Micro Credits: A Tool for Self-Organizing the Complex World of Education

Micro Credits: A Tool for Self-Organizing the Complex World of Education


A recent TEDx talk about solving traffic jams started by asking the simple question, “Who is in charge of the daily bread supply for the city of London?”

Food supply chains have become enormously complicated, but as it turns out, there is no central “bread czar” for London or any other large city. The bread supply chain is a great example of a self-organizing system.

Most likely, if the City of London decided to appoint an official Bread Czar to oversee distribution, it would be fraught with daily bottlenecks and supply problems.

As society grows in complexity, how can we design systems that don’t require daily oversight, with self-regulating mechanisms capable of unleashing the true potential of humanity?

Perhaps our most broken system, in dire need of reform, is education, and I’d like to start with college-level education.

So how can we put in the right mechanisms and sub-systems with built-in checks and balances along with monitoring points, and yet have it be tweakable enough to make the complex systems used to govern colleges and universities self-organizing?

Admittedly, the world of academia is exponentially more complicated than the London bread supply, but I’d like to take a few minutes to explore this idea using the concept of Micro Credits as the entry point.

So, after spending the past few days consulting with Senior Fellows at the DaVinci Institute, here is what I’ve come up with.

“Who is going to jump first into granting a degree that doesn’t have the seat time requirement that we do today that employers will see as credible? Where does the credibility come from?" – Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum 2013 in Davos, Switzerland

Micro Credits Defined

University of California researchers James Short and Roger Bohn determined that the average person in the U.S. in 2009 was consuming information 11.8 hours a day, the equivalent of 100,500 words every 24 hours. While much of this “learning” may be relegated to low-effect, background noise, a portion of it will naturally fall into the category of higher impact learning with significant formative influence.

The question then becomes one of assigning credentialing to the learning moments that happen during any given day. With so many options, it becomes an exercise in “separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Learning experiences should not be based on the time spent learning, but rather on the value of learned skills that can be adequately defined by questions.

Let’s begin with describing the smallest possible credentialing unit.

Learning experiences should not be based on the time spent learning,
but rather on the value of learned skills that can be adequately
defined by questions.

MICRO CREDIT FORMULA: 1 Micro Credit = 0.01 of a traditional college semester credit or, stated another way, 100 Micro Credits = 1 traditional college semester credit.

Micro Credits will be an assessment of learned skills, based on outcomes.

The granting of Micro Credit is based on testing, with a minimum of 10 questions for the first Micro Credit, and one additional question for each additional 0.2 Micro Credits.

All questions will be multiple-choice with four possible answers. Answers to questions must be 80% correct.

This will mean that for someone to achieve the equivalent of 1 college credit, they will need to answer well over 500 questions and get over 80% of the answers correct.

Once all questions have been answered, people will be asked to assign five words to describe the kind of skills developed through the learning experience. These words will serve as the foundation for the user-based skills classification system described later.

EXAMPLE: An 18-minute TED video may be filled with rich content, enabling 30 good quality questions to be asked about the subject matter. In this situation, the learning experience would be valued at 5 Micro Credits. At the same time, a less content rich 3-hour documentary may only warrant 10 questions, or 1 Micro Credit assigned to its content.

The Micro Credit system, as described here, has a series of built-in self-limiting checks and balance mechanisms. First, the content must have sufficient value to ask a minimum of ten questions. Second, all Micro Credit learning applications and questions will be evaluated by an independent third-party organization skilled in Micro Credit assessment.

Most importantly, users will have to feel the expenditure of time and energy to be worth the credits they receive. Since time is a precious commodity, the length of a test will be inversely proportional to likelihood that someone will complete it.

Here is a brief description of some of the other characteristics recommended for this system:

