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January 05 2012

15:20

In the Digital Age, How Much Is Informal Education Worth?

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You can learn anything you want on the Internet, so the adage goes. But even if that's true, even if it's now easier than ever to learn about almost any subject online, there are still very few opportunities to gain formal recognition -- "credit," if you will -- for informal learning done online.

In September, the Mozilla Foundation launched its Open Badges Project, an effort to develop a technology framework that would make it easier to build, display and share digital learning badges. These badges are meant to showcase and recognize all kinds of skills and competencies -- subject matter expertise as college degrees are meant to indicate, for example, as well as "soft skills" that aren't so easily apparent based on traditional forms of credentialing. (We examined some of the technology infrastructure of the Open Badges Project in a story earlier this year.)

When the Mozilla Foundation announced the Open Badges Project, it was in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC, as "Badges for Lifelong Learning" is the theme of this year's Digital Media and Learning Competition, an annual contest that supports research of how digital technologies are changing the way we learn and work. Onstage at the formal unveiling of the Open Badges Project were representatives from not just Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, but from the Departments of Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs, NASA, as well as other businesses.

When the Open Badges Project was first announced, some educators questioned whether "badges" were a form of gamification of education, just another way, they said, to force learners to think more about certification and credentialing than about the learning process itself. But participation in the Open Badge Project from businesses and agencies like the Department of Labor has given it credibility. And whether we like it or not, many learners are extrinsically motivated to pursue certain educational endeavors -- they need skills and often certification in order to demonstrate their mastery to employers.

But what will it mean for employers?

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But even with the Department of Labor's involvement in the Open Badges Project and in the DML Competition, will employers recognize badges?

As informal learning opportunities grow, gaining employers' recognition and acceptance may well be one of the most important challenges of the coming years.

Having a formal degree -- whether it's a high school or a college diploma -- still carries the most weight with employers, and in some ways, badges may simply serve to complement these. But even with the emphasis on degrees, having some way to highlight other skills, competencies, and experiences is important in setting one potential hire apart from another. Indeed, many job descriptions do frame the necessity of a college degree this way -- "or equivalent experience" -- so the task ahead for the Mozilla Open Badges project will be, in part, to be seen as a valid "equivalent."

A number of the badges that were submitted to the DML Competition, for example, serve to highlight the accomplishments of teens. As youth unemployment remains high -- 16.8% in the U.S. and upwards of 50% in Spain -- alternate forms of credentialing might be able to help those without any higher education and often without substantial work experience find ways to showcase the skills they do possess.

Similarly, a badge proposal from the Department of Veterans Affairs -- Badges for Vets -- may help veterans translate their military experience into civilian job skills.

On the cusp

While badges might help employers better identify and recruit qualified employees, there are still some questions about whether this would actually function any differently than current hiring practices. But a shift may already be underway, evident in other new forms of credentialing that the Internet is providing. The recent announcement from MIT about its plans to offer a certificate for its new online learning initiative is just one indication that informal learning is on the cusp of more formal recognition.

This is already happening, to a certain extent, in the tech industry where the right programming skills aren't necessarily correlated to college degrees. (It's quite possible, for example, to have your bachelor's in Computer Science and not know a particular programming language.) Stack Overflow, for example, launched a job recruitment site this year, allowing job hunters to highlight not just their resume but to showcase their best answers from the larger Q&A website. And TopCoder, another tech company, offers programming competitions whereby participants have long had the ability to share their scores with potential employers, something that CTO Mike Lyons said is helpful during job searches: "Rather than saying 'look me up,' people have this transportable widget at their website."

Showcasing these sorts of accomplishments on one's own website is becoming increasingly important as job applicants find ways to leverage their online presence -- their blogs, digital portfolios, LinkedIn recommendations and the like -- knowing that employers are prone to Google them. As such, it seems clear that the resume of the future will likely contain lots of digital links, whether they're Open Badges or otherwise. What's less clear is how much of this digital profile will matter to employers, or if they'll still look for that formal piece of paper, a college degree.

Open education advocate and university professor David Wiley is optimistic. "Say I'm Google," he wrote on his blog, "and I need to hire an engineer. My job ad requirement says 'BS in Computer Science or equivalent.' I get two applicants. The first has a BS in Computer Science from XYZ State College. The second has certificates of successful completion for open courses in data structures and algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning from Stanford and MITx. Do you think I'll seriously consider candidate two? You bet I will."

But Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is less certain that the Open Badges Project, in its current manifestation at least whereby anyone can create a badge and offer a credential, will actually mean anything to employers:

If a "badge" is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I'm not likely to take it seriously, and most others won't either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill "degrees," the whole endeavor will -- obviously, I think -- not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of "badges," but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Of course, we have a long way to go before badges are ubiquitous the same way that college degrees are. As it currently stands, the Open Badges Project is too young to elicit much attention from human resources departments. (The HR officials I talked to hadn't heard of the project.) But as alternative credentialing efforts -- whether from Stack Overflow or from MIT -- take off, it's likely to be an issue that more employers (and employees and higher education institutions) are going to have to face.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.



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June 28 2010

20:31

Free Online Journalism Classes Begin To Gain Ground

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

The CEO of Creative Commons, Joi Ito, is currently teaching a free online journalism class through Peer 2 Peer University, an online community of "open study groups for short university-level courses." The online class syncs with a graduate-level class Ito teaches at Keio University in Japan, and features a UStream presentation and IRC chat once a week.

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IRC chat? Yes, the class glues together tools like UStream and IRC, and the platform, which was built on a Drupal base, continues to evolve. P2PU's organizers make it clear they know the tools aren't perfect, so they're using feedback from participants to refine things as they go.

I joined the class at the last minute. The New York Times had written about P2PU in April, as well as other open learning communities outside of traditional institutions. I stumbled across the article while searching the word "edupunks."

A Proposal

The concept of providing coaching outside of traditional educational institutions has fascinated me for close to a year. I'm focused on how professional journalists can share their knowledge with new creators of online content, be they "citizen journalists," neighborhood activists or seasoned newspaper people working on building online skills.

In the fall, I submitted a Knight News Challenge proposal for an online class, 260 Open, with face-to-face components. Students would have been required to produce coverage of civic events, and experienced journalists would have edited their work closely. The concept was designed to not only spread civic knowledge, media literacy and strong journalism skills, but also to increase the amount of news coverage in particular communities.

moodle-logo.gifI proposed that the class use Moodle, an open source learning management system that has been adopted for institutional use in many places, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College. (In the end, I didn't receive a News Challenge grant.)

Then, in May, I pitched the concept at the news entrepreneur boot camp held at the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California. One strength of that pitch was that many others at the boot camp are building news organizations with educational components to broaden the capacity of communities to help cover their own news.

What I needed, though, was a proven business model with customers who can pay.

Certainly, many large media companies are seeking help from their respective communities in covering the news, and the need exists to improve skills in communities that have lost local news coverage. But finding actual paying customers willing to support classes for the public good is a tough nut to crack. As large companies rush to create content to wrap around new online local ads for small businesses, though, perhaps the business model will become clearer.

P2PU

In contrast, P2PU isn't focusing on the business model at the moment. Instead, organizers are building a community, refining tools and experimenting. That's inspiring.

P2PU co-founder Jan Philipp Schmidt explains the concept of the online school:

In fact, Mozilla teamed up with Hacks & Hackers in a collaboration launched at Knight's recent Future of News and Civic Media conference to use P2PU to allow programmers to teach journalists and journalists to teach programmers. Mozilla and P2PU are also launching the School of Webcraft, with a call for course proposals by July 18.

P2PU's current journalism class has shown me that perhaps it's possible to just start, with imperfect tools, even before funding or business models are clear.

In Charlotte, where I'm based, media folks have demonstrated a commitment to peer coaching and support with some journo/bloggers meetups. We just started holding them, with little regard to organizational structure. David Cohn of Spot.Us showed up via Skype for one meeting.

P2PU shows that possibilities exist. It demonstrates the power of asynchronous communication and online tools for learning, as students in Japan go to class at 9 a.m. on a Monday and I listen and watch at 8 p.m. on a Sunday, at the same time. It's quite a time shifter, right out of "Harry Potter."

What's Next

What I'd like to see next: Take the concept to local communities, with tools that individuals can use to easily create independent, civic journalism courses. Those classes could be augmented with local meetups to strengthen ties and build strong networks. Local journalists familiar with the civic and social nuances of particular communities would add unmatched value.

Perhaps there's a business model in there somewhere. But, more importantly, the concept provides more tools for journalists to share knowledge and perhaps help sustain themselves as teachers and coaches, while broadening the capacity for communities to tell their own stories.

Maybe we can make it so. What do you think?

Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She is @underoak on Twitter.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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