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?


10 thoughts on “Micro-credentials

  1. Actuaries have something like this with their exam system.

    Of course, they’re not an example of an efficient market because they restrict supply (one of the few remaining guilds in the US… basically them and MDs and veterinarians).

    1. I think medical procedures would be an interesting thing for a merit badge system. We need more supply of people able to do certain common medical activities with an aging population, and the med school system massively restricts supply.

      1. Where I live, the need for more people who can do common medical activities is also being filled in part by Medical Assistants (who generally need a high school diploma, plus some brief training – a cohort that could be ripe for micro-credentialing in the future). My state has passed laws to restrict what MAs can do, making it so only RNs can do various medical activities the MAs did only a few years ago, such as placing a catheter.

  2. LinkedIn is getting at something like this with its endorsements. You put up a list of skills and people endorse you for them. Right now it’s pretty rudimentary, but I think it could be made more useful if the lists actually corresponded to more widely agreed-upon microcredentials. So an endorsement that you were good in, say, “molecular biology,” would mean something to others looking at your profile.

    1. His comment about brain plasticity reveals an ignorant (and unfortunate) misconception about the brain that is apparently widely held. The brains of 40-year-olds are not less plastic than those of 20-year-olds. I’d be curious how he thinks a microcredential would address that misconception.

      1. There is some evidence that age discrimination in hiring is lessened when the older person shows additional education/skills on a resume. Could that be what he is referring to? Employer perceptions?

        1. @NicoleandMaggie- A lot of age discrimination does stem from the idea that an old dog can’t learn new tricks — that older workers won’t have the same energy for training or be willing to pay their dues, or what have you. But it is interesting that he used the phrase brain plasticity. I’m hoping Karen will comment more on this.

      2. @Karen- I’m interested to learn more about this as misconception. Back when my oldest child was a baby, we kept hearing from people how easy it was for children to learn language. But our thought was that it wasn’t that easy — it took almost two years from first words to being able to convey thoughts mostly coherently — and if we, as adults, had multiple people constantly focusing on us and repeating words slowly and cheering every attempt to pronounce a word, we’d be able to learn another language too. Certainly when my husband worked in Norway before we met, no one was coaching him that closely on Norwegian.

        1. There are a couple of different issues here. Your point about children vs. adults and language is very interesting and worth an entire discussion on its own. But even if we grant that the brain of young children is quite different from that of adults, that says nothing about the 20-year-old (late adolescent) brain vs. the 40-50-year-old (middle aged) brain.

          It’s true that children are still forming connections between neurons and also pruning connections that are ineffective. Children’s brains are also undergoing a massive level of cell death. This selective pruning and dying appears to be necessary to form efficient connections between brain areas (one of the problems in autism may be extra neurons that don’t die off when they are supposed to; schizophrenia may also be caused, in part, by faulty pruning during development). But all that is essentially over before age 7 or 8, or even earlier–the majority is before age 3.

          The maturing that is going on later has more to do with myelination and refinement of synapses. So it’s also true that the adolescent brain is different than the adult brain, but usually we speak of that in terms of challenges: adolescents have more trouble with executive function, with planning ahead, with seeing and understanding future consequences of their actions. This is because their frontal cortex is not fully mature until the late teens, or sometimes into the early 20’s (it varies between individuals, and males on average take longer than females). One would think that employers would generally prefer to *not* have these adolescent-type brain characteristics in their employees.

          There is mild age-related decline in short-term memory and executive function (not plasticity) that starts around age 40, but it’s really quite mild and is compensated for by increased abilities in seeing larger patterns, drawing connections, and emotional resilience, among other things. In the absence of dementia or other organic brain diseases, the cognitive decline is really quite minor, and it’s unrelated to “plasticity”. Even the elderly have the capacity to learn and change and strengthen synapses with practice and training.

          If employers are looking for youth-related “brain plasticity” that makes learning easier, they’re going to have to hire 5-year-olds.

    2. @Karen – this does get at the idea. Right now in social media, everything is so uniformly positive, there isn’t quite the same rigor that one would hope a good microcredentialing system would have. But someone could develop this, and I think that social media companies are poised to best be involved in a merit badge system, because that’s how many people would choose to display their badges — in a medium where other people they care about could see them.

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