  • TEST LIMITS: Micro Credit Tests will be limited to granting no more than 10 Micro Credits on a single test.
  • EXPERIENCE AUTHENTICATORS: People who develop a Micro Credit Test will be referred to as Experience Authenticators.
  • TEST-TAKING MECHANISM: Testing will be conducted through a web-based online secure system that enables people anywhere to participate.
  • COSTS: All testing and the assignment of Micro Credits will be minimally priced for consumers, approx $1 per Mico Credit. Additional fees will apply to the test approval process, as well as storage and retrieval of records from the Credit Bank. (NOTE: This is a change from the original post where I suggested Micro Credits be free.)
  • CREDIT BANK: All testing results and Micro Credits will be instantly assigned to a personal account in a Credit Bank, a service to be developed as the default repository for the Micro Credit system.
  • USER-BASED CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM: Past attempts to create a top-down classification system like the Dewy Decimal System in libraries have invariably grown out of control over time. Skills, and the words we use to describe them, naturally evolve over time. So, while its important to have an Experience Authenticator attach meta tags to an initial question set, the tagging mechanism will need to evolve over time. For this reason, users will be asked to add five words to describe the skills they learned to every test.
  • ANTI-HACKER MEASURES: To avoid the potential for people to game the system, a number of anti-hacking measures will be employed including a question order randomizer, an answer randomizer, and optional questions and phrasing.

Micro Credit Theory

Varying degrees of learning happen many times throughout every day. The process of validating the learning can take many forms. The Micro Credit system described above will not apply to all situations.

As a starting point, a pilot project should be formed around written and video content, involving books, movies, TV shows, video shorts, and other written documents. Once these forms of content are validated and a sufficient consumer demand is demonstrated, other forms of content can be added.

Here are of few other implications that may result from a well-functioning Micro Credit system:

  • REPLACING THE CEU: CEUs (Continuing Education Units) are a poorly implemented system for validating professional education based on hours spent sitting in a classroom or viewing courseware. This is a system in dire need of overhaul. Micro Credits are a better system for authenticating learning, easier to implement, and easier for professionals to fit into a busy schedule.
  • REPLACING THE RESUME: Employers who have relied on resumes in the hiring process know what a crude tool it is to describe the skills and talent of an individual. Micro Credits will create a far more granular description of the learning experiences, and over time, applicable talent, skills, and other life experiences. As the Micro Credit system evolves, a new generation of digital resume-replacement tools will be developed.
  • COMPETITION FOR COLLEGES: Currently the credit-granting authority of colleges and universities has no competitive, checks and balance, alternative. This is the primary reason why tuition prices have escalated over 400% since 1980.
  • CREDENTIALING FOR CURRENT NON-ACADEMIC PROFESSIONS: There are currently many occupations with no associated academic pathways for entering the profession. As a result, most game designers, aromatherapists, inventors, futurologists, social networkers, coaches, search engine optimizers, augmented reality specialists, broadcast engineers, and alternative health consultants are self-taught. At the same time, many new professions are being developed on a daily basis.
  • THE ADVENT OF MICRO COLLEGES: Along with Micro Credits comes the potential for a new breed of colleges that operate outside of the bounds of current academic institutions, based primarily on the emerging Micro Credit industry.
  • HYPER-INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING: Colleges today are operated with a top-down mentality, which results in a very limited scope of options when it comes to course topics and possible majors. This approach is in direct conflict with the hyper-individualized, long-tail world developing around us.

Background Information on College Credits

College credits are based on the number of contact hours per week in class, with the assumption there will be twice as much time involved in study and homework.

From section 600.2 of the DOE’s regulations:

Definition of a Credit Hour: The minimum amount of work that is an institutionally established equivalency that is not less than one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester; or ten or twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time.

Since most college classes are only 45-50 minutes and many classes require far less homework than the two-for-one studying ratio suggests, there is considerable grey area in this formula.

Background Information on CEUs

CEU stands for Continuing Education Unit. A CEU is a unit of credit equal to 10 hours of participation in an accredited program designed for professionals with certificates or licenses to practice various professions.

IACET (International Association for Continuing Education & Training) is the caretaker of the CEU.

Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, CPAs, real estate agents, financial advisers, and other such professionals are required to participate in continuing education programs for a certain number of hours every year in order to keep their certificates, or licenses to practice, current. The annual number of CEUs required varies by state and profession.

The failure of this system is the onerous time and place requirements with scant attention paid to actual subject matter comprehension.

Final Thoughts

What I have described above is a self-organizing system.

Since most people still believe that education must take place in the classroom, and only educators can create new courses, we have placed a very constrictive valve on the inflow of new education options.

The notion that education can take place only in a classroom is similar to the notion that purchasing a product can only take place when you see it on a store shelf. Removing the classroom constraints to learning is similar to removing the shelf space constraints in the marketplace.

The system described above for Micro Credits is intended to be every bit as rigorous and demanding as traditional college coursework, with the primary difference being the alternative pathways for both creating and assigning fractional credits.

