The Future of Higher Ed #1: Accrediting Individuals, Not Institutions

I’ve been thinking a lot about Higher Education lately, specifically future scenarios mapping probable and preferable trajectories for universities. One thing that continues to be a real point of concern is the issue of accreditation – the process by which universities and colleges are certified by outside institutions to provide degrees. The current system is predicated on the idea that institutions are accredited by meeting certain guidelines. But does this necessarily HAVE to be the case?

What would Higher Education look like if individual scholars were accredited rather than institutions?

Image going back to a more Socratic method of education (not pedagogy, necessarily). Socrates wasn’t a tenured faculty member. He was someone who provided an education in collaboration with his students. In modern language, he was his own brand, and educational rockstar, as it were. What if, instead of accrediting universities, accrediting institutions bestowed this legitimacy on individuals?

Individual faculty would then be like modern “free agents,” to whom students would go to or stay away from based on the strength of their personal brand. Students could take online or f2f courses with the faculty of their choice, regardless of location. Universities would remain degree conferring institutions, largely serving the function of certifying that students had obtained sufficient credits from accredited faculty to be awarded a certain degree. Universities might differentiate by devising innovative degree programs and serving as a collaborative hub between individual scholars.

Faculty would have to learn to market themselves by developing and providing innovative, superior education in an on-demand fashion. Groups of academics, either from the same or different disciplines, could form “bands” (like Cory, Mark, Xeni et al at Boing Boing) to aid in their marketing and intellectual collaboration. Academics would be free, then, to create their own departments/committees, structured however they like in terms of organization, curriculum, revenue sharing, marketing, etc. Eventually, these academic “bands” might want to enter into a deal with a university to develop a degree/curriculum in return for the university taking on the marketing, payroll/taxes, etc., or to provide lab equipment, etc. This is similar to the arrangement the Boing Boing folks made with Federated Media, allowing them to focus on content while FM focused on the business back end.

Many academics would oppose this, of course, due to its elimination of the Tenure System. However, the tenure system in the United States is coming to an end. I’ve seen studies which suggest that 2/3 (or more) of all faculty at 2- and 4-year institutions are contingent faculty. Actually tenured faculty only make up about 10% or so of the system. So, tenure, if not already dead is dying in a hurry. By keeping accrediting power with the universities, academics essentially set themselves up to all be low-wage contingent labor. If academics could get past the seduction of tenure, they might find the system I’ve described to not only be more intellectually and creatively rewarding, but also more financially rewarding in the long term.

As we rethink the role, purpose and design of textbooks and traditional classrooms and pedagogy, we might also benefit from rethinking the entire operational structure of higher education.

What do YOU think?

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4 Comments

Filed under Futurism, Open Source, Teaching, Technology

4 responses to “The Future of Higher Ed #1: Accrediting Individuals, Not Institutions

  1. taylorshelton

    with just three years of college under my belt, I’m not expert – but what I find most (maybe not most, but at least the most relevant thing here) disheartening is the lack of collaboration within the university – at least at UK. I’ve heard that the reason UK has so few interdisciplinary fields of study or research centers that get attention (if you aren’t in medicine or engineering, you’re probably getting the short end of the stick) is because it’s too hard to work through all of UK’s bureaucratic mess. having the secretaries or business officers from two different departments on campus coordinate something is just beyond our capacity, apparently. if UK weren’t structured to work against it, I would have loved to have a fully-developed curriculum in Appalachian studies or environmental studies in college. but because UK refuses to allow the collaborative spirit that many surely have (students and faculty alike – you can tell they care because the current efforts at these interdisciplinary educational programs are completely driven by a few people who really care), I haven’t been able to do exactly what I wanted. maybe it isn’t a university’s job to let me do exactly what I want, but if I’m paying $8000/year, I’d expect a bit more of a break

    personal note: the best faculty at UK are those who involve themselves in interdisciplinary education for undergrads, hands down

  2. I agree. This is just the type of structural change that needs to happen for Higher Ed to truely benefit in the best way from technologic developments and new ways of thinking in the same way as other areas of our life.

  3. Mike

    I like this. Huge fan, actually.

    I just graduated from UK, and I wish that we’d had something like this. It’s another step toward the goal of a more complete Higher Ed system.

  4. Tyler

    I like this idea, freeing academia from institutional restraints. Looks like an anarchist management of the commons in the realm of the university. I would love learning in an environment like this.

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