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2022 Toy Design Shops for K-12 and Higher Education: The Key Role of Credential-As-You-Go

Across the education ecosystem, it’s incumbent upon us to explore ways to create more accessible and diverse forms of learning—and mechanisms to qualify that learning.
Across the education ecosystem, it’s incumbent upon us to explore ways to create more accessible and diverse forms of learning—and mechanisms to qualify that learning.

During the holiday season, Michael B. Horn in Lego Models and Innovating In K­–12 Schools called on our inner child by inviting us to the toy design shop. He wisely cautioned those seeking to transform schooling with technology that they haven’t thought enough about the model of schooling. The predominant K-12 public school model serves a student population learning for fixed periods of time with highly variable learning outcomes. Though there are many individualized learning models, they are considered alternatives.

In my vernacular, this means they are not mainline—and the predominant K-12 model is increasingly questionable in an environment begging for new models. This is the case for higher education too—and this is what my own inner child posited in What do transformer action figures and credentialing have in common?

In Horn’s toy shop, Lego architecture is a blueprint for K-12 education redesign. Lego pieces fit together via modular interface, and an organization’s modular architecture enables fast customization. Modular designs can create pathways to greater scale than designing something entirely new because new services can take advantage of an existing infrastructure without having to design an entirely different system. He argues that if K-12 systems were built like Lego architecture, with design specifications that enable alignment, we could more easily rethink parts of the schooling experience.

This is the concept (design specifications that enable alignment) behind Credential As You Go.  

CAYG is a national higher education redesign initiative that has identified six learning paths/strategies that can lead to transformational change in the U.S. postsecondary education system. The vision is an array of learning credentials awarded by the many educational providers throughout the nation. State policy will guide these developments. Employers will clarify what types of learning (e.g., competencies and skills) they need. The new system will recognize valuable learning that occurs in short-term units along the way to further education and career success over a lifetime. And these credentials will be awarded incrementally, as learners earn them.

Incremental credentialing is critical, since nearly 50% of postsecondary learners in the U.S. leave colleges and universities with no earned credential, swelling the population of Americans who make up the some college/no credential group. There are 36 million adults with some college/no degree, many with no credential to show what they have accomplished. Without credentials, the system often treats them as if they have no knowledge or skills, even if they have acquired equivalent learning through work and life experiences or previous college coursework.

This is only one of the compelling imperatives for a redesigned higher education system. And the redesigned system must be comprised of credential pathways that fit together well, like Lego pieces, and enable numerous permutations of learning, like a Transformers action figure.

The premise behind a Transformers toy is that individual toy parts can be shifted about to change it from a vehicle, a device or an animal to a robot action figure and back again. Many types of Transformers coexist in the toy world, similar to the large number of credentials in the U.S.—degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, badges, microcredentials, apprenticeships and others. They are all learning parts that can be shifted about to change the total unit of learning an individual acquires.

Until recently, most learning action figures looked alike. They were composed primarily of traditional degree parts. Then non-degree parts entered the landscape, and some learning action figures were given non-degree parts.

We’re challenged now to think about a future in which there no longer can be a single learning (degree) action figure. We have entered a new employer hiring reality in which learning occurring beyond degrees has value; i.e., smaller learning parts have value, alone or in combination with other learning parts. Yet our higher education system has not redesigned itself yet for this new environment.

CAYG is in the toy factory, prototyping promising new approaches with three states: Colorado, New York and North Carolina. And many institutions both within the CAYG initiative and working independently are pioneering incremental credentialing models, with the belief that there will be important benefits—to students, institutions, states, employers, policymakers and workforce boards.

It is time to transform our K-12 and postsecondary educational systems to allow for more learner-centered and employer-relevant models. There are important lessons for this work from Lego architecture and Transformers action figures. We can work better and smarter using modularized architecture designed for learning components to fit together well to meet learner needs better.

The redesign shops are already in play for educational reform in 2022 in both K-12 schools and higher education. This is not child’s play; the future of education is at stake.

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