Keep in mind that the granting of a single college credit will require answering over 550 questions on a minimum of 10 separate tests.

This is a system that will instantly spawn new thinking, but may not develop the critical mass necessary to disrupt anything.

When it comes to designing a new system like this, as much as we study ourselves, there is still much that we don’t know.

According to former Harvard President Larry Summers, “It’s important to remember that we’re not so good at understanding the subtleties of environments that make them attractive to people. Look at football for example. One way to watch a game is to sit on a cold bench with no good food and bad bathrooms. The other is in our own living rooms, with instant replay, and food you like at your convenience. And then ask yourself - which would you guess people pay for? Which do people cheer for? You’d get it wrong. There are aspects of bringing people together in groups that we can’t quite understand and judge. The working out of this will depend a lot on formulas for making it attractive and collaborative. And as the football example suggests, it won’t be immediately obvious what those models are.”

This entire column is intended to serve as a starting point, to initiate additional ideas and further conversation. So I’d love to hear what you think.

Is this a rational approach, and if so, how would you change it to make it better?

NOTE: This entire conversation is being closely monitored by a well-positioned state legislator who is considering drafting a new bill around these guidelines.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything





14 Responses

  1. Tom,

    As always enjoyed your thoughtful post and you have some interesting ideas with credits and micro credits.

    If I may share one aspect about complex adaptive systems (CAS). These systems work entirely different than the “systems” we think of in society today. CAS exist and self-organize based on a very simple set of rules or more accurately ‘protocols,’ which when followed allow the system to change, to adapt to the challenges it faces, to even become something new.

    Many people are familiar with the protocols that Swallows follow in flight creating their amazing acrobatic demonstrations. The World Wide Web is also an example of a CAS, it is based on three simple protocols which allowed it to self-organize to what it has become, without a person or organization in control. Tim Berners-Lee explained the 3 protocols on which the web runs, these are 3 simple technologies; HTML, HTTP and URL. Follow these and the web as we know it and experience it emerges (another key feature of CAS is emergence).

    A core feature of CAS is that they self-organize when in turbulence, no one is in control or can guide the self-organization and the resulting ‘emergence’ that happens. There here are no “mechanisms” that can be put in place to control a CAS, there are no checks and balances, these are descriptions of activities that apply to machines or mechanistically designed hierarchical systems.

    Can the complex educational mechanistically designed ‘system’ adapt and become a CAS system? If so how does this happen? What are the core simple protocols required so students get the education they require so that employers get employees qualified to meet the business needs of today and tomorrow?

    And if this can be done, as you quoted Bill Gates, the real question becomes, “Who is going to jump first …?”


  2. So the dilemma here is in how to organize a self-organizing system. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Like Phil says, all we can really do is design the protocols (and possibly the initial conditions) of the system before pushing the baby out of the nest and seeing if it can learn to fly on its own. If you hit a nerve with enough people who really see the need and value, it’ll take off, reorganizing itself as it rides the turbulence between order and chaos (much as the internet has).

  3. I think this is a good idea because it allows people to develop their own skills and then certify those skills and given some certification. I think the biggest problem is the preservation of that knowledge and then making sure that knowledge is preserved which is what Universities used to do. You also have to preserve scholarship which is very important. I think this is good for skills and things but other fields that are more traditional might need a more traditional system to preserve scholarship and knowledge.

  4. You have gone granular without seeing the big picture. We are already doing this. The web enables anyone to find answers. Why should anyone go to schools and take tests with knowledge is everywhere.

    I will launch a series of essays on innovation. 35 class credits will only touch on the practice of becoming an innovator.(www.ColoradoInnovationNewsletter.com)

    If your process takes students away from the real world… if your students come to believe that a microclass is the real world, we will have done sad damage.

  5. Lee Curkendall

    One of the best “self organizing systems” is the Free Market System (otherwise known as Capitalism). As Leonard Read pointed out so eloquently in his famous 1958 piece called, “I, Pencil”, many things have to arrange themselves and come together to build something as simple as a pencil (let alone a car or a computer). And it all happens without a a pencil “Czar” doing the organizing. Colleges and universities have helped foment the ideas that Tom is describing simply by charging very high rates for something that could be much more affordable and effective. If left to the free market system, without the meddling of “organizers” an other bureaucrats, students and their employers will drive the most effective solutions through voluntary actions.

