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Why the obsession with credentials?

An article in the New York Times titled “An Open Mind" has Will Richardson asking some questions about open educational resources, informal learning, and credentials.

Why the obsession with credentials? Bre Pettis doesn’t lead with his credentials. Nor does Limor “Ladyada” Fried. Those are just two quick examples that come to mind. And what are my credentials? I have a degree in Spanish literature. I don’t have a certificate in education, technology, or administration, but those are still part of the description of my current job, which, in part, I secured through my online presence and, in full, without actually setting foot at the school. As Will points out, Neeru Paharia gives hint of this alternate way of signaling our abilities:

P2PU is working to come up with alternative signals that indicate to potential employers that an individual is a good thinker and has the skills he or she claims to have — maybe a written report or an online portfolio.

But, is that the best we can come up with? And why do we need to worry about employers when we can also start our own businesses? Without the time and money sink of college, we’d have more resources to do just that. Even if you are looking for a job, there are ways to show your worth without flashing some sheepskin. What about the app that you have in the App Store? Or the electronics you’re selling online? Or the furniture that you offer through Etsy? Or the novel that you published through Kickstarter? Or the photography portfolio you exhibit on Flickr? Or the short films you’ve uploaded to Vimeo? Or the news articles you shared through NowPublic*? Or the entries that you composed on Wikipedia? Or the tutorials you posted to Instructables? Or the foodie blog you’ve kept since you were younger?

That list of suggestions can be made much longer and could include links to more examples, but I want to move on to another one of Will’s questions:

I mean how, right now, are schools helping students be self-directed participants in their own learning who are able to share openly the learning they do and connect with others to pursue that learning even further?

I can only speak about the middle school program that I am part of, knowing that it is in no way representative of the rest of the education landscape, as it includes elements uncommon to many schools: skipping grading, seeing teachers as master learners, giving time for reflection, leveraging a one-to-one laptop program, and moving towards authenticity and flattened hierarchy).

Our students are developing portfolios starting in fifth grade, on the open web, with off-the-shelf blogging software. That portfolio is theirs to take with them when they leave the school. The truth is that most of what they’re creating at this point isn’t going to get them a job, but it is helping them develop the habits of sharing online and making connections with others. Students in our middle school also design the projects they complete, help decide some of the general topics to study, lead our off-campus trips, choose much of the literature we read, evaluate each others’ work, and are given an Open Studio to pursue personal learning projects. (Think Google 20 percent time, but not quite that much.) However, we can do more. Why aren’t we encouraging kids to use their real names to take credit for the work that they create online? Even though we let students design their own projects, why are we still using a curriculum at all? We’ll need to get past some fear to make those leaps.

My own two kids are beginning to use their names online and are learning similar lessons outside the education establishment, mostly through the examples that my wife and I set. To be honest, there are moments that I wonder if we are making the right decisions about their education, but then they produce something amazing or I remember how almost none of what I do comes from formal training. I’m still getting used to the fact that their world is so different than the one that I grew up with.

So, I think Will is wrong when he speculates that the 10-15 years that his two children have aren’t enough to build something other than a diploma that might showcase their expertise in the same ways that a piece of paper might. There is no need to wait for these changes to happen — these paths have already been forged. It’s just that they don’t have heavy traffic yet. We also can’t expect everyone to begin taking them together or to accept them as an alternative. That’s OK. No one ever needed everyone’s approval to do great work or set a new course. Furthermore, we can help by de-emphasizing credentials in our own work. Stop asking for them first. Judge others primarily by the product of their efforts. A simple example: did I ask these guys for their credentials before buying their product? I tested it myself at a local farmers’ market. Back in the field of education, I recently met two people who I found online. Later, I learned that they never did receive their degrees. But that doesn’t devalue their ideas, the work that they have done, or the work that they will do. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with them or trust them with a project. Sure, understanding someone’s value through their accomplishments rather than credentials takes more work, but you’re likely to get better people that way. And how often are credentials truly verified anyway?

*Update 23 April 2010: Hmm… Maybe Now Public is not such a great example any more.