Sunday, September 29, 2013

Badge Movements and the Professional Model for Higher Education

It has taken me longer to get to this than anticipated, but here is my first attempt to synthesize the professional higher education model and the badge model now in development. Please forgive me for its length (3000 words).  It assumes the reader is familiar with the professional model for higher education.  If this is not the case then please consult, The New Tender.  This is cross-posted at HASTAC.

The Professional Model and Recognition of Badges
Institutions do not educate but provide support to individuals that do educate.  The professional model fully embraces this fact and maintains that institutions (universities and colleges) are not required as support for higher education.  The observation that other vital personal services such as legal, medical, engineering, and accounting can be provided through professional society and licensure is reason to believe the same can be done for all forms of higher education, from 2-year colleges to 4-year research universities, covering all subjects in faculties from the Humanities to the Sciences.

Whether it is the replacement or recombination of universities and colleges with professional society and licensed practice, this alternative model champions the necessity and primacy of individuals over institutions in higher education.

As to recognition, even though my mother has expertise in thermodynamics she has not acquired this knowledge through formal education or employment that apply pre-determined credential criteria and so she enjoys no public recognition as an expert.  Consequently any badges she might issue, as opposed to those issued by a publicly recognized MIT body, are not likely to carry much weight on the education or employment market – even though I am (many years later) fully satisfied she provided a proper education in the subject. My interest is only in those badge system intended for use at the postsecondary level of formal education and how their recognition might be aided by the professional model.

In this context, what is “recognition?”

The first general note is that the sort of recognition under discussion is a public phenomenon – even in the case between mother and son.  The second is that recognition is a relative phenomenon – relative to time, place, group, purpose, subject and other considerations.

More specifically, as with degrees, diplomas, and certificates, badges are symbols meant to represent educational achievement that require recognition, the public and relative nature of which is dependent on at least three value-determining factors: 1) the pre-determined criteria of the credential (e.g., criteria for a badge in planetary thermodynamics); 2) the evaluation used to determine satisfaction of the criteria; and 3) the identification of the credential issuer.

Under the professional model there are two means of establishing badge recognition based on these factors: 1) Professional Licensure and 2) Objective Crowd-Evaluation.

Input Resources and Quality Improvement: Professional Licensure
This is a professional response to the third factor that impacts recognition of badges: the identification of the issuer of the credential.

Under the institutional model the official credential issuers are universities or colleges and their recognition (or identification) is in part established through accreditation.  In turn, as resources permit, academics are selected (or employed) by accredited universities and colleges to provide their services to students who pursue educational goals through the hire of institutions that facilitate it all.
The process that accredits institutions to select academics measures resource input and its quality improvement well beyond that of (minimum) faculty employment qualifications.  Based on pre-determined criteria, accreditation assesses the sufficiency and efficiency of institutional operation and finance, covering everything from lecture and lab facilities to the number of support staff and administration.  If an institution has inadequate resources or uses them inefficiently then its accreditation is jeopardized.

This institutional complex imposes a bottle-neck on public access to educators (and their right to earn a living), while accreditation is neither granted nor maintained on the basis of education output (i.e., how good a job institutions and their employees are doing of educating students).  This is not the place to hang a badge.

As with other professions, the academic one I have in mind relies instead upon peer agreement that an individual satisfies (minimum) pre-determined criteria for membership in the profession, thus licensing (or identifying) them to offer higher education (in designated fields and subject to conditions of membership in good standing, state regulation and market forces). 

Like universities and colleges, professions identify individuals to provide service – be it legal counsel or higher education – but unlike these institutions they do not also provide employ in that service.  The one means of earning a living is a profession of financially independent peers that approve, support, discipline and represent each other in society, while the other is a state-dependent institution with approval from without to hire employees that typically opt for union representation.

This alternative is a more compact complex of professional academic society primarily concerned with the establishment and application of criteria that identify individuals for licensure to practice higher education independent of limited institutional employ and accreditation that is unnecessary where professional licensure is in effect.  And like existing professions there is support (not employ) available to all members in the form of business counseling, professional development and opportunity for community service (inter alia) - each an input resource and element of quality improvement in any practice and an assumed responsibility of the professional society.

In combination with professional licensure and support, there is the personal incentive of individual members to operate an effective and efficient private practice, since career and livelihood depend on its financial health and reputation – analogous to that of a legal and medical practice, or a university and college for that matter (though on a much smaller scale).  By contrast to the institutional employee and by comparison to the professional entrepreneur, academics must be conscientious and critical in the use of tools and services that measure the input resources and quality improvement of their practice (including those offered by their professional society).