  6. Lew Rabenberg

    I noticed far too many uses of the passive voice in your description: “will be evaluated”, “will be referred to as “, “anti-hacking measures will be employed”, etc. This implies an appeal to a higher authority. I do not think this is self-organizing at all.

    I am in a position where I have witnessed university professors decline to compose questions for higher-level exams even though they are, in principle, paid to do these things.

    Certainly, someone could write the lower-level questions, but who would pay them to do it?

    I think you still have some work to do on this idea.

  7. Tom,
    As you well know, I champion education reform at the college level. I like your out-of-the-box thinking. But PLEASE, let’s not retrogress to basing learning on multiple choice tests! They assess only cognitive knowledge (missing both behavioral and affective knowledge) and there is no penalty for guessing in an educational environment, so they don’t even test that well. Roger Schank has some interesting insights on reforming curriculum development; see in particular http://www.socraticarts.com/docs/sccwhitepaper.pdf

  8. admin


    Thanks for your feedback. To be honest, I was really struggling to come up with a form of testing that would work. My preference was to go with some form of mastery testing but thought it would be too difficult to implement. Do you have a better suggestion?

    I love Roger Schank’s dragon story.


  9. admin


    You bring up some good points. Admittedly, this is still rough around the edges.

    Within the world of MOOCs we are seeing some fascinating work being done without compensation. Tens of thousands of students taking a course, grading each others work, and receiving little more to credential for their accomplishment than a printable “certificate of accomplishment.”

    However, as you suggest, I don’t see MOOCs being a viable business model over time without some financial arrangements added in along the way.

    The question writing and testing is indeed a challenging problem to solve. I’ll keep working on it.


  10. admin


    Some great comments. While I understand the nature of complex adaptive systems, I also understand the nature of people who will go out of their way to game a system.

    Google, as example, is constantly updating its search algorithms (more than once a day on average) to stay one step ahead of the hackers.

    The unrestrained Internet has given birth to cancerous-like botnets that literally spam billions of people multiple times a day and are requiring extreme measures to control.

    All content uploaded to YouTube requires a human to review it first to prevent it from being taken over by porn.

    At present, 18 countries now employ some form of Internet censorship including the U.S.

    So the idea here is not to make something totally hands-off, but rather something scalable to the point of working with large numbers of people. And since we’re working with education, it will likely begin with baby steps.

    First step will be to create a pilot project so we know what works and what doesn’t. We will learn a lot from that.


  11. Good response Tom.

    But I think most would agree that even with the additional actions and costs taken on by Google and others to preserve the integrity of the web, the web works and provides great value – as a complex adaptive system without someone exerting control over it.

    Many though don’t feel that the educational system works. People are not getting the education they need, when they need it, how they need it, at a cost they can afford (just look at the exploding student debt, incurred in many cases for educations that don’t equip students for success in the real world).

    Does the hierarchal command and control educational system want to change at the speed and to the degree required? And if so, does it have the awareness, the flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness to become what society needs in education today, in the 21st century? Does it even know how to change?

    If not, that is a shame, as the educational system has so much to offer. But society, as a complex adaptive system will not wait, it will self-organize in new and unexpected ways to meet the educational needs. I am just not sure educators understand or believe it can happen without them.


  12. admin


    The announcement today that Coursera is offering credits for some of its MOOC classes will dramatically shift the playing field.

    Colleges around the world will be calling emergency sessions to deal with the turn of events.

    The pace of change is mandating that we produce a faster, smarter, better grade of human being. Our current education systems are preventing that from happening. Coursera has just fired the first shot across the bow. What follows next will be more than a little interesting.

    Better strap yourself in, this is going to be a wild ride.


  13. Tom, great progress on Cousera’s part, but I guess we got the answer to my question about does the educational system want to change in Duke Provost Lange’s comment in the article.

    “Duke Provost Peter Lange said his school won’t award credit to its own students or to others who enroll in its Bioelectricity and Genetics classes online, two of the Coursera options that ACE has recommended for credit. Though the classes are led by Duke professors, he said, “they’re not taught the way we teach Duke courses” because they don’t have a set meeting time, nor do they involve face-to-face instruction.”


  14. Sam Jackson

    Appreciating the diversity built into a self-organizing approach to education… must also integrate diverse learning styles and ways to test…

    (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_styles) and


    (“Britain’s Brightest… http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01004k0/profiles/science-behind)…

    and then, of course, how what is learned is put into action…

Leave a comment