adult learners, I had the uncomfortable experience of having a student in my class who knew far more about one of the course topics than I did. I was fine teaching almost everything until we got to MS Access. While I have some experience with the database program, I am by far not the expert I prefer to be when teaching a topic. Enter student X – a professional woman with more than 10 years of experience using Access every day in her job with the county clerk's office.

The short version of the story is that we worked things out. She taught me, I helped streamline her process and we coexisted happily in the class. However, my takeaway from that experience was that in the future, it would be far more beneficial to me and the other students in the class if student X were actually allowed to teach that section of the course. She had the demeanor to teach and all of the knowledge and expertise necessary to do the job well, but she lacked any credentials that would validate her as an instructor (at the time, she had no college degree at all). But what would the harm have been of allowing this woman to teach some or all of this class? How much should her experience count towards considering her to be "qualified" to teach at the college level?

The Good
From the perspective of the student in the classroom, you stand to gain the most from the person who has the most to offer. The associate dean of my school regularly recruits principals or qualified public school teachers to serve as adjuncts in our department. These individuals bring a wealth of actual experience to the subjects they teach and have lots of practice actually teaching. In addition, they generally have a master's degree, Ed.D. or Ph.D. in their area. However, these individuals represent the best case scenario for having individuals who are not college professors teach college classes.

There is a major benefit to be gained from being instructed by someone with years of experience in business, law, chemistry, engineering, or nearly any other discipline that you could name. People working in these fields, with or without an advanced degree, have accumulated the knowledge and experience necessary to clearly explain their area to others. In many cases, they may even have more practical knowledge than a Ph.D. who may only technically be more qualified to teach a class.

The issue here is in quality control. There is a general acceptance of the idea that someone who has gone through a master's or doctoral program has been supervised in their learning by another individual who has a thorough understanding of their field and best practices for teaching the topic. There is no such guarantee for those without a degree.

The Bad
One key to this argument is that the Ph.D. is a trained educator. This is generally untrue. A majority of Ph.D.s have very little training in how to teach. Let's consider a hypothetical researcher at a prestigious university. This person trained at a top research institution, did a post doc at another top research institution and landed a tenure-tracked position at yet another top research institution where part of his job description is to occasionally teach the students. The problem with this scenario is that this individual has never taught a class in his life and is now expected to jump right in and teach undergraduates and graduate students at an elite university. He has every bit of technical knowledge and content knowledge necessary to do the job, but no practical experience in teaching it to others.

Contrast this with student X who regularly teaches her coworkers how to use Access and even volunteers her time to lead community workshops on the program that I was "teaching" her in my class. While she lacks a degree of any sort, she is potentially as qualified as the researcher above, having put in as much time learning and using the software as said Ph.D. spent in his graduate school lab. She also has considerably more experience actually teaching what she would be expected to teach if given the reigns of my class.

One difference between the two is that there is also a very substantial amount of tacit knowledge gained from going through a formal university education that is not available to those who do not go through the process. Student X lacked a theoretical understanding of where said software fits into the bigger societal picture and why it was important to make connections between what she would be teaching and other related areas. In addition, there is much secondary learning that happens in a professional degree program such as observing teaching in action, the vocabulary of the field, connections to others in the field, big questions and debates within the field, formal written and verbal expression, and dozens of other things that are conveyed through observation and interaction with professors and classmates. Does student X's practical experience compensate for that deficiency by providing a broad range of alternate connections that someone with only theoretical knowledge would not possess?

The Ugly
So why don't colleges and universities more regularly employ qualified though non-credentialed individuals to teach their classes? One simple reality blocks their way: accreditation. For a university to maintain its accreditation, it must employ individuals with advanced degrees to do the actual instruction, regardless of who else might be available to teach. Here is the actual language from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEAS&C) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE):

"The preparation and qualifications of all faculty are appropriate to the field and level of their assignments. Qualifications are measured by advanced degrees held, evidence of scholarship, advanced study, creative activities, teaching abilities, and relevant professional experience, training, and credentials." (CIHE, 2011)

There is an inherent assumption here that without an advanced degree, an individual is not qualified to teach in a given discipline. Note that the wording is "and relevant professional experience," not "or relevant professional experience." Is there an amount of relevant experience which would make a non-professional educator qualified to teach at the university level? This is the debate that must be entered into if informal learning is to be granted comparable status to classroom learning.

Accrediting agencies function as gatekeepers for the university system, ensuring that the education a person receives through an institution is preparing them for their intended field of employment. On the surface it seems feasible to evaluate informal learning using the same or similar criteria. The true obstacle will be in evaluating a nearly infinite number of learning sources. If things like on the job training, YouTube videos, self-directed learning, grass-roots universities, and community-based programs, to name but a few, are to be credentialed, there will need to be a massive administrative process to ensure the validity of all of them. The alternative is to allow all non-traditional learning to count as valid, or to arbitrarily choose which types of learning count and which don't.

The Reality
Higher education is currently an industry in crisis. Institutions are vanishing (Blumenstyk, 2009), students are opting out of the system in favor of informal education, and state and federal funding is waning (, July 24, 2011). It is becoming increasingly clear that our current model of higher education is unsustainable. This model of mass education cannot fulfill the needs of the masses and they are moving on to other options.

Higher education institutions need to recognize this reality and get in the game of acknowledging informal education options as valid sources of learning. They need to incorporate those sources of knowledge into the college education process and embrace DIY learning, on-the-job experience, and digital badges as ways of acknowledging someone's expertise. They need to use this information to streamline the educational process. A significant part of this will be to determine how to utilize the ability and acknowledge the validity of those who teach without an advanced degree. There are millions of them out there and we are doing them, ourselves, our students, and society as a whole a disservice by not recognizing and embracing the vast wealth of knowledge that they contribute to making the world run.


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