As part of the project I’m doing on digital learning, I got to interview Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) yesterday. I wrote about The Math of Khan for City Journal last year, and now I’m working on a short guidebook for philanthropists on investing in enterprises like Khan’s, or in schools or other programs that use “blended learning” models (part online/part teacher).
In preparation for the interview, I read Khan’s new book, The One World Schoolhouse. The chapters — much like his videos! — are bite sized explorations of a variety of topics. One of my favorite? Micro-credentials. Long-time blog readers know I’ve been talking about this idea a lot lately in the form of merit badges for life.
Khan thinks micro-credentials could revolutionize education. A micro-credential — saying one is proficient in a certain skill — granted by a respected authority, “would actually tell employers who is best ready to contribute at their organizations based on metrics that they find important,” Khan writes. College is great, but he thinks that “college will become something similar to an MBA. It will be optional. You can have a very successful career without it, but it is a great life experience that will probably help if you can afford the time and money.” Micro-credentials would level the playing field, showing that someone who went to a lesser-known college has the same skill in a certain area as someone who went to a name brand college. Or “it would allow a forty-year-old laid-off factory worker to show that they still have the analytical skills and brain plasticity to work alongside twenty-two-year-old college grads in a twenty-first-century job. It would allow anyone, in any field, to better themselves and prepare for valuable credentials without the sacrifice of money and time that today’s higher education demands.”
A lot of people like the idea. The problem is that no one has really developed a good micro-credential or merit badge system yet. A few people are angling at it in some obtuse ways. Khan Academy is exploring it. The good thing about technology is that a micro-credential granting authority could administer assessments broadly, and content can be delivered cheaply too. A lot of money is going into remedial math classes for young (or not-so-young) people attending community colleges, so that’s a ripe area for a micro-credential for people whose high schools did not adequately prepare them.
One of the reasons I like the merit badge/micro-credential idea is that it advances us toward the perfect labor market. Capital markets are relatively smooth. As one dollar is much like another, funds move quickly toward where they might be well-deployed. People are “sticky.” There are great mismatches between jobs, skills and passions. This is wasteful when people’s talents aren’t well used. But because people are not all the same, employers rely too much on signals (like where you went to school, or that the hiring manager knows your uncle) that have some benefits, but are inexact. A trusted micro-credential would be a more efficient signaling device.
And as a side benefit, being able to better yourself in small chunks that are publicly acknowledged is really motivational. I got way into earning badges as a Girl Scout — I found it more motivating than more nebulous school work undertaken in pursuit of a broad credential issued 10 years later.
What skills in your industry would be ripe for merit badges? What kind of merit badge would you find impressive on a resume?