The Credentialing Economy: Transformed by and for Its Beneficiaries

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Education is being economically squeezed in a Holy Grail pursuit of educational justice and attainment at scale. Together, IMS standards-based mash-ups and an Internet-like governance model for the credentialing economy can improve flexibility and affordability for all beneficiaries.

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To Educate or to Learn? That Is the Question

Getting from point A to point B was, once upon a time, largely a question of what two feet and their owner could accomplish acting solo, but that was before boats, trains, cars, planes, and teleportation. Similarly, learning was historically enabled by a brain, a pair of ears, and at least one other person, but that was before the printing press, schoolhouse, university, radio, television, courseware, DVD, open educational resources, and massive open online courses. My point? "Educating" does not necessarily equate to "learning." Many years ago, media luminary Tony Schwartz highlighted one among many differences between educating and learning when he glibly asserted that, "education is the slowest form of learning."1 Verifiable learning should be the end game, even as educating in the digital milieu offers a plethora of new options for achieving and verifying this end. To get more and better learning, should we do more and better educating within today's education enterprise while using the latest technologies? Yes, certainly, but there's a deeper question to consider.

I'm often asked whether digital technologies will fundamentally transform education. The answer depends on what we mean by "transform." Before weighing in on whether advances in technology will eventually transform education, we must identify the human challenges that education will be expected to help address in the knowable future. We then should ask whether today's prevailing educational enterprise is structurally capable of meeting those future needs. If not, then how do we repurpose the leverage inherent in technology to meet those future needs?

Using IT to continue to improve incrementally upon only the flexibility of traditional educational practices, after all, is not the same as using IT to transform educational practices in pursuit of future societal goals that appear to depend strongly on higher orders of learning. We should, of course, do better what we are already doing (continuous quality improvement), but we should also identify and act on what we will need to do and aren't yet doing.

Any serious discussion of such big, hairy questions about the necessity and nature of transformation should start by conceding that

  • educating is still practiced largely via the venerable 19th-century contact-hour/credit-hour service model;
  • revenues are still being collected mostly from credit hours attempted; and
  • data from educational processes are still chiefly controlled by educational institutions, not by the learners they serve.

Competency-based credentialing is transformational in nature. Once the Department of Education completes its current process of accommodating financial aid eligibility to competency-based learning, the entire credentialing process could become increasingly decoupled and disaggregated (atomized).2 Ask, for example, what happens to traditional time-based concepts such as the "semester" and the "four-year college." Further imagine what happens to "learning management" and the "student record" when a student pays multiple learning-service providers (traditional colleges or disciplinary/professional "guilds" of expert instructors), which might in turn source competency evaluations from multiple independent competency-evaluation providers, some of which might offer fine-grained credentials (such as badges).

Who is "providing" and "managing" what for whom in this "consumerization" scenario? Who controls what, and what is the new student record and transcript? That which is decoupled will have to be recoupled (integrated) from both the student-experience and student-record perspectives. In this recoupling/integrative process, which party controls the whole? Is there a whole? These questions should be of interest to both CEOs and CIOs at colleges and schools and to suppliers of their various digital systems, including enterprise resource planning, learning management, content, assessments, and so on. Note that the "ownerless" and "borderless" Internet faced a parallel set of issues about 20 years ago and proceeded to create an open, inclusive, collaborative, transparent governance model to represent all of its economic and social beneficiaries.

In the following discussion, I will

  • review how new technologies can be tactically useful to a continuous quality improvement agenda, as well as strategically critical to a transformational agenda that has been purposefully designed and supported by education leaders;
  • provide evidence of the increasing need to scale up the educational attainment proportion of credentialed adults from its stagnant state of approximately 40 percent;
  • describe the IT-enabled strategies and the standards-based "killer" mash-ups of apps, data, and processes that are necessary, but not sufficient, to any attempt to scale up attainment proportions;
  • propose that the economic beneficiaries of the credentialing economy cooperate as equals to adapt the Internet Society's (ISOC's) open Internet governance practices;
  • describe how the resulting open governance model for credentialing, combined with  the leverage of financial aid, can open up ("consumerize") the credentialing economy; and
  • thereby persuade readers that credentialing can become more flexible and mutually affordable to people of need and to the governments and institutions that subsidize them — a triumph for "educational justice."

As I describe later, the ISOC-like open governance model is a keystone in the foundation of the transformation I advocate for here. Applied to the credentialing economy, the resulting open economic governance model will stand in contrast to today's legislative and regulatory policy impulses that also focus on transformation. One such policy-driven initiative is, for example, President Obama's recent initiative to "Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class."

The President's plan appropriately proposes to leverage student financial aid, along with IT-enabled learning innovations, to make college more affordable. The plan would do so, however, by developing and deploying a college rating system in an attempt to make college pricing and outcomes more transparent, while also tracking academic progress towards a credential via the traditional time-based model for financial aid beneficiaries. The policy-centric carrot-and-stick model has failed to move the educational attainment dial beyond 40 percent or so over the past 30-plus years, while the Internet — the "network of networks" — has meanwhile become a paradigm of open, global self-governance in which government's stick is no bigger (or smaller) than any other economic beneficiary's stick.

