Published on 2013/06/10

Credentialing is How Institutions will Differentiate in the Future

Credentialing is How Institutions will Differentiate in the Future
Accepting and rewarding prior learning gained from multiple sources is a step institutions can take to succeed in the commoditized higher education marketplace.

“What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.”

This is my institution’s founding philosophy and, in some ways, it encapsulates the nature of today’s post-traditional era of higher education. The vision of traditional students being ‘true to their school’ and earning all credits needed for a degree in one place is being replaced by a world in which many students mix and match their education, using exams and portfolios to assess their learning, attending courses at several different institutions, going online for free content and accessing Massive Open Online Courses. In such an environment, what does it mean to talk about differences among schools?

Let me emphasize my perspective is from an adult-serving institution. Traditional residential institutions that educate young adults and provide a coming-of-age experience are not going to disappear. For these students, the campus experience is often a critical component to their growth into productive adults. Campus-based schools can still compete on prestige, the nature of the campus experience, the prowess of their sports teams and other differentiators perhaps not directly linked to the learning that takes place in class.

Alternatively, institutions may choose to set themselves apart by emphasizing their teaching methods. Online programs and institutions often market their programs by emphasizing the flexibility of studying anywhere at any time; brick-and-mortar programs may point to intensive interactions between faculty and students.

Regardless of the nature of the learning, though, regional accreditors are increasingly expecting institutions to define learning outcomes and to establish ways to ensure they are met. And once learning outcomes are established as part of the standards an institution must meet, the door is open for students who may have met the outcomes through means other than the school’s classrooms. This outcomes or competency basis is a driving force of the commoditization of education.

As we increasingly see learning as a commodity that can be obtained in many different ways, institutions such as Excelsior College — which offers assessment of learning and a venue for putting all of the evidence together — align well with that perspective. Excelsior College embraces a variety of learning experiences and sources of knowledge adults accumulate. In practice, the institution focuses on accepting transfer credit from other regionally-accredited institutions, provides rigorous exams assessing and awarding credit for prior knowledge and helps students build individualized portfolios to display their knowledge. The differentiator here is the acceptance and encouragement of the commoditization of learning.

Other institutions in the competency-based arena are also aligned with the commoditization of learning; places such as Thomas Edison State College, SUNY Empire State College, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Degree program and Lipscomb University’s CORE program all acknowledge learners are ultimately responsible for their learning, and the function of the institution is to ensure the learning is properly assessed.

The college or university is no longer the sole source of all learning, but remains the focal point for establishing rigorous standards for learning outcomes and defining what it means to have the knowledge expected of a degree holder. Many institutions offer online courses, and can differentiate themselves from those that do not. With so many online institutions now, though, the challenge is to show the very flexibility that draws many students to online learning can be taken a step further. We encourage students to learn from whichever sources best meet their learning styles and to have this learning assessed on a schedule that suits them.

If knowledge is commoditized, then acknowledging students may have obtained that commodity from a variety of places is the logical next step. Our role as an educational institution is to help students find a way to put all of their learning together into a credible credential. We are experts in multiple methods of assessing learning, from standardized exams to portfolios to evaluation of training. Determining “what you know” regardless of “where or how you learned it” is what sets us apart.

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Readers Comments

Peter Laramie 2013/06/10 at 8:12 am

Hoffman makes a valid point that commoditization is occurring in higher education whether those in the industry want to accept it or not. Institutions that show they can adapt to commoditization, perhaps by embracing a new role as learning assessor, will succeed.

Aaron Stark 2013/06/10 at 11:44 am

Although some have pointed to alternative credentialing, such as badges, as the ‘new’ direction in higher education, I think there is still a need for traditional institutions to be involved in learning assessment. Badges, or any other method of throwing courses and knowledge loosely together, are difficult for employers to understand and interpret; thus, institutions have an important role to play in ‘packaging’ the final product — the sum of everything a student has learned from a multitude of sources.

Vera Matthews 2013/06/11 at 8:55 am

Perhaps the most positive development in our increasingly commoditized higher education space is that learning is beginning to be based on outcomes rather than on arbitrary measures, such as specific credits taken or seat time.

These traditional indicators failed to measure the learning of large groups of students, particularly adult and military learners. This new emphasis on learning outcomes may help to make higher education more accessible for these types of students.

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