In this way the process of licensure through professional society is akin to that of institutional accreditation in terms of its focus on input and quality improvement (where maintenance of the license is concerned).  It is distinct in that licensure identifies individuals, not institutions, as educators and issuers of credentials, exercising authority and aid closer to the relevant point of service.  Though both share the crucial functions of selection and support, in the case of accreditation the functions are applied to institutions and only indirectly to individuals, while licensure eliminates accreditation of institutions and directly selects individuals for professional membership and support in private practice.

In short, the middleman institutions of higher education and their input and improvement accreditation systems are replaced by professional society and licensure charged with more narrowly specialized input and improvement functions, more in tune with the original utility of accreditation service as aid to institutional (or in this case private practice) distinction and development, coupled with a more incentivized point of service.

Under the professional model the issuer (of a badge) is recognized through licensure and supported through society membership in the establishment of a viable practice and good reputation.  Of course like trust or reliability, reputation is something that accrues over time, tested in word and deed.

To address the role of practice reputation in the establishment of badge recognition we turn to the two remaining effective factors: 1) the pre-determined credential criteria for a badge; 2) the evaluation of their satisfaction.

These are considered distinct operations under the institutional model for higher education – one manufactured input the other measured output.  The professional means of quality assurance, including the measure of educator competence, is focused on evaluation and recommends an objective form that smears the traditional distinction between the manufactured and the measured.

Quality Assurance: Objective Crowd-Evaluation
Having provided at least cursory answer to the question of how to select and support who will educate and issue badges, attention can now focus on practice reputation as a contributor to badge recognition.  As indicated, reputation is an attribute of both the credential criteria for the badge and the evaluation used to determine satisfaction of those criteria.

Any badge system that simply grafts itself onto the current model for higher education would be affected by the dominance of institutional accreditation and subjective evaluation practices in ways that limit badge scope, innovation and reputation.  By contrast the professional model provides opportunity to expand badges along these lines.

As indicated, professional licensure reduces recognition of who provides higher education to the individual practitioner and recognition of the credential to that offered in a course (assumed to be the smallest unit of service or credential denomination in the model).  The reach of recognition provided by accreditation is superficial by contrast, with the identification and all-or-nothing approval of whole institutions (or programs) based on self-reports and the occasional measure of input resources and their management by authorities.

In the professional circumstance, since distinct though interdependent educational and vocational goals hang in the balance, evaluation becomes a genuine mutual interest of student and academic.  Recognizing the obvious apparent and actual conflicts of interest subjective evaluation presents to either model, to better establish reputation sufficient for recognition the professional recommends objective crowd-evaluation.

Under this evaluation the typically distinct functions of manufacturing credential criteria and measuring outcomes based on those criteria are more intimately united in an effective quality assurance mechanism that: 1) Adjusts evaluation to act as a more effective measure of both student and academic; 2) Augments the possible credential distinctions in higher education; 3) Allows and aids innovation in education; 4) Assigns primacy to the academic/student relationship; and 5) Adds meaningful public reporting of crucial system information.
Badges backed by this professional brand of evaluation could provide recognition that independently spans the local, national and international landscape of higher education or be coupled to existing institutional systems, with distinctions in recognizable educational achievement as fine as the course (or some portion thereof).

Consider first the objectivity required to realize these advantages.  For material not amenable to the inherent objectivity of mechanical evaluation, an academic other than the instructor performs all evaluation that determines what (if any) credential is issued to a student (e.g., P/F or alpha-numeric or badge).  Instructors are free to provide informal evaluation as they see fit, but all formal evaluation is performed by another professional member.  Objectivity is achieved through a process that ensures anonymity of all actors and is facilitated and overseen by the professional society.

As described, the practice of objective evaluation involves one individual assessing the work of another individual’s student(s).  This is a viable form of objective evaluation that recommends itself over the current subjective practices dominant in undergraduate higher education, where evaluator and instructor are one and the same.  It transforms this crucial activity into a more reliable measurement not only of student but also of academic work that with greater confidence can be publicly recognized and reported on at a much finer grain in the service (i.e., the academic/student education relationship).

This alone is reason to recommend to the badge movement the professional model over the current institutional one.  As long as the academic is a member in good standing and their students perform well upon objective evaluation – each a matter of public record - then the badges issued by the academic are recognized and can be applied with authority at the course level (or perhaps portion of a course) and toward certificates, degrees, other more comprehensive badges, or whatever the meta-credential structure.

This sort of course-level recognition (and academic entrepreneurialism) is emerging in MOOCs that showcase prominent faculty employees and courses of accredited (i.e., recognized) institutions, which are transferable to credentials offered by other institutional issuers.  The professional model achieves the same but not at the expense of face-to-face education.  Under the professional model technology is needed only where it improves the academic/student education relationship, since access to affordable higher education is better achieved through increasing the number of “on the ground” academics licensed to practice the service and making professional competence a matter of genuine self-interest and public record.
In this circumstance MOOCs are simply not a necessary savior or evil.  They are moot - though they or some element of them might prove useful to the profession.