The Internet is controlled by no one entity, but continues to race forward in response to the common-good interests of all of its economic beneficiaries. Through an Internet-connected Web browser, the Web becomes a self-service access point for a wealth of resources and services, some free and some fee-based, some open and others by permission. The result has been explosive growth in new economic and social "wealth," both private and public — the same spectacular results that President Obama hopes to achieve through his latest higher education policy initiative! As Lynn St. Amour, President and CEO of ISOC, put it in a 2012 article on Internet governance: "The Internet works because its governance is open, inclusive, collaborative, and transparent."3

Right on, Lynn, that's how we could govern the credentialing economy, while dampening the regulatory impulses of governments. Learning to do so will require schools and colleges to emphasize learning, rather than educating, and to expect leadership from — well, their own executive leaders. Those executives will need help from their CIOs and from external investors in the credentialing economy, including governments, employers, donors, for-profit suppliers to education, and nonprofit education-related organizations. To think creatively about the possibilities, let's step away from the constraining traditions of educating and into the roiling global economy as observed and described in 2005 in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's "flat world" book.

Freidman's "Flat World": Categorizing the Role of IT in Globalization

The digital milieu is advancing at an exponential pace that defies human comprehension, even as human ingenuity and higher learning make that pace possible. Technology-enabled innovations — such as the latest e-this or i-that — have disrupted, and sometimes vanquished, entrenched business and service models in many sectors of the global economy. Grasping these disruptions and defeats outside of education can help education to think "outside in" — that is, to think about external policy expectations for how education, in the knowable future, should contribute to humanity's grand challenges. I accordingly recommend Friedman's book, The World is Flat, to anyone trying to understand globalization and the technological forces that power it — and how his work applies in education.

Friedman describes and labels eight technology-enabled "flattening forces": out-sourcing, in-sourcing, open-sourcing, in-forming, supply-chaining, work-flowing, off-shoring, and steroid-ing. (The hyphens are mine for emphasis; "steroid-ing" should today be relabeled "mobile-ing.") These actionable "forces" are essentially IT-enabled strategies for disaggregating current service and revenue models and redesigning them to take advantage of the flexibility, nimbleness, and productivity inherent in "connected" external sourcing and partnering. Friedman's examples from the business world are powerfully illustrative of IT-enabled redesign and transformation, but have been viewed by educators largely through the lens of continuous quality improvement.

Flattening Forces in Education

Many educators have read Friedman's book, but have construed its lessons primarily as nudges to "globalize" the traditional model of educating in order to

  • attract to campus more students from abroad,
  • extend academic programming to other countries and their resident students, and
  • increase "study-abroad" enrollments.

I view Friedman's strategies and business examples more expansively, primarily because, as a long-time math professor, I typically sought not only to solve a specific mathematics problem but, in the process, also to find a solution that would generalize broadly to whole categories of similar problems. Friedman's broad categorization of eight flattening forces similarly suggests many other ways that IT can be a lever not only for improving upon current credit-hour service and revenue models, but also for disrupting and redesigning the credentialing economy — in analogy with the disaggregation and redesign of whole economic sectors such as those in the newspaper, music, and health-care sectors. Supply-chaining, for example, is about attracting and enrolling students, some of whom might have prior learning that requires evaluation, others of whom might be already enrolled in another institution's MOOC. Work-flowing is about substituting software for human labor to automate, speed up, and remove costs from various educational processes — such as enrollment management processes, from admissions to transfers to credentials to alums.

Disruption and Transformation in Education

Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen is perhaps more familiar in education circles than Friedman. Christensen and his colleagues have researched "disruptive innovation," published books and articles about it, and formed the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The institute's current focus is on blended learning in K–12, which refers to "formal education programs that combine online learning and brick-and-mortar schools." The Institute is collaborating with educators on the K–12 project, which lends credence to any assumption that education can self-disrupt and self-transform — with a little help from its friends.

Ever since the mass-produced IBM PC was unveiled in 1981, I, too, have clung to and acted on the hope that education can learn to harness IT as an agent of institutional self-disruption and self-transformation for improving academic performance. In 1981, I was a professor and dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I later served in UNC's senior IT position and, during that period, decided to start an educational technology services business focused on higher education, which led to my current academic strategy role at Ellucian and to my service on the Antioch University Board of Governors and several other nonprofit education-related boards.

My background has exposed me to the difficulty of change from within; accordingly, I've not been surprised that higher education remains systemically unchanged. The incidence of random acts of IT-enabled progress has increased over the years, but even the most promising projects remain "unscaled" or have proven to be "unscalable" in their outcomes. For example, consider again the educational attainment proportion of postsecondary credential holders age 25 and older in the US, which has stagnated at around 40 percent during the past 30–40 years. During that time, we might have used Friedman's flattening strategy and other more specific IT-enabled paths to increased educational productivity — such as the National Center for Academic Transformation's successful high-enrollment course redesign strategy — to help scale up attainment to new altitudes, while also reducing per-credential annual operating costs.

