Editor's note: David Blake is the Founder of Degreed, the new degree for the new world. Previously, he helped launch New Charter University and was a founding member of Zinch, since acquired by Chegg.
Jailbreak verb. 1 To get out of a restricted mode of operation. 2 To enable use of a product not intended by the manufacturer.
Currently, the degree is the only meaningful "unit" of education to which employers give any credence. Of this dependency, TIME magazine writes, "The tight connection between college degrees and economic success may be a nearly unquestioned part of our social order. Future generations may look back and shudder at the cruelty of it… It is inefficient, both because it wastes a lot of money and because it locks people who would have done good work out of some jobs."
The traditional degree, with its four-year time commitment and steep price tag, made sense when the university centrally aggregated top academic minds with residency-based students. Education required extensive logistics, demanding deep commitment from students worthy of being rewarded with the all-or-nothing degree.
But education isn't all-or-nothing. College and its primary credential, the degree, needn't be either. The benefit of modern, online education is that the burden of logistics and infrastructure are greatly reduced, allowing for the potential of a fluid, lifelong education model. The problem, to date, is that formal, online education is still being packaged in all-or-nothing degree programs, falsely constraining education innovation. The New Republic writes, "Online for-profit colleges haven't disrupted the industry because while their business methods are different, their product-traditional credentials in the form of a degree-is not."
Technology creates efficiencies by decreasing unit size while increasing utility. To falsely constrain anything to historically larger canons is to render technology impotent to do what it does best.
Clayton Christensen predicts, "I bet what happens as [higher education] becomes more modular is that accreditation occurs at the level of the course, not the university; so they can then offer degrees as collection of the best courses taught in the world. A barrier that historically kept people out of university [is] blown away by the modularization and the change in [course-by-course] accreditation."
With education, there is a particularly strong analog to what iTunes and the digital single did to the album:
Why buy a whole album when I only value a few songs enough to purchase? Why am I required to finance an entire degree only to be forced to take courses that I do not value? By bundling education into its most popular format, the four-year degree, we are inevitably adding low-utility courses that the consumer should be enabled to avoid.
Seth Godin writes, "Transparency in… school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice… could the school as we know it survive?"
To be explicit, in seeking to evolve beyond the four-year degree we need not be anti-college. iTunes didn't render the musician irrelevant just the album. But just as Napster, YouTube, iTunes and Spotify evolved the paths, careers, and distribution of musicians and their music, the role that the university plays will evolve dramatically.
It is easy to imagine a few years from now looking at a chart similar to the one above, only seeing the numbers of people taking individual courses exploding as the complete-degree programs careen towards zero.
Jailbreaking the degree and making courses the "unit" of education will unlock a flood of unmet demand and a new wave of possibilities in how we learn and consume education.