A couple years ago I was on a weekend outing in Vail, Colorado and ended up attending a kayaking tournament taking place on the Gore Creek in the heart of town.

Fascinated by this sport, which I knew very little about, I had a chance to talk with some of the participants and found out that several were attending a special kayaking high school.

As it turns out, this was a private traveling high school for students who wanted to earn their education while exploring unique rivers and cultures around the world. At the heart of their education was the sport of kayaking.

There are no doubt tons of other niche schools that I’m currently unaware of, but this one was a refreshing example of how today’s mass market education system is a colossal mismatch for the hyper-individualized social structures being developed in the online world.

Over the coming years we will be seeing a mass disassembling of traditional schools, with pieces reassembling around a new system architecture.

Some of the missing elements are testing centers, micro-credits, and credit banks. Here is a brief overview of how and why this transition is about to occur.

The Fluid Learning Movement

If you were to list your top 5-10 memories from high school, how many of them occurred in a classroom?

Similarly, if you were to list the top 5-10 most important lessons you’ve learned so far in your life, how many of them were associated with something you learned in a school?

Informal polling of people in my network would indicate both of these numbers are close to zero.

Steve Jobs famously stated that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Educators have been working under a similar assumption that “students don’t know what they need so it needs to be planned out for them.”

The key difference in these two statements is that Steve Jobs created products that lived or died based on market demand, and consequently, many of his products failed.

Market demand in education is vastly different because the customers (students), have very few options, and future employers, the ultimate consumer of an educational system’s output, are only tangentially involved in the whole process.

So let’s consider to a more consumer-driven educational marketplace.

If a student had the ability, as in a grocery store, to walk down an aisle and pick and choose the “products” they wanted to learn, how different would that be from our educational systems today?

To ask this another way, if every course lived or died based on its ability to build an audience, an actual consumer-driven following, what courses would still exist and which ones would disappear.

More importantly, what would classes look like and would we even have classrooms, schools, and teachers?

In the fluid learning environment emerging around us, the whims of a marketplace will be as fickle as in today’s retail stores.

Driving Forces 

When it comes to education, there are already a number of powerful forces currently at play:

  • Homeschooling – Current estimates show that over 2 million kids are being homeschooled. This amounts to over 3% of the student population, a number that has been growing rapidly over the past two decades. Studies have shown that homeschooled students perform substantially better throughout their lives than their traditional school system counterparts.
  • iTunesU – Apple’s rapidly growing compendium of courses has just passed 1 billion downloads. Launched in 2007, a full 60% of iTunes U downloads originate from outside the United States, coming from 154 different countries.
  • MOOCs – The New York Times named 2012 as the “Year of the MOOC.” MOOCs exploded onto the academic scene in the summer of 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence course offered by Stanford University in California attracted 160,000 students from around the world — with 23,000 of them actually finishing it.
  • Coursera – As the poster child of the MOOC movement, Coursera has already attracted over 2.9 million students to its 328 courses from 62 universities in 17 countries since it started in April 2012.
  • EDx – What started as a Harvard-MIT partnership has now grown to include 12 universities with over 700,000 students for it 25 courses.
  • Kahn Academy – Adding to the mix are a host of disruptive startups like Khan Academy with roughly 250 million downloads of its library of over 4,000 courses.

Creating Future Systems to Match Today’s Trends

Little by little, today’s educational infrastructure is being dismantled. This dismantling will continue until some triggering incident causes a wholesale collapse.

Our rapid shift to free, any-time, any-place online learning is forcing traditional colleges to rethink virtually every aspect of their operation.

It’s important to understand that the collapse will occur with or without a new system in place for it to morph into. So we can either be proactive or reactive in creating the new system.

Here are some of the elements I’m predicting will be needed for a truly fluid learning environment to flourish:

1.) Credit Banks – Much like using a traditional bank as a place to store your money, credit banks are a place to store your academic credits.

Some credit banks already exist at colleges like Thomas Edison State College, Charter Oak, Excelsior College, and Ohio University. In their present form they serve as an evaluation and transcript service for those who need to consolidate academic records.