By adapting Friedman's high-tech flattening strategies to education today, we can act with increased agility while also improving upon the static 40 percent attainment rate — provided that we also honor what every good teacher and professor knows about learning: most learners need high-touch personal help to learn. Learning is as much or more a social endeavor than it is a solitary session within one's own mind.

"Killer Mash-ups" to Flatten and Personalize Learning

Friedman's broad, IT-enabled flattening strategies captured and categorized the productivity-seeking innovations that drove globalization during the past two decades in which the Internet/Web revolutionized human communication and resource sharing (free and fee-based). Translating these productivity strategies into actionable education terms is overdue, but should be premised on key experiences from the educating and learning trenches, which suggest that credentialing cannot be solely a self-service cafeteria:

  • Most people need personalized, high-touch, expert help in learning new facts and concepts.
  • Breadth in learning is essential to the "connected-learning" and "mash-up concepts," and it is a purposeful feature of many curricula and adds value to otherwise atomized competency-based learning.

Leadership will be needed from dynamic, action-oriented educational CEO/CAO/CIO partnerships if the education enterprise is to shift from a culture focused internally on educating to a results-oriented culture focused on broadly accessible, affordable, verifiable learning outcomes — a paradigm shift, or, perhaps, a "paradigm flattening." Now: on to mash-ups and how creating them can help us redesign credentialing!

High Tech, High Touch

Killer mash-ups will have both high-tech and high-touch components that will somewhat overlap. The high-tech component enables a reduction in per-credential expenses borne privately by students of need and borne as cost outlays by the educational organizations and governments that invest in such students. The goal is to make both educating and learning less expensive on a per-credential basis, while simultaneously making both educating and learning more flexible, modular, and effective for all parties involved. The high-tech component's self-service efficiencies permit more attention to personalization that is responsive to the learner's individual need for timely help.

In effect, I am suggesting IT-enabled flattening innovations and strategies that, when selected appropriate to context, can "transform" the educating-learning equation to

  • reduce per-credential costs for all parties, as measured (for educating) by annual ratios of operating costs to credentials granted;
  • increase the annual ratio of credentials granted to unduplicated headcount at micro and macro levels;
  • improve convenience and flexibility for learners;
  • personalize educating and learning from the learner's perspective and experience;
  • evaluate core learning independently; and
  • cede control of the learner's record to the learner.

The credentialing economy emphasizes credentials, thereby making the credential a proxy for quality. To justify further the credential as the quality-assurance bridge between educating and learning, I inserted the independent evaluation of learning competencies — where feasible at scale — into this equation. Independent evaluations, along with the two annual ratios above (operating costs to credentials granted and credentials granted to unduplicated headcount) together address comparability in accountability and other trust issues. I discuss these ideas in more detail later; but first, I'll examine the key components of killer mash-ups.

Realizing the Killer Mash-up Vision

There are four key enablers of the killer mash-up vision: standards, sharing, sourcing, and strategizing.

