Does The Online Education Revolution Mean The Death Of The Diploma?

As the options for self-education explode, what does a college education mean? And how can we measure what a good education is?

Education is changing, and it’s changing fast. Anyone can put together a personalized educational experience via digital textbooks accessible by iPad, video learning from top university faculty, or peer-led discussion. People of all demographics are gathering their own seeds of education and cultivating lush sets of hybrid tools to deal with the rapid knowledge replenishment that’s essential in an economy where massive career specialization and constant innovation reign.

This is the first piece in a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values, written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

What we’re witnessing is a bottom-up revolution in education: Learners, not institutions, are leading innovation. This is an era of plenty. I like to call it the Education Harvest.

But there is a huge issue that’s preventing lifelong learners from blossoming into our next generation of highly skilled—and employed—workers: There’s no accreditation process for self-taught learners.

Where is education headed? How are learners driving the movement? And how can we fix this lack of accreditation? Here are the five parts of the Education Harvest:

1. Gadgets And Blended Learning

Classrooms can be anywhere at anytime. When 75% of teens own a cell phone—40% of those phone are smartphones—more learning is on mobile devices than ever before. Karen Cator, United States Department of Education director of technology, said, "I think 2012 will see an expansion of a variety of ways of getting access to the materials that students need for learning." The confluence of gadgets and learning is yielding a rise in the blended learning movement. The DOE plans to spend $30 million over the next three years to bring blended learning to 400 schools around the country.

We’re seeing evidence of this in digital textbooks by Apple (handheld devices coupled with social media) and Amazon.com (on-demand textbook rental online) to flipped classrooms by Khan Academy, TED Talks, and YouTube to mobile learning worldwide via SchoolSMS (schools sending bulk text messages to parents, teachers, and students) in Kenya and Akash (touch-screen learning tablets) in India.

2. Social Learning and Collaboration

Students are taking responsibility for their own learning, and the lines between student and teacher are blurring. Learners can determine their strengths and weaknesses and connect with one another to help and teach each other based on their areas of expertise—all they need is Facebook and Twitter. Teachers are using platforms like Kickboard, TeacherTube, Edmodo, and Edutopia to share content and lessons with each other online so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel or keep content to themselves anymore. This kind of social and collaborative behavior results in teachers and students working together as peers (gasp!) on individual learning goals, thinking through solutions together.

3. Open Resources and Classrooms

Textbook companies have to change now that everything’s going digital, and top learning institutions are offering their courses for free on the Internet. Educational resources, data, and technology are becoming more accessible than ever through programs like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, CK12, California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative, and The Faculty Project. In fact, the entire Bering Straight School District in Alaska has implemented a wiki-style format for its curriculum. Which city is next?

4. Adaptive, Personalized Learning

Formal learning environments are crumbling, and learners are finding their own paths to knowledge through independent thinking and experience in the real world. Teachers are figuring out how to teach each student the way he or she learns best, and assessment is viewed as an ongoing process, since learning is not a constant. Knewton and Grockit are leaders in this kind of personalized learning, with instruction and quizzes aimed at a student’s specific needs and skills, from K-12 all the way up to higher ed. Lady Gaga’s Empowerment Foundation, supported by Harvard University, is helping students discover their interests and develop strategies best suited to their own, individual future plans.

5. Creative Certification

Codecademy, General Assembly, Udemy, and Udacity all offer their students a certificate of completion, some signed by the instructors of their classes. As Scott Gray writes in the O’Reilly School of Technology blog, "No one, and I mean no one has figured out how to get end-users to pay for individual courses online unless they are attached to some kind of degree or certification." Using the legitimacy and/or reputation of the course-providing entity or the teachers themselves is a baby-step solution, though. There are serious concerns with badges when it comes to quality assurance and the superficial incentives they create. Those outside of companies with skill-building curriculae can’t obtain legitimacy in those skillsets without being an employee. The more people are culling unassociated resources and experiences to learn specific skills, the more urgent it is for there to be a place for them to record their efforts and success, to study with peers, and to present their learning portfolios to future employers or partners in a meaningful way.

What This Means For The Future

The world of "free radicals"—a term Behance’s Scott Belsky coined to describe those who take their careers into their own hands—is already hard at work on the Education Harvest, and they’re being followed fast by plenty of others. But, while independent learners are cultivating social, high-quality, personalized learning experiences, there’s a problem: There’s no universally accepted proof of purchase to verify the skill level of those who are self-taught.

The education paradigm of the future is all about the doers, not the academics or theorists. A paper degree won’t stand a chance against action. Start your own company, build a website, organize an event, get a side project, and you’ll make it. The accreditation of today is a powerful hybrid of tangible evidence of hands-on learning and social proof. Those who "course correct," so to speak, and let their passion and personal interests drive their self-powered knowledge acquisition, will succeed because of the portfolios of evidence they’ll naturally build as they learn by doing. Those who mentor and partner with them will endorse their credibility and provide the final link of trust.

Six of the top 10 Fortune 500 executives do not have an Ivy League degree, and 19 of the top 100 worked their way up to success without a college degree. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out—or, opted out, we might say—from the traditional educational institutions that stifled their creativity and influence. Today, you advance in the world based on your performance, not a piece of paper declaring your expertise in "knowing a little about a lot of things." Employers are hiring for specific, narrow skills that aren’t fully learned in college, and they’re thinking, "What else have you done other than go to college?" when they field monotonously similar resumes.

There’s proof of a new anti-resume: my company, Skillshare, as well as Kickstarter, Mzinga, and The Unreasonable Institute refuse resumes from job applicants. Links are the new CVs, portfolios aren’t just for artists anymore, and experience reigns. The most important skill we’ll have in a world where 50% of people see self-employment as more secure than having a full-time job is the ability to go out and get the right knowledge for the right purpose at the right time. But it won’t be worth peas if there’s no way to measure the yield of our efforts. Welcome to Education Harvest.

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