By: David K. Moldoff

Higher Ed is Scattered Brained

The difficulty comparing and valuing formal post-secondary learning opportunities – alongside the investment/payback is very difficult given the dispersion of information and varied forms expressed throughout the higher ed ecosystem. Are we “scatter brained”? Know that may be harsh, since scatter brain is “a person who is incapable of serious thought or concentration”. This condition is a result of circumstance and not capability. But, given how the industry is loosely governed and promoted, I think it is fair to say we don’t make it easy for the majority of consumers or stakeholders to be organized or focused on how to navigate alternatives or comparability.

I have been behind the scenes serving higher ed for four decades as a technologist ( data and system architect ) – and been through the “purchase” process for my family and many friends enough to see the challenge from an individual, family or external stakeholders such as a potential employer like my company. I am always seeking to cultivate talent and guide life-long prosperity for those I meet. Higher ed, will always be stratified. It is not like K12 or for that matter any other industry. Outcomes vary greatly. As a result, it is a very complex and confusing marketplace.

Generally, like consumers of other products or services, learners initially look mostly at surface level labels and attributes to approximate outcomes mapped by association and familiarity. The subjectivity covers a huge area of thoughts leading to feelings – which then lead to decisions. It’s like cycling through my cable tv channel lineup that seems to go on endlessly without enough information, so I infer from the initial display, the number of “stars”, or summary words or view the trailer. Not all of it is logical or straightforward. But like other large and complex purchases, like buying a house, consumers are left to shop, find, compare and weigh the attributes exposed publicly by institutions or others motivated to serve the market aka college navigator, scorecard, search portals or recruiting sites.

Like ratings, we gravitate to expressions important to our own interpretation or affinity. Thus, the movement and focus on digital credentials and competencies continues to garner lots of attention because it is easier to talk about the means to present a certificate or diploma than it is to discuss how we can engineer programs of study – track measures and progress to fulfill requirements that can shift because of the focus. I can’t tell you how many times I run into posts and articles on #blockchain in higher ed – and how it will revolutionize the industry – given the perception of openness, sharing and security – linked back to source or origination of credentials that are still troubling to compare, value and judge goodness of fit for a person.

Transforming high ed offerings to competencies and outcomes has been like a sea of change idea – but knee deep. It’s not like ocean thousands of feet in depth. What do I mean? Well, institutions are tagging courses with competencies and inferring the outcomes assembled from the course completion matrix of a learner (using the transcript). They can auto generate outcomes in other words. But, those outcome measures are not actual or specific or reflective of the learner as talent development would desire and expect, similar to performance reviews augmented over one’s employment. The outcome measures are summarized.

Programs of study leading to credentials should be better expressed in terms of what they mean to the prospective learners and stakeholders who will weigh the merits of the credential if awarded. Short descriptions are not enough. The ingredients or requirements are planned in curriculum design. Requirements are outlined with prerequisites and expectations. Outcomes are outlined. But, this detail, like in many other circumstances, could be overwhelming and distracting. This leads many to look for proxies or surrogates that measure and simplify to a number or ranking or grade – much like US News has ranked top business schools or top liberal arts, etc. The rankings become valued by those who seek them to satisfy their affinity interest – and comfort. Prospects can be ranked as well, but ho certain competencies are measured before enrollment. Athletics does it by sport – like measuring an athlete’s 60 year dash or how high one can leap forward standing still.

Have you heard of Credential Engine (#credengine)? It’s a new lexicon and eventual registry that can help the higher ed industry define the “inputs” or “ingredients” making up learning opportunities and offerings linked to outcomes. Credential Engine is funded by the Lumina Foundation - and has some pretty heavy hitters helping launch a unified initiative bringing focus on the nuts and bolts in learning sources. Like a constructor set, Credential Engine enables the parts to be defined. Once mapped to career, graduation outcomes or workforce expectations, we can then garner much more meaning comparing learning sources. Yet, the attention with thought leaders trying to transform the eco-system to be more responsive with Credential Engine – and productive, will have a long hype cycle – since nothing moves that fast.

Ingredients and inputs will define the meaning of what we produce. So, join the effort in defining your programs of study, course work and credentials by innovating how your institution or system or service conveys what is designed and intended. Employ the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL) (to annotate your learning opportunities so that when the Registry is posted, learners and consumers will be able to compare. We would be glad to discuss how best to approach building and mapping your curriculum to take advantage of the Credential Engine using our tools. This is all expected to un-scatter the brains behind higher ed – through greater organization, common dictionary and alignment.