Published on 2013/03/26

Disrupting the Degree? Credentialing in 2023

Disrupting the Degree? Credentialing in 2023
The degree may well be in existence in 10 years, but it will look vastly different from its current form.

Higher education is changing, far more rapidly than is customary or comfortable in this field. A series of influences — technological, social and economic — have converged to bring about change that will re-shape higher education in the coming decade. As early as 1999, Harvard Business School professor and management guru Clayton Christensen predicted the disruption of higher education by online learning.  Now, some 15 years later, more than one-third of all college students are participating in at least some online learning. At my university, more than 40 percent of the credit hours earned are online, and the percentage grows every semester. Christensen was in front of the wave, accurately predicting the changes that were to come over the next decade and a half. So, I took notice when I read another of his predictions earlier this year: “Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities will be in bankruptcy, including state schools.” [1]

I do not doubt the prediction. To put this in perspective, Christensen’s prediction means more than 1,000 universities will be bankrupt by 2028. Clearly, massive forces are now in motion to change higher education to become more accessible, affordable, relevant, responsive and updateable. But just imagine the impact. In this shakeout, the venerable baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees may well lose relevancy, replaced by collections of badges, certificates and competencies.

With the prospect of fewer universities in the offing, notable innovators such as Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, have called for changes in the way we credential learning. Khan joins others in suggesting that the function of teaching should be separated from the function of credentialing. He asks, “What if we were to separate the teaching and credentialing roles of universities?” [2] Khan makes a convincing case that universities are no longer the only place where legitimate learning takes place; we should put learning from all sources on equal footing and assess it through an independent approach – competency-based assessments. In addition, those options must include affordable, accessible, timely and relevant learning opportunities that will meet the needs of students and employers. Indeed, it is the lack of such options that is driving the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other open and affordable online learning alternatives. One method may be the Mozilla-hosted secure “backpack” to hold badges from universities and other sources.

Some may foresee a free-for-all, open market of an accumulation of random micro-credentials presented in loose fashion to employers and others. I think that will not be case. Employers will seek some sort of order in the process of organizing credentials into meaningful categories by a source they can trust. Optimistically, I foresee that universities will continue to play the role of credentialing learning. But, credentialing of the future cannot be based solely on the credit hour. It will become a much broader and more thorough assessment of competencies and understanding.

Universities will be called upon to assess and interpret the experiences and learning a student has accumulated through MOOCs, internships, work, personal learning networks, projects, etc. in addition to traditional courses. The universities, if they are to remain relevant and viable, will aggregate evidence of competencies and create enhanced transcripts that will provide more detailed and meaningful information about the competency and understanding than merely a course prefix, number and title.

The college transcript of the future will describe a variety of accumulated “learning modules” – some for credit within the university, others from outside of the university. Each of the entries will include a description of competencies, understandings and relevance to the workplace/career. Cumulatively, the portfolio of assessed activities and experiences, as well as courses that comprise the full transcript of learning activities, will be validated by the university as meeting the qualities of a 21st-century degree.

In this way, the degree may survive to be documented by far more descriptive and meaningful transcripts that will be offered by those universities that escape bankruptcy.

Ray Schroeder will be speaking on Online Learning Game changers at the UPCEA Annual Conference, running from April 3-5 in Boston. For more information on the presentation, please click here. Schroeder will also be speaking on “MOOC Practices, Pedagogy and Place” at the Sloan Consortium Emerging Technologies in Online Learning on April 11 in Las Vegas. For more information on this presentation, please click here.

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[1] Schubarth, C. (2013, 02 07). Disruption guru christensen: Why apple, tesla, vcs, academia may die. Silicon Valley Business Journal, Retrieved from

[2] Khan, S. (2012, 10 04). My view: The future of credentials.Schools of thought, Retrieved from

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/03/26 at 8:50 am

I agree that there is certainly a need for more descriptive credentialing than what currently exists. It surprises me that, for a society that is increasingly concerned with ‘specializing’ and ‘specific skills’ we continue to accept vague descriptions of academic credentials as adequate proof of competency.

Stephen Gotti 2013/03/26 at 1:02 pm

I’m not sure that it is the institution’s role to provide such detailed descriptions of each area of competency. Perhaps what an institution might consider is to have each graduating student complete a portfolio of work for assessment and also to use later on in his or her job search. This puts the student more in charge of his or her learning, because the student will be responsible for describing which skills were learned and for drawing connections among his or her various life experiences. This is a good exercise to put the student through.

Robert McGuire 2013/03/31 at 10:42 pm

I wonder if universities should answer that call if it comes and if they wouldn’t be better off not trying to certify an individual’s job readiness. I agree that there will be a need to authenticate and present a variety of credentials from a variety of institutions, media and platforms and that something like a portfolio is a good way to imagine what that might look like. I don’t think we need to assume, though, that are best suited to do that. The marketplace is already starting to generate resources like what Dr. Schroeder describes where an authority outside the university authenticates those miscellaneous credentials. If that’s the way things shake out, it might instead be that by 2023 universities are doing something more valuable and closer to mission — authenticating that the degree included in that portfolio represents a good old fashioned college education undiluted by mixed (and unpersuasive) messages about job readiness.

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