One of the many unrealized promises of the last decade or so has been the idea that the types of credentials available to student – micro-credentials, stacked credentials Coursera-style “ specializations ”, whatever – would proliferate. Certainly, the world would probably be a better place if there more alternatives to diplomas, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, but the problem is that for a new credential to gain traction, it must have a labour-market value (otherwise why would students pay money to obtain one)? For it to have labour-market value, employers need some clue what the credential means, so they can value it.
And that, friends, is the hard part. If you could launch a new type of credential with huge fanfare and massive information campaigns and seminars and whatnot, then that would be one thing. But as anyone who’s struggled over the past 20 years trying to get Ontario businesses to pay attention to “applied” degrees can tell you, that just doesn’t happen. Institutions and governments either don’t have the energy, resources, or marketing genius (or all three) to make that happen in a simple way. This “barrier to entry” gives an enormous advantage to those universities and colleges, which have legal monopolies (or close to it) over diplomas and degrees. This is one of the reasons we have seen few challenges to existing methods of provision in higher education.
It recently occurred to me that there is one organization that probably does have the power to start the world down this path, and that’s LinkedIn. Now I know many people roll their eyes at LinkedIn – certainly I find it a weird tool and don’t really understand why people I’ve never met keep asking to become a “contact” (why? What’s the advantage?) – but it has a lot of users and more to the point it has had an enormous standardization effect on certain aspects of the hiring process, particularly with the presentation of skills and experiences in what used to be called a CV.
So, LinkedIn on its own can’t do much. But two years ago, it bought Lynda.com (now just LinkedIn Learning), which is a site that provides courses and digital tutorials (i.e. canned content, a bit like Khan Academy) mostly with a tech focus with a few language courses. This means LinkedIn, the company that owns a copy of most white collar CVs, knows whether you’ve tried to master certain skills. It doesn’t know if you’ve actually mastered them. But what if it did? Can you imagine how compelling having a CV which provided brand-name certification of certain skills would be?
To do that, LinkedIn would need to find cheap and simple ways of testing skills attached to its tutorials. Now, LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, which, while not as mighty as it was 20 years ago, is sitting on $142 billion in cash. So, imagine that Microsoft decides to go on a mission. It tries to buy a company that specializes in developing tests, like Riverside Publishing, or – if it wants to go crazy – buy out Pearson’s testing unit or even ETS. With that arsenal in tow, it could get to work linking skills to CVs directly. In effect, passing a Lydia.com course becomes a brand-name-certified microcredential (with, presumably, a lot of explainer links for employers needing to understand these credentials).
What about extending the direct-skills-to-CV process to post-secondary education? What if, say, LinkedIn/Microsoft buys Coursera, one of the major current providers of microcredentials? Coursera might be folded into a MegaLinkedIn that started applying some of its testing technology to courses offered by Coursera university partners (which would involve some interesting exchanges with those partners, some fruitful, some caustic). But more importantly, now those courses and specializations? They get linked directly into your CV, too, with that same brand-name certification and set of explainers.
(To push this idea a little beyond microcredentials, we could also imagine MegaLinkedIn taking over a company like Parchment, which specializes in taking institutional transcripts and putting them into XML formats for ease of transfer. Now your entire university/college transcript can be linked directly to your CV. Your degree is from outside North America? No problem. MegaLinkedIn also just bought WES, a credential evaluation service. Now your CV comes with a certification of your foreign credential and potted descriptions of the local equivalencies to that degree).
LinkedIn probably isn’t going to do this, because it doesn’t have the money. One could also imagine Amazon or Facebook taking these companies over and trying to build a conglomerate. The company that could develop a product with information on this set of skills could conceivably assess the talents of every person who chose to provide their information. It would be an HR/staffing behemoth in no time at all. (yes, yes, it would be a privacy nightmare, but that ship sailed with Facebook a long time ago).
More to the point, because it would have such a commanding position in the HR/staffing business, it could literally impose micro-credentials on employers. Employers wouldn’t need to figure out what every new micro-credential meant and how to value it: MegaLinkedIn could tell every employer instantly about the average career trajectories of people who take every new credential and what the average bump in salary is (they’d need to buy a company like Burning Glass to make that work better, but that’s chicken feed compared to some of the other purchases we’ve talked about here). That whole problem of working out how to value degrees? Gone. Poof.
Suddenly, microcredentials would work. And existing degree and diploma programs would finally have some serious competition.
Not saying it’s going to happen. But it could. It’s a scenario to start thinking about, anyway.