  1. Insist on compliance to educational IT standards in the procurement process to avoid the hidden costs of time and labor inherent in technology integration projects.
    The IMS Global Learning Consortium, a standards organization for interoperability among the technology and data systems used in education, has issued approximately 220 conformance certifications to help assure interoperability among ERP, LMS, digital content, assessment, and other systems used in educating and learning.4
    The multiplier effects of adhering to IMS standards are depicted in a brief online chalk-talk video.5 For further amplification, see the recent article, "A New Architecture for Learning."6
  2. Share technologies and other digital resources and their costs by partnering across your own institution's units, among all institutions in your district or system, and so on.
    IMS and other standards not only make such sharing easy, but also have a multiplier effect in reducing costs for all partners sharing the expense of common digital systems and resources. For instance, The Department of Education's "Race to the Top" and "First In the World" grant programs, if funded as proposed in President Obama's "college affordability" plan, should call for inter-institutional sharing of services and resources among a consortium of grantees.7
    To foster compliance to IMS standards and encourage timely, shared development of educating and learning apps, EDUCAUSE, IMS, and InCommon recently announced a Connected Learning Innovation Challenge at EDUCAUSE 2013.8 The purpose is to seed a library of IMS-compliant apps and to promote the economies of scale they can provide within a broader educating and learning community.
  3. Externally source resources, expertise, and services (à la Friedman).
    Following are a few educational illustrations of Friedman's eight variations on external sourcing. Many of the briefly stated possibilities involve technology (software and devices) and related services, including expert professional and strategic consulting services.
    1. Out-sourcing: IT help desk; database expertise; curriculum and instructional design expertise; online tutoring; online "life" coaching; online digital content; and MOOCs, which extend the open educational resources concept with some degree of teaching and testing.
    2. In-sourcing: IT leadership and management; admissions and enrollment management leadership and management; institutional performance improvement leadership and management; and so on.
    3. Supply-chaining: market research for academic programs; recruiting for academic programs; and recruiting and granting credit to students who have completed academic work online with another learning provider, whether nonprofit or for-profit, accredited or not.
    4. Work-flowing: service process redesign for student financial-support functions; enrollment persistence support functions that rely on predictive analytics to advise students, select curricula, complete course or content modules, and persist toward a credential.
    5. Off-shoring: online tutoring services that rely, for example, on core mathematics expertise located in other countries, such as India.
    6. Open-sourcing: open educational resources adhering to IMS standards; academic participation in the Connected Learning Innovation Challenge.
    7. Mobile-ing: institutional commitment to the nascent standards-based "Educational Positioning System" (EPS), which could speed support for new products, such as the Education and Career Positioning System and other mobile apps. Such apps will tap into the EPS and let learners "flip" control of their educational data and artifacts from institutional to personal control, while also helping them learn more about the jobs and credentialing programs available to them from IMS- and EPS-compliant companies and learning providers.9
    8. In-forming: search and other e-library services; career services; other EPS services; enrollment management analytics; institutional performance reporting services.
    Friedman's examples and taxonomy of "flattening" forces present more sophisticated possibilities than the binary "to in-source or to out-source" question familiar in education today. Indeed, Friedman's examples are fast-forward "flips" of a much earlier, 20th-century theory of the "firm" — a theory that could have predicted many of globalization's basic features if foresight could have first predicted the development of silicon-based transistors, microprocessors, and the Internet. The 1991 Economics Nobel Laureate, Ronald Coase, observed in the 1930s that firms were growing in size and, thus, becoming more bureaucratic, all owing to "hidden transaction costs" in externally sourcing the non-core services and products necessary to provisioning a firm's core products and services.10 Fast forward to the 1990s, when Larry Downes and Chunka Mui persuasively demonstrated in "Unleashing the Killer App" that the Internet can remove the hidden transactional costs from external sourcing, thus enabling new, "leaner and meaner" operational models in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.11 Downes and Mui's "killer app" is Thomas Friedman's set of "flattening forces." Today, we have not just killer apps, but "killer mash-ups" of IMS-compliant apps!
  4. Adapt broad-based strategies that have already proven effective in bridging the gap between educating and learning in ways that emphasize learning, modular scalability, and mutual affordability to all the involved parties, especially to learners on the low-to-middle rungs of the economic ladder.
    1. Competency-based credentialing: Competency-based learning is not a new concept, but many colleges have become quite sophisticated in their efforts, including Capella University, Excelsior College, Northern Arizona University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Western Governors University. As I noted earlier, disruptive issues inherent in the competency strategy include credit for prior learning; independent (third-party) evaluations of at least some core competencies; modular credentialing ("badging"); pricing models (time-based subscriptions or competencies earned); and modular MOOCs.
    2. High-enrollment course redesign: The National Center for Academic Transformation started in 1999 to help colleges use technology to measurably improve learning outcomes while also reducing per-enrollment expense structures in high-enrollment courses.12 Standards, inter-institutionally shared services, and external sourcing can all be used to strengthen NCAT core results. Course redesign could also incorporate MOOCs (with team teaching across institutions), independent evaluations of common learning outcomes across institutions and/or instructors, and a competency-based approach to high-enrollment domains of the curriculum.
    3. Open Learning Initiative: Carnegie Mellon University parlayed its expertise in cognitive tutoring into "whole online courses that would stand on their own and enact instruction."13 Those innovative courses are now free to "anyone who wants to learn or teach."
    4. Educational Positioning System: As I described earlier, the underlying EPS concept helps students navigate the educational system (in analogy with the familiar navigational role of the standards-based Global Positioning System, or GPS). The EPS can "flip" control of a student's records and learning artifacts from various points of institutional control to the student's personal (private) control, while also providing a central information hub linking all the beneficiaries of the credentialing economy.

Is Education's Past Its 2050 Prologue?

It would be interesting to poll the 80 million college credential holders in the US on the question of whether education's past will be the prologue to its future. Many might reflect nostalgically on a traditional college experience and credential, which bestowed upon them personal, private value in terms of social and economic security. Many might also report an attendant sense of obligation to "pay it forward." Most colleges commit not only to enhancing students' private well being in several dimensions, but also to contributing to the public good through the careers and other contributions of their students. This virtuous chain of paying it forward qualifies education and those who achieve its higher levels of accomplishments as a private- and public-good resource – that is, a common good. Others have expressed this pay-it-forward potential to advance humanity more cleverly than I:

"Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." — Horace Mann, the first President of Antioch College, to the graduating class of 1859
"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." — H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (1920)

The time is right to summarize the policy thrusts and broad expectations that beg the question of whether we need to use "standards, sharing, sourcing, and strategizing" not only to improve upon the capacities and successes of education's prevailing service and economic model, but also to transform that model more radically to meet the foreseeable learning needs of the future.

Humanity's Holy Grail: Educational Justice and Attainment at Scale

The big policy fresco that has been coming into focus over the past several years reveals that humanity's grand challenge has become increasingly educational in its nature. As implied in the Fact Sheet on his plan, President Obama wants to "make college more affordable" so that the US can "race to the top" and regain its "first in the world" status. Progressive policy makers around the world are similarly racing to stay ahead of Wells' catastrophe by purposefully propagating higher learning to more and more people and societies, thereby helping to meet humanity's grand challenge to scale up and sustain social, economic, and environmental justice.

