Kyle Peck: Predicting the Future of Alternative Credentials

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“We have a distinct opportunity to solve the equity issue in higher education. In place of our current “one-size-fits-all” model, we could offer all a diverse portfolio of programs that could help people become successful.”

His eyes may be focused on the horizon, but Kyle Peck isn’t one to mince words.

“I believe the coming decade will be more about what individuals need to know and creating educational products that meet their needs,” Peck said.

The co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State specializes in personalized learning. He describes higher education’s approach to it as a work-in-progress.

“Right now, solutions are ‘off the shelf’, designed en masse, with everyone moving at the same pace,” Peck explained. “Many of us [educators] believe that that’s going to change in the future. At Penn State, we’re monitoring that and trying new pilot projects to see what such a future might look like.”

A recognized expert in alternative credentials, Peck acknowledges that big institutions are not always among the first to innovate, or pivot. Nonetheless, he sees it as essential to their survival--and to their “service mission.”

“Instead of prescribing a generalized path, we could enable students to fill in gaps in knowledge, in skill sets,” Peck said. “We could validate what they can do. A number of institutions are developing programs that enable students to move at a pace that’s appropriate and honoring what they already know. It’s about efficiency rather than redundancy.”

No doubt there are many concrete examples. Peck offered the following.

“For whatever reason, if you miss a portion of calculus, many institutions will place you into a course that’s 18 weeks long. At Penn State, it will cost you a couple thousand dollars. Yet if we had systems that helped you to identify the parts you’re missing and you could master those and move on, it’d be a cost saver for you--and would open up a seat for another student who truly needs the entire semester to grasp calculus.”

This would use technologies to assess acquisition of knowledge and the ability to perform basic skills, allowing educators to focus on higher-order outcomes like critical thinking and problem solving and better preparing learners to succeed in the workplace and in life. But working on higher-order outcomes requires assessing products and performances that require real time from faculty members,and it’s not their favorite job.  Most would rather share their expertise in front of an audience.  And the competency-based approach would allow learners multiple opportunities to succeed, potentially taxing a workforce that currently considers itself overworked.

“You end up building a system that requires more effort on the part of the education supplier, of course. Yet those who move quickly should be able to pay less and move faster through it. Precedents exist for this. Costs should be based on energy people consume...that should be part of the revenue model.”

Peck offers a very 21st century solution to the resource challenges inherent within a more personalized approach.

“It’s true that evaluation isn’t the most fun part of teaching,” Peck admitted. “Sharing new information, sparking dialogues in class--now those things are incredibly rewarding. The rest is hard work, and it costs the institution and is taxing on the educator. But an evaluation system could be constructed in such a way that it alleviates the burden.”

Take peer reviews, for example.

“Before a student can be awarded his or her microcredential (think “badge”), he or she must review three other students’ work. Think of it as “sweat equity,” because two or three others would have reviewed her work. And we should watch artificial intelligence (AI)  in the next decade. Several smart engines, including IBM’s Watson, will soon be applied to this problem of supporting individual progress. Evaluation costs are already high, and as one of the most expensive aspects of instruction, the area of assessment of student products and performances is ripe for disruption.”

For all of those aspirational straight-A students out there, Peck puts it plainly.

“Grades are for meat and eggs. It’s simply labeling the quality of the finished product. As such, letter grades contribute to a system of education that’s more about sorting people than actually allowing them the opportunities to learn and to master something of value. Our current system, which is deeply rooted in tradition, is a time-based system. But a grade doesn’t tell the full story; they’ve become so meaningless they don’t tell us very much anymore.”

He takes issue with credentials as a form of compliance.

“Degrees and transcripts tell people almost nothing,” Peck said. “They tell people about your willingness to comply with requirements: to show up and do what you’re asked, over and over again. You earn the same diploma as the next person, even if you have deeply different academic and extracurricular experiences. Transcripts are a relic from a paper and pencil age. They don’t even use whole words to describe the course. For example, could you tell me what ‘Iss Ed Res’ means? I bet you wouldn’t guess Issues in Educational Research. Even if you did, what does that title really indicate to you?”

Peck’s philosophy is more closely aligned with microcredentials, which can be designed to meet open badging standards, that enable critical information to be embedded within them, and allow that information to pass between systems. For example, a microcredential may link to a digital recording of a person demonstrating a specific skill, or a link to GitHub or another online portfolio where computer code a learner has developed is now shared with the world.

“Microcredentials—especially those that are competency-based—start with a concrete definition of something that students need to know or be able to do. Educators can then look for evidence of that and communicate back to the learner that they’re not quite there yet, but here’s specifically what’s lacking so that they can try again, with clarity and purpose.”

Peck has something to say to those who believe their fields cannot be measured in such a way.

“Not everything is about competencies,” Peck said. Take poetry, or many majors within the liberal arts. To those faculty, I ask: how might we do this? Dismissal is easy, but when you sit down and ask what they care about--what are the two most important things in your class that someone should be able to do if they succeed in the course, and how is that important in the world--it’s going to generate a lot of interesting conversations. You uncover the things that matter, and it turns out, those things can indeed be measured or at least described and validated for others to see.”

For Peck, change is coming, but it isn’t coming fast enough.

“The reality is that a slow moving system has a monopoly on the only credential that matters: the degree,” Peck said. “A lot of folks learn a lot of things outside of an academic environment that don’t go onto a transcript. People should be able to paint a more holistic picture of who they are and how they can contribute to an organization, and microcredentials support that.”

Peck posits that aside from transformation, a fight for survival may very well take place.

“I wonder if universities can change enough to preserve themselves down the road. There are a lot of opportunities for innovation out there. New models are emerging where students obtain a free education and contribute 10% of their salary upon being hired, for example.”

Although the changes are plentiful, Peck is judicious in his use of the ‘D’ word.

“There are very few things that have the power to disrupt—badging on its own isn’t disruptive, but education is being disrupted by a multitude of things—a perfect storm of technologies and demographic and political and economic forces making this a time in which education is about to change in big ways.”

He believes that the gap (or chasm) that often exists between academia and the ‘real world’ may require employers to take on a much more vocal role.

“If employers don’t believe that current academic offerings are relevant, they’ll start to offer their own. You can see this with IBM. They’ve developed over 350 badges for internal training as well as public consumption, so job seekers who earn their certificates are viewed as more competitive candidates. Thanks to technology and connectivity, mass customization exists outside academia that makes the environment ripe for this kind of change. Expectations and competition now exist that simply weren’t there 40 years ago.”

In that time, higher education appears to have become a more chaotic and unpredictable landscape.

“It’s the Wild West,” Peck said. “Traditions remain, but the investment in the edtech sector has increased exponentially, bringing with it different assumptions about experiences that can promote learning.”

Despite the many opportunities at the intersection of business and higher education, Peck offers his colleagues a note of caution.

“It’s easier and more possible to learn now, and educational opportunities are certainly more accessible to some than others. The better we get at supporting teaching and learning through technologies, the greater the risk of expanding the digital divide and exacerbating the gap between the haves and have nots. We have a responsibility right now--regarding both our teaching and assessment methods--to ensure that the changes we make support student equity rather than challenge it.”

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.