Towards a system of uncredentials for uneducation


I wonder if it’s the increased popularity of Vampires and their undead natures that has contributed to the spread of the un- prefix in education. If so, then it’s yet another feather in the cap of the cultural genius that is Joss Whedon.

What do the different versions of un- mean? Traditionally the ‘uneducated‘ were simply not educated. And that was a bad thing. But then came the ‘unconference‘. I remember it when it was still the Open Space Technology or in its geek guise BarCamp but digital academics these days prefer ‘unconference’. It is a conference that (like Vampires with respect to humans) has many surface features of a conference but is missing its heart – the prepared timetable filled with pre-approved talks. Instead, the participants gather and make their own conversation around themes of interest. Sometimes great things emerge, sometimes just idle chitter chatter. Most often something in between.

Now there’s another ‘un’ vying for our attention. The ‘UnCollege’ a self-styled  ”social movement supporting self-directed higher education“.  It takes Mark Twain‘s aphorism “I have never let school interfere with my education.” as its motto and is basically a type of homeschooling for tertiary education. (It is important that for this metaphor to work homeschooling does not equate ‘self-teaching’ but rather truly ‘self-directing one’s learning’. A preferred term for some is ‘unschooling‘)

The website admits that ‘UnCollege’ is not for everyone:

UnCollege is probably not for you if you wish to:

- Have a brand name college degree
- Enter traditional academia
- Become a doctor (or other licensed professional)

But the question here is why not? Here the unschooling movement is committing the same categorical error that the open educational resources movement sometimes makes. The OER assumes that education is all about the content. But in fact education (or more accurately schooling) is all about credentials. Curricula, lessons and resources can be useful on the path to the credentials but ultimately, it is the credentials that matter. It is quite likely that many students of Harvard (see here for a critique) or Oxford receive a rather poor education or do not avail themselves of the resources provided by their institutions but nevertheless they will be more highly sought after than graduates of a community college. Potential employers or partners have no control over (and often no interest in) the manner in which the content education was obtained. They just want a certificate that something was obtained. Nobody wonders why, if the “education” they provide is valued so highly, do most universities entrust teaching and development of instructional materials to those they value the least!

The extremes of additional apprenticeship some professions (like medicine and law) go to, only underscore how little this certificate can be trusted for actual competence.

Further, if we look in detail at what is necessary to obtain such a certificate or other credential, we see that not only is it relatively little (one or two representatives of the institution whose main qualification is that of being hired by said body) but it is assessed for at a certain point in time with no regard for durability of knowledge. Moreover, these qualifications though transferable vary wildly across regions with different traditions. Somewhere most ridiculous examinations have to be undergone, while elsewhere a brief chat with two or three people is all that is necessary.

By the end of the day, it all depends on trust. Those who interact with their issue, generally trust that universities don’t graduate somebody who is a complete idiot and that they mark accurately somebody exceptional. (Note that this is precisely in the same way that universities do NOT trust their counterparts at the secondary education level – demanding the kind of unreliable but unified examinations instead that they themselves [rightly] refuse to provide to those needing to judge the qualification of their charges).

The operative word here is ‘trust’. This whole edifice works entirely on trust. Or more accurately on the performance of trust (but more on that on So what unschooling and uncollege need is a way of establishing that trust. They need a system of trusted proxies that can evaluate the suitability of an unschooled individual to whatever they claim their unschooling makes them qualified. The homeschooling system already has a place for this in their bureaucracy through various inspections and then standardised (if stupid) testing to provide at the gateway to the next level.