Today's metric for tracking Well's race is educational attainment, which, for any adult population demographic, is the proportion of that demographic holding a higher learning credential. For example, the Lumina Foundation's eloquently stated attainment goal is "to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates, or other credentials to 60 percent by 2025." The current US attainment proportion is approximately 40 percent, which means that Lumina's big, hairy 2025 goal is to increase from approximately 80 million to 120 million the college credentialed among the 200 million adults who are at least 25 years of age.

The educational attainment challenge can also be stated in terms of educational justice. This challenge is to enroll and credential needs-tested students at a scale sufficient to reduce the proportion of the adult population occupying the economic ladder's low to middle rungs. The rationale for the equivalency of educational justice and attainment stems from two forces:

  • the increasing national proportion of households occupying the low to middle economic rungs; and
  • the persistent, strongly positive statistical correlation between educational attainment and household income and/or net worth.14 Statistically speaking, the higher the learning (level of credentialing), the higher the economic rung – and conversely.

The troubling decrease in economic mobility and the strong positive correlation between household income and credentialing achievements combine to imply that significantly scaling up attainment proportions will require us to attract, enroll, and credential a growing proportion of students of need. To act more vigorously on the core democratic principle that all people are created equal is to pursue educational justice/attainment more vigorously. Today, Wells might urge us to avoid catastrophe by seizing humanity's grand challenge to scale up and sustain social, economic, environmental, and educational justice.

The Economic Conundrum

Rather than viewing years of hyper-inflationary college tuition increases as the sole root of today's non-scalable bridge between educating and learning, we'd do well to acknowledge that the economic benefits of credentialing appear to be out of balance in the eyes of several invested beneficiary groups in the credentialing economy:

  • Governments and other funding sources cannot keep pace on a per-credential basis with the increasing demand to subsidize students of need and the colleges that serve them.
  • Students of need, who will have to be financially supported in increasing proportions in the pursuit of educational justice and attainment, often find net-credential and net-tuition costs not only opaquely explained, but also downright unaffordable, with or without loans.
  • Colleges find untenable the increasing demand on operating budgets to cover needs-tested financial aid and to offset per-credential decreases in financial aid from government and other sources of revenue.

Although the President's latest strategy-oriented policy initiative recognizes these three dissonant economic perspectives, it would, in my opinion, ultimately increase regulation as a means to rebalance the economic equation. Various regulatory regimes have been developed and applied over the years, yet the credentialing economy remains "unreformed" and learning remains subservient to educating. The US Congress is currently working on renewing the Higher Education Act, and the next round of regulation might be close at hand.

I recommend an alternative approach for rebalancing the economic equation linking educating to learning. Let's consider a self-governance approach that has worked in several common-good marketplaces, including the Internet/Web market.

Open, Inclusive, Collaborative Governance for Credentialing

In previous work, I proposed that we create, over the next few years, a nonprofit, nongovernmental, open, global economic governance entity for the credentialing economy — a global Education Leadership Commons (ELC).15 I will not belabor all the details here, but instead will offer a sampling. ELC's purpose is to develop and advance open interoperability of credentialing services and processes, and accountability metrics and processes, all through minimally intrusive, open, consensus-based, trusted, and cause-driven cooperation. This is an ambitious mouthful, and most of you might accordingly deem it naïve — or worse. However, I remain committed to the ELC concept for two reasons.

First, the Internet is flying high today and fulfilling ISOC's global common-good mission. Education, not so much. Just as ISOC's vision is that "the Internet is for everyone," I am hoping that education can be transformed to bring learning to everyone. I don't believe that this can happen absent the kind of IMS standards-based mash-up strategies described earlier. Those strategies are necessary, but not sufficient. After all, we've been doing good things with IT in education for years now, but just not the right things. ISOC has been doing the right things since 1992, owing, in some considerable part, to an economic governance model that was designed to avoid a "tragedy of the commons" — a phrase used by economists to connote the intentional or unintentional abuse of a common-good resource by individuals or organizations to the detriment of both the resource and all of its economic beneficiaries. Despite numerous threats to "net neutrality," for example, all Internet traffic is still "created equal" and flows freely. A student's transcript can flow from one college to another in nanoseconds, but students often wait weeks to learn whether their credits will transfer from one college to the other. Shouldn't we, at the very least, examine the governance mechanisms that help accelerate ISOC's successes and learn how to adapt those mechanisms into a faster and more affordable bridge between educating and learning — a "consumerization" of the credentialing economy?

Second, before her death, Elinor Ostrom was recognized for her work on the "economic governance of the commons" and named a 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Her findings on how best to moderate the risks of a tragedy of the commons favor an economic governance model that insists on participation from each economic beneficiary group in the development and enforcement-by-consensus of "rules of the road" designed to advance and sustain common-good natural resources. Ostrom's work refutes the popular belief that economic governance for a common good should be left either to government (through regulation and legislation) or to entrenched non-governmental organizations. Although the Internet is not a common-good natural resource, its self-governance model appears to thrive and succeed by eschewing government regulations and legislation in favor of Ostrom-like inclusive openness, cooperation, and consensus building (agreeing to disagree for the sake of the common good). Please join me in thinking about how to apply this model to the credentialing economy!

