Edtech’s Next Big Disruption Is The College Degree

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Aaron Skonnard

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Aaron Skonnard is co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight.

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For centuries, the college degree has been the global gold standard for assessing an individual entering the workforce. But after cornering the credentials market for nearly a millennium, the degree’s days alone at the top are most definitely numbered. By 2020, the traditional degree will have made room on its pedestal for a new array of modern credentials that are currently gaining mainstream traction as viable measures of learning, ability and accomplishment. Technology is changing the job market, and it’s only natural that we find new ways of determining who’s the right fit for those jobs.

I’ll explain shortly why I think 2020 is the magic timeframe for the new credentialing movement to reach its tipping point, but first some brief history. The traditional college degree traces back to the 12th or 13th century, when the European university model developed a set of credentials that spread across the world and still remain more or less true to their original intent and structure. Even the titles of modern degrees — bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate — derive from medieval Europe’s educational paradigm.

In one respect, the staying power of the traditional degree is a testament to its timeless relevance, cultural meaning and professional utility. The world has experienced wrenching technological and cultural change over the centuries, and yet the academic degree remains the de facto baseline for fields ranging from accounting to computer science to biology — and everything in-between. I myself, a developer by trade, hold a bachelor’s degree and taught at a university before founding Pluralsight. The degree will always be relevant, but not exclusively so — even our sacred cows aren’t safe from the forces of disruption.

So, back to our timeline: 2020. For the first time in centuries, powerful forces are converging to challenge the assumption that a college degree is the only way. Frustration with the rising cost of higher education — and the underlying reasons — is at a fever pitch. Students, who are the primary customer for the trillion-dollar global education market, expect their education to improve their career prospects (86 percent of college freshmen attend college to get a better job) and are becoming disillusioned when this doesn’t always occur. At the same time, employers expect a more sophisticated worker at all levels, and a more transparent view into what qualifies a candidate for employment — both at the point of hire and over time, as skill requirements evolve.

This has led to aggressive efforts to innovate in recent years, both within and without the education community. Notably, this confluence of conditions spawned the global massive open online course (MOOC) craze, which peaked in 2012 (the “year of the MOOC”) and 2013.

MOOCs addressed only the question of access to education, however, and crashed to earth in part because of low completion rates. The MOOC movement, which was supposed to change everything in education, hit the skids almost overnight at least partly because incentive to complete was absent without a proper credential. In hindsight, it seems clear that no substantive education innovation can endure unless it addresses the issue of certification.

Enter the second wave of education’s technology revolution: the New Credentialing. In the past few years, credentials such as online badges, course certificates and dynamic assessments have started to gain wide acceptance — and, in some fields, such as technology, are perhaps even preferred in certain instances because they offer more insight into hard skills — as a primary currency in the world of work and careers. This trend has been sparked by an implied demand, and because the communities aiming to innovate in education realized that credentialing is the missing link in the edtech revolution.

As with most bleeding-edge movements, the new credentialing paradigm is being driven by tech startups looking to innovate. Last year, after pioneering the MOOC craze, Silicon Valley’s Coursera expanded its focus beyond providing free and open education to the world and started partnering with companies, like MasterCard, to create specific training and certification programs for those organizations. The idea is to create certificates in collaboration with employers that carry weight in their organizations — a truly efficient way to remove the mystery in what an employer wants from a candidate.

Coursera’s novel approach is part of a growing wave of new credentialing options taking shape inside the tech sector. Udacity has its Nanodegree, which ties skill assessment to projects about which employers care. General Assembly created a “microcredentialing” program designed to standardize certification for graduates of coding boot camps. My company has watched the credentialing movement unfold for years, and last year we decided to acquire Smarterer, an algorithmic platform in which users are assessed on specific skills relative to industry standards and given an SAT-like score.

We live in a time of real-time analytics, and we dashboard everything inside the organization, from sales to operational costs to customer sentiment. It’s only natural that this trend should extend into the way we vet, assess and track the skills and abilities of our prospective and current employees. The more data options we have, the more deliberate we can be about making good hiring decisions, and the more prescriptive we can be about addressing monumental skills gaps in the workplace. The college degree alone can’t provide this kind of holistic insight.

We still have some ground to cover before the modern credentials menu takes full shape. But we’re getting close, and the trend is gaining momentum despite pushing against centuries of inertia. Once the mainstreaming is complete, it will have a sweeping impact on every aspect of education and employment. It will change the incentives for pursuing a traditional four-year degree. And even for those who do, it will create new ways to differentiate based on skill, not just academic performance. The net result: an end to the college degree’s unprecedented run as the only credential that matters.

 

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