But since, as pointed out above, the institutions of “higher learning” have awarded themselves the solitary distinction of adjudicating worthiness (the supposed checks and balances being mostly a joke) there is little space for an unqualification or uncredentialed body. The so called ‘degree mills’ that are (unfairly) ridiculed for awarding credits for life experience have pretty much lost credibility. Their problem was that they tried to imitate the already established bodies and by comparison looked untrustworthy. But there is another way. We could learn from the web of trust developed by the security and encryption communities (which I briefly alluded to in my post on the Royal Society). In the web of trust people certify that certain entities are who they say they are. But as the Wikipedia entry states:

The scheme is flexible, unlike most public key infrastructure designs, and leaves trust decision(s) in the hands of individual users. It is not perfect and requires both caution and intelligent supervision by users.

How much would it take to do something similar for ‘higher unschooling’? It would take a trusted party to review the portfolio of work of an ‘unschooled’ graduate and certify that this person looks kind of OK (believe me, universities do not do much more). However, since this could be made machine-assisted, there would far more control and standardization than with the current accreditation system. I envision this as a kind of cryptographic signature that would be machine readable (kind of like a Creative Commons label) and the awardees could attach it to their resume/portfolio or output on their blogs. As the individual accreditees go through life, others could attach their signatures to some or all of their work and thus certify their suitability for whatever they claim to be suitable for.

On the side of the guarantors (accreditors), they could each have a certain amount of ‘credit’ they could spend – ie to make sure that they don’t attach their imprimatur to more people than they can reasonably assess (say 200 a year). They could obviously charge for this service and/or pool their credits in groups. Moreover, the evaluators of those credits (employers) could then attach their signature evaluating how reliable the accreditor’s recommendation was which would in turn increase/decrease their ‘credit-worthiness”. The initial seed of credit could work pretty much circularly similar to BitCoin (you get credit by putting in some random work to get credit) but over time (relatively short time), the credit would be merit based – e.g. getting accredited in a certain way by reputable individuals (or other entities) would entitle to you to pass on the credit yourself but in a limited way to prevent dilution. I’m sure some brilliant cryptographic mind (like the creators of BitCoin) would come up with a solution that would make sense.

There would have to be the right mix of anonymity and publicness about this. Anonymity to prevent people inflating evaluations of the usefulness of accreditations by a given body and publicness to prevent discreditation campaigns. However, on the whole this would provide a much fairer assessments of people’s worth and could easily supplant the one size fits all system of current universities. The LinkedIN recommendation feature is a good model but is too vague. This web-of-trust-based system could be quite clearly targeted.

One feature of prestigious universities, namely the ability of their graduates to draw on valuable social capital (aka connections and old-boys networks), would be a bit more difficult but not impossible to replicate. A Linked-IN like system of connections could be attached or simply a regular social graph could be a part of the evaluation. Of course, there is still value to universities as liminal spaces (see Rebekah Nathan’s My Freshman Year) but perhaps an equivalent to that could be found elsewhere at a cost lower than 10s of thousands of dollars per year.

Sometimes, the performance of somebody in a learning environment or some other learning context is just as important as the outcomes. This could also be made part of the system. For instance, an employer could require a certain amount of credit of seminar work for a certain type of job (e.g. observed lessons taught, or patients diagnosed) in preference for a unified degree that masks unevenness in ability.

The traditional tertiary institutions could coexist with this un-system providing (finally) the educational resources or better still cognitive and pastoral guidance “unschoolers” can access. But now they would have to trade on the quality of the assistance they provide and NOT on reputations that often stem from completely unrelated sources. Methinks, tertiary education would get a lot cheaper and a lot more useful to all.

Note: A germ of similar system already exists in UK Further Education (FE) where awarding bodies evaluate the output of the students at various institutions. This system would have potential but because the awarding bodies are opaque and do not have to defend their reputation, it is not much better than the alternative. Also, these awarding bodies are also responsible for the curricula and teaching materials which vary in quality and which they have a vested interest in promoting. In contrast, the original universities of the middle ages (which were more like secondary education today) worked much more on the notion of trust. But even there this was too easily subverted. I think modern cryptography and social networking technologies could take this a lot further (although as with all things complex and social the exact outlines of the system at work are difficult to predict).


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