In my 2012 paper, I propose and describe several task forces that could be created under the envisioned ELC, including those on economic governance, attainment productivity, and competency-based learning. The Attainment Productivity Task Force, for example, would be analogous to the US Department of Education's current effort to develop a rating system for colleges. To reflect on the difference between a regulatory approach and an open, inclusive self-governance approach, consider the kick-off agenda (slightly amended here) that I described for the Attainment Task Force, which would:

  1. Publish summary institutional-level productivity metrics formulated both to be universally transparent and to become meaningful benchmarks when compared within peer groupings. Such metrics, for example, might be as simple as the annualized ratios of
    • credentials granted to unduplicated student headcount, and
    • operating expenses to credentials granted.
    These simple metrics are applicable in a macro context. Within micro peer groupings defined by various geopolitical and education-sector boundaries, however, ELC participants could cooperate to formulate ever more detailed throughput metrics and cohort-based approaches to drill down into the metrics above, which are productivity metrics for today's credentialing processes at a macro level of throughput.
  2. Evaluate learning readiness, independent of learning providers and governments. This could be done in the longitudinal aggregate to profile learning readiness in various population demographics and student bodies of peer-grouped educating/credentialing providers. We could accomplish this, for example, via the data from periodic, age-based, independent, constructivist evaluations of students' critical thinking and basic fluency skills. Such evaluations are already available from various sources, even at the global level via the work of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Feasibility Study for the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) project.16 These evaluations are not meant to be a single, centralized series of multiple-choice assessments, but rather to be drawn from a pool of learning readiness evaluations that are independent of governments and education providers, while admitting to age-based concordance among instruments of common purpose. Governments and institutions could use other evaluations to track learning outcomes at various levels of content and geopolitical and education-sector peer groupings. The intent is not to stifle such micro activities, but to encourage them to roll up into a macro population that is as ready as possible for a lifetime of learning.
  3. Agree on subgroups of the adult population for which the proportion of trusted postsecondary credentials should and could be tracked in the aggregate and within most geopolitical boundaries. (The OECD and the US Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics already report such metrics.)
  4. Develop guidelines for mapping attainment production to professional and workforce needs.

As in the President's plan, the ELC would leverage financial aid and, from a student's birth, would automatically extract tax data from the preceding year to estimate the value of needs-tested aid that would be accessible when starting or continuing college. A provision of this would be that, before college, the student started participating on a biennial (perhaps triennial) basis in an independent (third-party), age-appropriate, constructivist evaluation of learning readiness in terms of competencies in the critical core fluencies (reading, quantitative and qualitative analyzing, reporting, presenting, and so on). For more on this, see the AHELO project.

This "promissory" aid concept would have governments shift their financial support for education to grants that flow directly to needs-tested students for use at colleges that are part of the ELC collaboration. Several features would differentiate the ELC model from the President's plan. The most critical difference is that students would earn and re-earn promissory needs-tested aid by submitting to periodic evaluations of learning readiness — not by scoring at a particular percentile ranking on evaluations and meeting time-based persistence requirements. The student who values education enough to submit to periodic evaluation of learning readiness would, without prejudice and as needed, have access to needs-tested promissory aid, while pursuing a form of happiness that is cultivated through higher learning and the self-respect it engenders in service to the creed that all people are created equal.

From some combination of government and other external funding sources, a start-up economic governance matrix of rights and responsibilities in the credentialing economy might then be based on

  • responsibilities incurred by the financially supported student,
  • responsibilities incurred by educating and learning evaluation providers that accept revenues from that student, and
  • rights earned by the funding source(s) financially supporting that student.

Table 1 shows one such possible matrix of rights and responsibilities. Notice that the student is asked to submit periodically to an independent learning-readiness evaluation process to be and remain eligible for needs-tested promissory aid from the government or other funding source. The aid's value is estimated at birth from tax data and thereafter updated annually.

Table 1. Economic Governance Matrix of Rights and Responsibilities in the Credentialing Economy

Economic Beneficiaries Responsibilities Rights


Submit to periodic, independent, age-based, constructivist evaluations of learning readiness starting no later than, say, age 15, and persisting for as long as the student wishes to qualify for means-tested aid.

Pay participating evaluation and education provider fees from a promissory individual account having needs-tested value estimated annually from tax data, starting at birth.

Evaluation provider

Remain transparently independent from government and education providers while also privacy-securing and maintaining evaluation data and concordance tables for learning-readiness evaluations of like purpose.

Bill a participating student's aid account to help defray evaluation fees incurred by the student.

Education provider

Track and openly report the shared accountability metrics maintained for peer-group analysis by the Attainment Productivity Task Force. Permit privacy-secured extraction in the aggregate of student and instructor data in support of longitudinal research by funding sources.

Bill a participating student's aid account to help defray the cost of learning services provided to the student.

other funding sources

Commit to promissory needs-tested aid to help students pay the costs of completing learning-readiness evaluations and academic programs (from participating evaluation and education providers).

Extract privacy-secured data (from participating evaluation and education providers) for research into learning readiness, attainment, and their costs to the economic beneficiaries of attainment.

In a previous article, I created a list of educating and learning goals that could be shaped by this matrix of rights and responsibilities; here I'll outline only three of those goals in amended form.

