Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U: Edpunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education has been the source of debate since is was published in 2010. As Academically Adrift caused the community to look at issues of quality, DIY U has caused the community to look at the use of open education and the necessity of linking the learning aspect of education with credentialing. You may recall, at the US-India Higher Education Conference last November, Sam Pitroda, the Adviser to the Indian Prime Minister on Public Information, Infrastructure & Innovations, raised similar concerns, “question[ing] the need for diplomas and certificates and endors[ing] a model where students can take courses from different universities as part of learning.” Last week, Bob Shireman, the former Deputy Undersecretary of Education at the US Department of Education, suggested that the California Student Aid Commission “develop ideas for ways the state could encourage methods of credentialing for learning outside of the traditional colleges.” Even today, Campus Technology has an interesting discussion among three open source learning leaders about DIY U and how it might work.
On the other side, you have regulatory hurdles that present serious obstacles to decoupling learning from credentialing. Federal laws and regulations mandate, for example, the accreditation of institutions, rather than of programs, making DIY degrees difficult to navigate – and more so given complex transfer credit rules. Then you have commentators, states, and the Obama Administration trying to reward students and institutions based on success measures like graduation rates. Coming full circle, even some accreditors are considering incorporating graduation-proficiency assessments.
Although there can and will always be a place for brick and mortar institutions, it would be surprising if higher education could stave off DIY degrees. The advent of online education has allowed students to pursue more and more student-centric educational options. It is only a short step from taking classes at times and places of a student’s choosing to having a student demand to be taught by specific professors or designing the elements of their personal education. Such models can have great value. If sufficiently rigorous, it seems likely that students will be more engaged in their education and, presumably, get more from their classes.
Of course, so long as education policy and regulation forces students to work within specific institutions — either as a quality control (via accreditation) or to protect the government’s investment in student aid (via success metrics) — students will not be able to effectively design their education or, at least, will face significant hurdles to doing so. Degree-seeking students taking courses at multiple institutions would be at the mercy of, what is often, Byzantine credit transfer policies. Further, as students move from school to school, the government will be less able to track success — however defined — and thus student aid could be at risk.
One solution would be, as Mr. Shireman suggests, for states to develop competency tests that could provide the sought-after credential. Such an idea has merit as far as it goes. Students could theoretically take classes from a variety of sources and achieve the desired degree. While there are practical issues that complicate this proposal — would each major have its own test? — there may be ways to incorporate this idea for certain disciplines.
Another solution would be for schools to create uniform transfer of credit policies, perhaps for schools with the same accreditors.
Perhaps another would be to create an institution that exists to, in essence, pass judgment on courses from various formats to determine if such courses are worth of credit towards a degree. Such an institution would confer the degree and, in the process, act as an “accreditor” of sorts, for individual courses. Of course, with necessary changes, you could create such an accreditor — similar to the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.
While there are more ideas to be explored in the future – massive online consortia, perhaps? - the DIY degree is likely to be a feature of higher education from some time. With Higher Education Act re-authorization around the corner, lawmakers will hopefully be looking at ways to foster this concept rather then destroy such innovation through burdensome regulations.