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This morning I gave the opening keynote at the Virtual Universities: Impact on Accounting Education Thought Leadership forum in Adelaide, organized by the Centre of Accounting, Governance and Sustainability at University of South Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia. The audience was an invitation-only group of the most senior accounting academics and industry practitioners in the country.

My keynote was on the broad global context for the current changes in education. After looking at major technological, social and structural changes, the future of work, and shifts in learning, I turned to the role of certification and credentials.

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has helped bring into focus that universities have to date always bundled together three things:
- Education;
- Certification; and
- Networking.

The rise of Open Courseware and more recently services such as Coursera, Udacity and edX has now broken out (part of) the education piece.

What makes this unbundling particularly pointed for existing educational institutions is that all of these rich course materials are being made available for free.

Of course the reality is that education is itself being unbundled, into elements including course materials, lectures, tutoring, peer discussion, and one-on-one teaching. However to some degree, for some students, outstanding course materials can be a substitute for university education.

Where established tertiary institutions still hold a virtual monopoly is in certification. Recognized degrees are a pathway to employment and career success.

In fact a quality free education has always being available for those who live where there is a university. Anyone can walk into a lecture hall. To register and pay gives you tutorials, exams, and ultimately certification. That hasn’t changed. It is just that this availability of teaching materials is now scaled globally.

In a world in which education, certification, and networking have been unbundled, an absolutely vital question is the future of certification.

While it is possible that established, credentialed universities will maintain a monopoly on certification, that is unlikely in the medium to longer term.

Universities degrees have value largely because employers place value on them. However employers that are seeking the best talent will find they are at a disadvantage if they disregard people who have the same or often better capabilities than those who have a degree.

There are a number of possible future models for certification, including:

- Education and certification are provided separately. One opportunity for universities is to provide credentials to students who have studied elsewhere, including using freely availably course materials. There is no reason why new institutions cannot establish themselves as recognized providers of credentials as a stand alone service. It will take a little while for them to be recognized, however that need not take long given how quickly reputations can be established in a connected world.

- Aggregation of certification and experience. A nice example of aggregation of certification is provided by Degreed, a start-up which provides a score combining accredited and non-accredited informal education. This model could morph into certification for our accumulated experiences in the ‘school of hard knocks’.

- Distributed peer reputation measures. In the rise of the reputation economy we are building increasingly good methodologies for measuring reputation and competence in specific domains. Topcoder is a great example of a distributed work platform in which people’s capabilities are judged by peers to provide ratings and rankings. It is feasible that broader-based peer rating systems will provide far better measures of competence than formal degrees or the exam system that still largely drives them.

Many university leaders believe that they will retain a monopoly on certification of capabilities. Indeed, the very long-established brands and credibility of major universities will retain massive value into the future, if they are well managed.

However there are a number of emerging models for certification of capabilities.

Which do you think are likely to be most prominent in years to come?

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  • http://twitter.com/mathewlowry mathewlowry

    How can providers of ‘distributed peer reputation measures’ avoid gaming strategies seen in everything from individual communities to services like LinkedIn and Klout?

    • http://twitter.com/MrMeritology Russell Thomas

      Great question, Mathew. All systems of evaluation are subject to gaming or manipulation of some kind. Centralized/hierarchical systems are vulnerable to favoritism, corruption, and bureaucratic ineptitude. Distributed systems are susceptible to local cheating and fakery, plus mass action attacks like “astroturf” political campaigns.

      In all cases, the key question is what prevention, detection, and repair capabilities does the system have, and what incentives do the players have. There has been a lot of research into resilient distributed reputation and trust systems, including models based on biology or ecology. Most of these research ideas remain to be explored or tested in the real world, especially this one. I see this as a major innovation opportunity.

  • http://twitter.com/MrMeritology Russell Thomas

    Though I won’t make this a prediction, I’m intrigued by peer reputation systems that include a financial component — “skin in the game”. This is a “surety bond” of sorts — where people and firms who REALLY stand behind a person’s reputation would put up a small amount of money to pay for a bond, payable if that person does not perform to some standard (in employment, in a contract, in further schooling). They “payment” wouldn’t need to be always in money. It could be via “in-kind services”. For example, if the person in question is a writer, then the people backing her with a “reputation bond” might be liable to pay for the services of another writer to come do “clean up”.

    In a way, this is like the old “Good Housekeeping Seal”, where the magazine would refund the purchase price to any consumer of the product endorsed by Good Housekeeping.

    This idea has roots in how risk pooling is handled in pre-industrial societies where there is no commercial insurance.

    • http://www.rossdawsonblog.com Ross Dawson

      That is an intriguing idea Russell.

      My first thought is that there would need to be upside as well as downside as otherwise there would be little incentive to support others’ reputation.

      I’ll muse more on this.

  • Marc Singer

    Thomas Edison State College in the US, where I work, does provide the sort of credentialing services you mention, though we also offer courses separately. We do a fair amount of assessment of prior learning, and we also review certifications and professional licenses for college-level learning, and we see the assessment of open courseware and MOOCs as being of the same cloth. We are starting to work with some of these providers, like the Saylor Foundation and OERu, to develop pathways to college credit and recognition, if students need it. Our accreditors require us to tread cautiously, though, because they have not clarified their take on this approach.

    • http://www.rossdawsonblog.com Ross Dawson

      Thanks Marc, that’s interesting. As you are experiencing the institutional structures can shift slowly. We don’t know how fast they will change, but certainly the credence of alternatives to ‘accredited’ degrees may rise rapidly.

  • Yannig Roth

    Hello Ross, thanks for this post! I think students will also increasingly play games and participate in challenges to beef up their curriculums in the future. Crowdsourcing websites like Studyka (France) and Mindsumo (USA) are specialized in brand challenges for students, and the most value doesn’t come from the ideas, but in the talent identification for companies!

    • http://www.rossdawsonblog.com Ross Dawson

      Interesting Yannig, I hadn’t seen those specific sites. Yes, surfacing talent is both valuable and monetizable, helping many of these models!

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Ross Dawson is globally recognized as a leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and bestselling author. He is Founding Chairman of AHT Group, which consists of 3 companies: consulting, publishing, and ventures firm Advanced Human Technologies, future and strategy firm Future Exploration Network, and events company The Insight Exchange.

Ross is author most recently of Getting Results From Crowds, the prescient Living Networks, which anticipated the social network revolution, the Amazon.com bestseller Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, and Implementing Enterprise 2.0. (click on the links for free chapter downloads). He is based in Sydney and San Francisco with his wife jewellery designer Victoria Buckley and two beautiful young daughters.

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