They currently accept seven different kinds of deposits, including credits from:

    1. Licenses
    2. Certifications
    3. College courses (including correspondence or distance courses)
    4. Equivalency exams
    5. Non-college learning experiences
    6. Company courses
    7. In-house training

None of today’s existing credit banks are state/federally sanctioned or regulated.

Although most people don’t know they exist, if credit banks were officially legislated into existence, they could serve as a key facilitator and support business for future educational services.

2.) Future Testing Centers: Many testing centers already exist, but as with credit banks, none are state/federally sanctioned or regulated. As a result, a high degree of fraud and cheating takes place.

Future testing centers will require students to pass through scanners and remove all electronic devices, as well as prove their identity.

One of the challenges most MOOCs have is legitimizing test results. Once testing centers become legislatively sanctioned, an entire new industry will materialize around the services they can offer.

3.) Micro-Credits: All of us are learning constantly, but we currently have no good way of assigning value to it. Micro-Credits are a system for doing exactly that, only in tiny little increments as small as one hundredth of a college credit at a time.

Read a book, take a test, and get 14.8 micro-credits. Go to a movie, take a test, and get 4.6 micro-credits. Watch a TED video, take a test, and get 3.8 micro-credits.

The possibilities are enormous when it comes to credentialing everyday learning, but the challenge is creating a system with the right kind of controls to make it attractive so everyone wants to participate.

Final Thoughts

If we work within our existing system for education, the best we can hope for is a few percentage points improvement. The system itself becomes the limiting factor.

By creating a new system, we remove those limits.

Much of what happens in today’s colleges and universities is based on “symbols of achievement,” not actual accomplishments. The closer we can get to credentialing actual accomplishments, the more relevant education becomes in the minds of hiring companies.

An amazing transformation happens once someone finds a company willing to pay for what they produce.

Creating new systems around the fluid learning environments described above will transition colleges from being in the “university business” to being in the learning business.

Let me end with three quick questions:

  • What percentage of today’s colleges do you think will still be in existence 10 years from now?
  • In what year will the homeschooling movement reach 10% of the student population?
  • What are MOOCs currently missing? Even though they’re wildly popular, how can they be improved?

I’d love to hear what you think.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

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


9 Responses to “Credit Banks, Testing Centers, and Micro-Credits – Missing Elements of a Future Education System”

Comments List

  1. Lionel E Ranos

    Since I' m currently learning Ruby on Rails I've been exposed to several MOOC's (Codecademy, Udemy, Pragmatic Studio, EDx). I believe what's missing is Encouragement and a way to measure progress. Having someone on your corner who believes in you and helps you stay motivated is invaluable. I also wonder if I'm learning the right material and if I'm learning enough.
    • admin

      Lionel, Thanks for your comment. Since we run the DaVinci Coders Ruby on Rails program at the DaVinci Institute we've heard similar comments from people who have concluded they can't do it on their own. Creating context and an environment of support and feedback loops helps us keep our accomplishments in perspective. Great input. Tom
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Rick Fowler</a>

    The Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy is a public school catering to kids who are trying to be professional snow sport athletes. Here's a NYT article about it:
  3. Lew Rabenberg

    Tom, I think you are underestimating the value of formal institutions when it comes to disciplines that involve cumulative learning. For example, you would not expect to go far by jumping into learning the French at the level of subjunctive voice and historical past. Similarly, math must be structured; engineering must be structured; medical school must be structured. These systems are self-monitoring. When I walk into my classroom on the first day, I do not know where the students have been all their lives, but it usually becomes apparent whether they do, or do not, have pre-requisite knowledge. If they do not, most simply won't keep up. They may transfer course credits, as some of them do, but, if the knowledge is not there, they will not progress further. Bits and pieces of "paper credit" will not do them any good if their LEARNING is not cumulative. One of the functions of institutional learning is to gather together experts who can provide the "ladder" of greater specialized learning. For example: high school algebra (you could teach this), calculus (you might be able to teach this), elementary physics (you might be able to teach this with some help or a text book), theoretical mechanics (I think not.), electricity and magnetism, general relativity, mathematical group theory, high energy particle physics, string theory. The population of successful students diminishes at each stage along the way. I daresay the population of wannabe string theorists diminishes along the way. But if the willing and able participants throughout history had no way to cluster, communicate with each other, and set up reasonable ways to efficiently impart learning and advance knowledge, we might still be hunters and gatherers. Now, I agree that technology can replace some of the physical clustering, and institutions of higher learning will become increasingly delocalized, but there must be a core who can communicate with each other. (And regulate each other at the highest levels.) Incidentally, you made your appeal to authority (government) again. Who manages government? Idi Amin? Fidel Castro? Pol Pot? Mao Tse-Tung, Adolf Hitler, Vladimirs Putin and Lenin?... There must be a way to simultaneously create and regulate experts. Think about it. Lew "Sue me if I played to long."
    • admin

