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Five Questions With An EdTech CEO: Will Certificates Succeed?

By on April 22, 2013
Continuing Education, Domestic, International, Interview, MOOCs, OER - Open Educational Resources, Required, Startups, Technology, Universities & Colleges

danny king 2

Danny King is a British entrepreneur behind Accredible, who recently moved to Silicon Valley as part of the Imagine K12 edtech incubator project. He and his co-founder Alan Heppenstall say they aim to reimagine the idea of a certificate. “We let anyone create certificates for skills, achievements or knowledge they have and let you embed proof of that onto the certificate itself.”

King (CEO) and Heppenstall (CFO), as college freshmen studying Computer Science, founded Entrepreneurs Durham, which grew to be a successful non-profit to encourage and support entrepreneurship. As a result they were invited to the British Houses of Lords and of Parliament to represent entrepreneurial student views. They then co-founded Accredible in January 2013 and were accepted into the Imagine K12 programme, an education startup accelerator affiliated with Y Combinator.

King believes education can be translated into certificates and shown in a different way than current degrees, which he calls “flat documents with a name, grade and institution printed on them.” He thinks the process can be open and transparent. He thinks people can upload all the work they did in a course onto the certificate itself so employers and others can see what a person actually learned and what skills and knowledge the person possesses. King shows an example from a Coursera course he completed and has his entire computer science degree also on the site. He postulates that if free online learning were as credible as traditional university learning, MOOCs and online learning would have much more value. King even suggests that his company’s certificates allow people to “self-proctor” by using a webcam to video tape yourself taking an online exam and then embedding that video onto the certificate, which anyone can check. WiredAcademic editor Paul Glader sent over five questions for King to answer:

WA – Certificates and badges sound nice… but what do you see as the biggest roadblocks to making them mean something? 

DK – The real challenge ahead is that a culture shift is necessary in order to enable the kind of learning we do outside of formal institutions to be credible in employers’ eyes. We are in an era where learning can’t simply stop after we graduate from college – if we did that most of us would become obsolete in half a decade, especially in technology. People do, of course, continue to learn informally and yet this learning usually can’t be put on a CV. This isn’t limited to graduates either: high school and college students learn a lot outside of their institutions too, yet their official transcripts become the label that defines their knowledge and abilities no matter how much learning occurs elsewhere. An infrastructure needs to be created to provide credibility to all types of learning, not just that which is done within a traditional classroom. Spreading an understanding of this amongst stakeholders will be the biggest challenge.

WA – As I see it, there is no one accrediting body over badges and certificates and that is/will be the greatest drawback. Colleges are audited to hold up certain standards and, therefore, hold the leverage. How will this change do you think? 

DK – Actually, we think the fact that there is no one accrediting body over Accredible Certs is their major strength. Consider this: education has evolved dramatically over the last fifty years yet certificates/diplomas haven’t changed for hundreds of years. They are (at best) shiny pieces of paper with a name, grade and institution printed on them. The entire way in which we think about accreditation is designed to accommodate this sheet of paper. Students must be summarised into grades which are a very low resolution image of a person. If you get a B in Computer Science does that mean you were generally ‘average’, or are you an exceptional programmer with a weakness in some other part of the syllabus that isn’t relevant to the job at hand? Even if a student is amongst the top of their class, a lot of important information is lost. Alan and I both have identical degree qualifications (First Class Honours Computer Science), but Alan is a much better programmer than Danny and Danny is much better at computer security. We believe accreditation should allow employers to see for themselves exactly what skills and knowledge people have and for summaries (grades) to be context dependent.

Credentials are headed the same way as the encyclopedia page. We think anyone should be able to make their own credential and that the community, using peer-review and reputational networks, can determine and maintain quality. Individual credentials (just like Wikipedia articles) will need a critical eye cast over them, aided by the community. This way, any skill, area of knowledge or learning activity can be credible rather than just those developed in particular institutions and all of this can be done for free. So just like our knowledge is becoming accredited by the community at large through efforts like Wikipedia, so too will our credentials, certificates and diplomas.

WA – Certifications such as the CFA, CPA and Six Sigma seem to show how certifications can matter professionally. How will your idea evolve other learning to accomplish that? 

