Published on 2012/11/16

Disruptive Technologies Key to Making Degrees Useful Again

The college or university degree remains the major signal for an educated adult, and has been for centuries, but it is coming under increasing pressure and criticism; some even predicting the death of the degree and the end of higher education.

In an Inside Higher Ed article penned by Daniel Pianko and Ryan Craig—managing directors at University Ventures—they argue that while the degree may be facing a black hole, disruptive technologies can save the credential before it falls flat.

The biggest critique of degrees is that they are unable to translate or describe the specific competencies that a degree-holder might have, and the massive open online learning boom of the past year made that abundantly clear. While students can take a MOOC to learn a specific skill and earn a badge displaying that skill and describing exactly how the student has displayed that competency, degrees are still woefully behind.

According to Pianko and Craig, “The degree is a crude instrument for evaluating educational attainment. A bachelor’s degree merely indicates that a student sat (or slept in a drunken stupor) through at least 120 credit hours of C-graded “college-level” work.”

However, degrees are so deeply ingrained into society that the authors do not feel they will ever meet their end. Numerous professions rely on their prospective workers holding a particular degree to prove their competency and achievements. They push students to take elective or mandatory classes they would otherwise avoid, allowing the student to enrich themselves and learn some interdisciplinary skills. Moreover, fine-tuning soft-skills like critical thinking, creativity and teamwork are part-and-parcel of completing a degree.

Badges, according to Pianko and Craig, cannot fill this need. After all, badges indicate a short-term accomplishment while degrees signify long-term commitment to a program. As it stands, it is extremely difficult to replicate this signal while also developing the aforementioned soft skills.

So how will degrees overcome their current state? Pianko and Craig suggest that degrees must become smarter. Right now, employers and human resources managers (and, to be honest, numerous higher education institutions themselves) do not have the capacity to differentiate different degrees or transcripts from different institutions in a way that will allow them to understand the skills and competencies of their prospective hire.

They suggest developing a “double-click” transcript, which on the surface seems very similar to a badge. Through this technologically advanced transcript, employers will be able to learn more about a given course and the student’s performance in that course. Course performance can be understood in terms of capabilities and competencies.

This disruption will help employers move beyond knowing that their prospective hire got a B+ in their course, it will show them exactly what that student can and cannot do.

The degree may be under fire, but it is certainly not beaten. And with a small disruption, it can rise again.

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