For instance, through use of the same technology found in MOOCs and other electronic education platforms, the professional model stands to offer even more to higher education and badges in particular.  This technology allows for not only the anonymous electronic transmission of material for objective evaluation between two individuals but also between an individual and a crowd.  In the latter case, with anonymity throughout, the instructor posts student material for evaluation and it is crowd-evaluated – that is, simultaneously evaluated by more than one professional member – with a calculated amalgam of the crowd opinion to stand as the final.

Crowd-evaluation can better accommodate both standardized and innovative material for evaluation.  If the material proves non-standard because it reflects innovation in course content or delivery, then there is less chance that the bias, inexperience or other idiosyncrasy of a single evaluator can skew outcome to favour the conventional or esoteric.

Crowd-evaluation also offers the opportunity to aid innovation through assessment.  Along with opinion on student work crowd-evaluation could provide opinion on (inter alia) the appropriateness of the evaluation material in terms of difficulty, comprehensiveness and allotted exam time, but also the course content and its emphasis at least in evaluation, if not instruction.  In this way evaluation is of both student and the academic work, measurable with objectivity on any number of metrics.

The information such a system might provide is vital to: academics in the maintenance of a professional practice; students in the selection of an educator; government in the allocation of public funds; and industry in the hiring of graduates.  To know that a student achieved an objective 80% on an exam is one thing, but to know that professional academics consider the exam ranked in either the 10th or 90th percentile for (say) difficulty is quite another.

Where appropriate the professional model allows all parties access to expert collective opinion on not  only student performance, but also on academic competence to construct and instruct a course (including evaluation).  This opportunity for feedback is invaluable aid to effective education and poorly represented by the institutional model, where academic freedom permits subjective construction and evaluation at the undergraduate level.

Professional crowd-evaluation does not impede academic freedom, but allows the opportunity for peer review of its product in terms of student performance and course quality.  Under the professional model, academics are free to construct and offer any course they see fit, using any evaluation material they opine appropriate, with crowd-evaluation as a means to publicize the informed opinion of peers on both.

I hypothesize that the information provided by professional evaluation could prove a foundation for the recognition of badges independently of institutions.

Whether it is performed by the faculty or their teaching assistant proxies, the labour of evaluation is an expense to the institutional model, as it is to the professional.  Crowd-evaluation can not only be facilitated but sustained by the professional alternative.

For instance, the evaluation labour might be deemed a requirement of professional membership.  That is, each month members must commit to the system X number of hours to crowd-evaluation or evaluate the material from X number of students.  Academics could be categorized by subject and required to log-in to track that the membership requirement is met, which does not preclude someone other than the academic legitimately providing the required membership evaluation service (e.g., a teaching assistant, as occurs in the institutional model).

I estimate that a private practice in philosophy can operate in the US for around $200,000 per year, with the current advertised rate of tuition as the only source of revenue – though several other existing and new sources are expected.  This figure includes the expense of a teaching assistant for 20 hours per week at $40 per hour – much more than the limits set by the institutional employ of TAs.

Under the professional model this occupation would take on greater importance since TA labour contributes directly to membership requirements and the health of an academic practice - the better the assistant, the better the service.  In this atmosphere the academic profession might create a membership category for TAs that provides the sort of selection and support available to the professional academic labour pool.  Alternatively, TAs might form a profession of their own or continue to opt for union representation.  But no matter the arrangement, because of their importance to an academic practice access to information on the quality of TA labour will become more relevant and regulated – unlike their place in institutions.

With this in mind the professional members that constitute evaluation crowds can include the traditional distinction between academics and TAs, each having met respective pre-determined criteria to qualify for service.  On the other hand, in the new territory of professional higher education these distinctions might undergo unique metamorphosis. The service provided by TAs might become a viable full-time occupation, rather than merely an indirect subsidy of the institutional model.  But whether evaluation is performed directly by academics or a trusted proxy in their employ it is done objectively and by crowd, as an expense of professional practice.

The reliability and detail of the information that professional crowd-evaluation stands to offer the recognition of badges is further reason to recommend the professional model over the institutional – and not necessarily as a competitor since both can exist in a very beneficial symbiosis.  As a start, consider that in most institutions lecture and other facilities are vacant some 80% of the year.  These publicly funded resources could be rented or leased as a practice expense to members of the profession.  In fact I maintain that the professional model offers a substantial market advantage to those institutions or regions that adopt it.

This skims the surface.  I hope it is sufficient to start discussion.

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