  1. Unbundle and virally expand the credentialing economy through open, voluntary compliance with technical (IMS) and non-technical (ELC) interoperability standards and protocols for extracting and transferring, by mutual consent, core data about educational outcomes and costs into a distributed longitudinal data system. That system would be designed, as in the above table, to balance rights and responsibilities. The following two rights are key examples:
    • Every participating education provider and independent evaluation provider has the right to capture selective privacy-secured data about its participating students and instructors as part of the contract among the parties involved.
    • Every individual (for example, student or instructor) controls a privacy-secured record and portfolio of personal educational accomplishments to share selectively with sources of funding for education and employment — again, as part of a trusted relationship of potential mutual benefit to the parties involved.
  2. Secure the nascent standards-based emergence of the Educational Positioning System. EPS-based applications and apps could become a suite of integrated technologies and massively interconnected data that would help ELC participants, especially students, navigate the credentialing economy more effectively and efficiently. Students would know their educational position and have immediate access to opportunities and information to help chart informed pathways to life's educational destinations. Table 1's matrix of rights and responsibilities would go a long way toward meeting the challenge of the privacy-secured "personal learning record," by giving students full rights to their privacy-secured individual educational data and to sharing that data throughout their lifetimes at their discretion.
  3. Assure learning quality and account for learning productivity through, respectively, learning readiness evaluations and productivity metrics developed and maintained at the macro level — and at various levels of peer groupings — by the ELC Attainment Productivity Task Force. This arrangement could replace the irrationally regulated link between financial aid and accreditation, while leaving traditional forms of internal quality assurance to the discretion of the ELC-participating education provider. In the US, the ELC Productivity Attainment Task Force could be an "external" quality assurance agency that is no more beholden to government and education providers than to other beneficiaries of the credentialing economy. Indeed, the Attainment Task Force could become for ELC what the Public Interest Registry is for ISOC: a trusted, independent source of much of its sustainable annual revenue.17 Extant quality-assurance organizations could take on such roles as ELC participants, including the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, perhaps newly configured as an independent agency focused on trust and quality assurance in the credentialing economy.


Over the past 30 years, colleges have explored an increasing array of IT-enabled strategies for improving learning outcomes and mutual affordability and flexibility for both learners of need and the colleges and governments subsidizing them. Mutual affordability, nevertheless, is still eroding, and learning outcomes remain flat (as evidenced by stagnant educational attainment proportions). To halt the "incrementalism" that has fueled educational injustice and left learning languishing — even as the pace quickens in H. G. Wells' "race between education and catastrophe" — I have prescribed a purposeful, open, inclusive economic governance cooperation, the Education Leadership Commons, as the transformative platform for strengthening and sustaining today's unstable bridge between educating and learning. This cooperation would rely on three strategies:

  • Share high-tech, IMS standards–based mash-ups of apps, data, and processes to drive per-credential costs out of both ends of the bridge and to help all of its beneficiaries navigate the bridge more flexibly.
  • Adopt IT-enabled, pedagogically proven strategies for personalizing the high-touch support needed by learners.
  • Leverage financial aid to operationalize (in the credentialing economy) the open economic governance model that has protected the Internet from a tragedy of the commons as it fueled explosive growth in social and economic good — even as educating and learning were languishing from "incrementalism" in the absence of an economic governance mechanism for representing and mobilizing their common invested beneficiary groups.

This common-good Wellsian initiative for meeting humanity's grand challenges while mitigating the risk of catastrophe will have to scale up educational attainment and educational justice in tandem. Neither, after all, can be scaled separately from the other. To execute this common-good effort is to lever both financial aid and standards-based IT-enabled innovation to flatten (redesign, transform) the credentialing economy for greater scalability and flexibility and also for mutual affordability and accountability on behalf of its many invested beneficiaries: learners; families; educating, evaluating, and credentialing organizations; governments; donors; employers; suppliers; and other nonprofit, nongovernmental, education-related organizations.

We owe it to the future to develop the purposeful leadership needed to use technology and technology standards now to unlock the human ingenuity that will create high-tech reductions in the cost structures of educating and high-touch personalization in the human quest for learning. Further, we will have to overcome the natural impulse to resist change by thinking globally about the Wellsian challenge, while ensuring that local results can add up to global solutions. Can we cooperate locally and globally through the proposed ELC to realize a vision and mission along the lines that you might have guessed would conclude this essay?

