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50 shades of gray

4 min read


Over the last decade, we have seen the social web blur the distinction between the professional journalist and citizen reporter. In the next decade we will see the distinction between accredited institutions and non-accredited institutions of higher education blur as well. The same forces that removed the hard line between professional and amateur journalist will remove the hard line between “official” learning and informal learning.

It used to be easy to determine who deserved a press credential and who didn’t: Are you a professional reporter employed by CNN? Fine. Press pass granted.

Now, the differences aren’t so distinct. While we used to sense an almost entirely black and white distinction between the two, now we have 50 shades of gray, or maybe 500 or 5,000 shades. Anyone with a phone can record video and pictures of live events and distribute them to the world faster than a news team; that speed changes everything. The very same people who used to be in the news audience are now broadcasters of the news, all falling at a different point on the spectrum.

Do you have a citizen journalism blog? How many readers do you have? Hmm. Are you someone with a twitter account living in Egypt? Are you someone with a smartphone attending a protest rally? Do you curate tweets on Reddit?

Who really qualifies as “the press” just isn’t so clear anymore. While there are clearly different degrees of professionalism, any hard line between professional and amateur seems sort of arbitrary. The same kind of disruption is coming to higher education. The disruptive forces of social media that are changing journalism will have a similar impact on our university system. Higher education is facing the same fluidity about the credentials they supply to graduates.

Like journalism, education credentialing used to be clear: What degree do you have? Where did you earn it?

Now, the lines are blurring.The ubiquity of learning opportunities the web provides for us is changing this as well. If you follow any of the superstar educators on Twitter, you’ll notice many of them list credentials like “Apple Distinguished Educator,” or “Google Certified Teacher.” Very few of them list “bachelor’s degree from State U” or “Master of Education.”

Within the next decade, we will see the growth of new credentials and new flavors of accrediting organizations. As the value of an “official” higher education credential sinks and its costs rise, the vacuum is being filled by innovative education models like Skillshare, General Assembly and a host of other vocational and professional organizations, many of which use the web more effectively than traditional universities to build community and advertise their businesses. People are already experimenting with various types of alternative credentialing like Mozilla’s Open Badges Project, and myriad other experiments are about to flood these different learning environments.

Web-based educational models like Khan Academy style tutorials will become more structured and massive open online courses (MOOCs)–both free and tuition-based — will expand further into territories higher education has monopolized until now. Universities have already lost the monopoly on teaching and learning thanks to these new effective and affordable models; the monopoly on credentials is the natural next victim.

When the looming student-loan bubble bursts, we will witness some of the biggest changes to higher education since Galileo was a professor. Record numbers of students defaulting on their loans because they are unemployed or underemployed coupled with the diminution of bachelor’s and even master’s degrees will produce change not only in how we learn, but also in how that learning is officially recognized.

Whether you are a plumber with a blog covering a fracking story or a graphic designer learning through an online school, you will have opportunities to be vouched for by a recognized accrediting body. The credential may be similar to Mozilla’s model or it may be an entirely new model yet to be designed, but these new models are coming. The false dichotomy of degree/no degree is a lingering relic of the 20th-century black-and-white credentialing process. The next decade will provide us with many more shades of gray.

George Haines (@George_Haines) is the founder of the MicroIntern Program, which matches middle-school students with tech startups across America. A former director of technology, he is currently employed as an instructional designer at Hofstra University where he helps faculty design and develop courses. George is also a freelance staff developer and public speaker.