DK – We think it’s actually not the learning that needs to evolve – there is already excellent content out there and many people are studying superbly. It’s the accreditation that needs to evolve. Great learning is happening outside of accredited institutions all the time but there is no credible way to capture most of that. This is why are are so passionate about credentialing and why we founded Accredible. Our dream is to make all learning, skills or expertise matter professionally, regardless of where or how they were obtained. By shifting the emphasis away from where you learned something and towards what you learned people can start to self-certify any learning they do, regardless of whether it happened inside a school or a home. We are tackling this by reimagining the idea of the certificate to be more than just a name, grade and institution, but a living portfolio of evidence that you have certain knowledge or skills. By showing all this effort that went into a course, rather than just a grade, in a simple digital certificate you can add credibility to other types of learning – anyone who doubts you can simply see your proof for themselves. We have students that attach all their notes, assignments, exams (recorded) and even videos of themselves explaining key concepts in a course. For recruiters that are too busy to look in depth at this evidence, we summarise each certificate into a credibility score based on community feedback and on the evidence you have uploaded. Our users have made some wonderful examples which are in our gallery.

WA – The key seems to be employers recognizing the value of certifications. It won’t happen overnight… especially with the existing college degrees well-entrenched and very measurable. What needs to happen?

DK – This is an important question. We need better tools to showcase talent and we need case studies of successful self-learners getting great jobs. Many talented (or potentially talented) people don’t fit into the existing model of higher education in both the developing and developed worlds but they are increasingly getting access to the kind of learning material they would get at an Ivy League college for free. Given the right tools, if they want to excel they could showcase their learning and join the talent pool. But that won’t take us all the way. There’s a phrase that used to be repeated in the PC industry: ‘nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.’ It used to be that IBM were the expensive but safe option to buy computers for businesses. There were computers many times cheaper (and arguably better) on the market, but the IBMs were tried and tested. If you bought an alternative brand and it failed, you’d be fired for buying an inferior product, but if you bought IBM and it failed – well that wasn’t your fault – it was an IBM! College degrees will become the IBM computer and self-taught students the untested alternative. To overcome this, we simply need case studies of successful self-taught students who perform well in respected organisations. We need many more Scott Youngs (who learned an entire MIT CS degree in one year) and Jonathan Harbers (currently learning a liberal arts bachelors in one year) who then go on to excel in industry. We are working with several other education companies on finding and providing support to students like them to get great jobs. Startups are the best place to start. They often are more focused on ability of new hires than where they studied and they can’t afford to make a wrong hire, so more detail of what candidates can do would be very valuable during the hiring process.

WA – What do you think colleges & universities will look like in a new landscape 20 years from now?

DK – We hope they don’t change dramatically. College was a very formational time for both of us. We don’t think that MOOCs will replace the majority of colleges and universities – we think they will strengthen teaching and allow teachers to focus where they can excel; on supporting learning rather than creating and broadcasting content. Students will always want to learn communally and have access to the excellent resources that colleges and universities can provide. Great academics often make lousy teachers and using MOOCs as a ‘plug & play’ solution to teaching the more elementary courses could provide a much more engaging and higher quality learning experience, which can then be refined through hands-on mentoring at higher levels. What will change is the fact that college education is the only practical way to become accredited in a particular domain, despite not being the only way to become knowledgeable in one. There are many demographics that universities do not aim to serve and self-study is often ideally suited for these people, especially given recent advancements in quality content. Part-time parents, late bloomers, underserved communities and students in developing nations can now study from the best much more flexibly and cheaply. We think that once the infrastructure is fully developed, online and non-institutional learning (i.e. self-study) will become a viable alternative to college in part or in whole. Of course, those who attend a well-regarded college will still be more likely to develop creditworthy expertise but motivated and dedicated self-learners who do become genuinely as knowledgeable will be on par with their life chances. The focus will finally be on the quality and quantity of learning and not on the brand of an institution and this is the dream we are dedicating our careers to achieving.




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Five Questions With An EdTech CEO: Will Certificates Succeed? | WiredAcademic | Flexibility Enables Learning
Apr 22, 2013

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