Vision: Learning is for every human — and for humanity.
Mission: Make learning as free and successful as possible for all people of need, and verify the efficacy and efficiency of educating and learning as accountably, yet unobtrusively, as possible.
  1. I learned of Tony Schwartz's quip from Professor James Noblitt, but have not been able to locate the original source. Schwartz's "daisy ad" is credited with Lyndon Johnson's presidential victory in 1964. The success of that ad also validates the insight of Schwartz's mentor, Marshall McLuhan, that the "medium is the message."
  2. The US Department of Education provides a site, Competency-Based Learning or Personalized Learning, to explain this model of credentialing and many of its nuances.
  3. Lynn St. Amour, "Ensuring an Open, Thriving Global Internet Economy for Future Generations," Harvard Business Review (2012).
  4. The IMS Global Learning Consortium was created by EDUCAUSE (then Educom) in 1995 as a nascent academic technology standards effort. IMS is now a global, member-driven interoperability standards organization for the education and training sectors of the economy. Its commercial members include leading technology companies supplying higher education and/or K–12. Its nonprofit members include a number of leading universities and school districts around the US and elsewhere. These member organizations cooperate with IMS to identify, develop, and conformance-certify the technology standards that empower the mash-up envisioned in this paper and depicted in a brief IMS chalk talk video, "The Open Innovation Revolution Across K-20 Education: Enable 10-100X Improvement in Adoption of Digital Learning."
  5. The online chalk-talk video is "The Open Innovation Revolution across K-20 Education: Enable 10–100X Improvement in Adoption of Digital Learning."
  6. Rob Abel, Malcolm Brown, and Jack Suess, "A New Architecture for Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, September/October 2013.
  7. Race to the Top is mentioned in the "FACT SHEET on the President's Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class," as are the First in the World grants. Both are programs within the Department of Education, but neither has been funded yet.
  8. Learn more from the "Education Community Supported Innovation Challenge for Learning Apps, Tools and Platforms" announced by EDUCAUSE, IMS, and In-Common and designed to foster a 10–100x improvement in the adoption of innovative digital technologies in support of teaching and learning in the educating and learning community.
  9. Michael Mathews coined the phrase "educational positioning system" in 2011 at the annual EDUCAUSE conference. Mathews, Lone Star College, IMS Global Learning Consortium, Gates Foundation, and several business partners worked together to help launch a product in 2013, the Education and Career Positioning System, which is in the early stages of commercialization.
  10. Ronald H. Coase, "The Nature of the Firm," Economica, November 1937, pp. 386–405.
  11. Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, Unleashing the Killer App, Harvard Business Review Press, revised ed., March 2000.
  12. The National Center for Academic Transformation began its work in course redesign in 1999 with support from the Pew Trust. It has since expanded its efforts and services and provides a rich array of programs and reports about its redesign strategies and successes.
  13. Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative (OLI) group has been funded since 2002 by various foundations and US government agencies. The OLI effort is based on proven strategies derived from research in the learning sciences and from other work in adaptive learning and assessment.
  14. The US Census Bureau is a good source for learning more about the education/income correlation in simple terms. For example, the downloadable infographic, "How Do We Know: The Educational Path of Our Nation," includes a page on 2010's median earnings by education. Detailed tables are also available in xls format, such as "TABLE 2C. Average Monthly Earnings of Full-Time Workers by Education, Sex, Age, and Race and Hispanic Origin, 2009" and "Table A-3. Mean Earnings of Workers 18 Years and over by Educational Attainment, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex: 1975 to 2011"; both are available for download at Educational Attainment. Wikipedia searches for "educational attainment in the United States," "household income in the United States," "income inequality," and other relevant phrases help buttress my claim that the educational attainment challenge and the educational justice challenge are co-dependently equivalent, and thus are goals that must be simultaneously pursued.
  15. Two papers were published by EDUCAUSE: "Waste Not the Learning Productivity Crisis," a 2010 EDUCAUSE Review Online monograph; and "Facing Education's Mounting Challenges with Collaboration and IT," a 2011 ECAR Research Bulletin. A third paper was included in a collection of papers commissioned in honor of the 80th year of UNC Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science. The collection, Information Professionals 2050: Educational Possibilities and Pathways, was edited by Gary Marchionini and Barbara B. Moran, 2012,; the paper has been published elsewhere and is available online as "Is Education's Past Its 2050 Prologue?"
  16. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is working with the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), Educational Testing Services (ETS), and other learning assessment organizations on global learning evaluation instruments for what I have here called "learning readiness" or "core critical thinking skills." See AHELO for more details.
  17. The Public Interest Registry (PIR) is a nonprofit corporation charged with managing the .org domain space in the public interest. The PIR's financial distributions to the Internet Society, which is its sole member, have enabled ISOC to extend its activities in all critical technology and policy development areas. To understand how economic governance can be critical to success and sustainability, consider that the IETF predates ISOC, which was formed in 1992 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by a number of people with long-term involvement in the IETF. One of IETF's principal rationales for forming ISOC was to provide both an institutional home and financial support for the ITEF and its open Internet standards process. Vint Cerf's online 1995 story, IETF and the Internet Society, offers an interesting historical perspective. Today, ISOC has a 13-member Board of Trustees, which is, in effect, the Internet's economic governance body. ISOC's President/CEO is an ex officio member of ISOC's Board, which has an independent chair. ISOC's board is elected by (1) nonprofit and for-profit organization members at six levels of membership fees; (2) Chapters, which are regional communities of more than 65,000 individual and organization members; and (3) the IETF, which today is an "organized activity" of ISOC. ISOC appears to be thriving, with annual revenues in excess of $35 million, which are used to engage in marketing, relationship building, management activities, and revenue growth initiatives to support the IETF and a host of other programs to help it keep the "Internet running," while also fulfilling the ISOC mission "to promote the open development, evolution, and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world."