      Lew, Some great comments. While there is a certain level of erroneous thinking to everything I propose, it's intended to challenge conventional thinking and traditional structures. To be sure there will be no one-size-fits-all way to educate people in the future, and there will still be a role for formal institutions and the processes and structures they bring to the table. But for the most part they tend to be slow to respond to change, top heavy, and growing disproportionately expensive even when other mature industries are going in the other direction. College ROI is now under constant scrutiny. Since colleges have been the traditional goto place for answers, there's a tendency to assume they can solve any problem. Here's a rather funny story about how this can go terribly wrong, written by Roger Schank - Your comments about pre-requisite knowledge are well presented. We've been wrestling with this ourselves in our coder classes at DaVinci Coders. For new technologies and new areas of business, it takes time to sort through the proper order to learn new material. At the same time much of what we learn isn't a means to an end. It ends up being a cursory understanding of a topic that is good enough. Good enough for management, good enough for sales and marketing, good enough for conversations. No it will not be good enough to become a string theorist, but very few people have that goal. Personally I think calculus is a topic totally wasted on most of the students forced to take it. Very few use it after they leave college. With everything we'll need to understand to be competitive in the future, we are creating huge impediments by needlessly inserting teachers between us and what we need to know. The life cycles of business are speeding up, career changes are happening quicker than ever, and full time jobs are being replaced by micro jobs. Typically I'm not a fan of public policy approaches to solving problems in light of the fact we have a rather dysfunctional political system. Yet governments have the ability to legislate entire new industries into existence, and in this case, a few policy changes could do exactly that. I've always been a fan of the clustering effect for talent and resources at colleges. This remains one of their biggest assets. But the tectonic plates of life are shifting beneath our feet, so we need to respond accordingly. Tom PS. - Thanks for the Who's Who of evil government leaders. It's a good reminder of how wary and vigilant we need to be of every change being proposed.
  4. Mary Kay Sommers

    Tom, Since education and change are my passions, I am always intrigued with your provocative thoughts in this area. I agree with several predictions but others seem to be missing the mark, in my opinion. I agree that public education needs to be engaging to our students and designed in ways they can learn both skills and content in a meaningful, motivated way. Some of the STEM schools are redesigning learning through integrated and intentional learning experiences that students find as enticing as gaming! I believe that students of all ages want to be successful and also need to feel valued and supported through what can be a struggle. Helping school systems change more quickly is a serious challenge given the systems that are currently in place. As I reflect on the words "education" and "learning" verses training for licensure or certification, I feel these can be two different concepts. What do we think the future/current generation will need? I believe the latter two can be done more efficiently and can be changed more quickly. The broader concepts however are those that are harder to define, agree, and address. Yet, I find learning occurs everywhere and I believe it is important that today's students develop that desire for continuous learning especially in areas "foreign" to them. Often through the expanded learning process, one identifies patterns and solutions that could be useful in other areas. I am eager to see change and highly frustrated that the infrastructure and will to improve education in this country are either weak or serve as barriers. As you saw with the kayaking and the Vail ski school (I've talked with this principal), the barriers were removed. When I talk with teachers who are concerned about each child being successful, they know what those barriers are and have great ideas on how they could better empower students to learn at high levels. I'm always thrilled when you approach this topic, Tom! Mary Kay
  5. Brian Vass

    Tom, It seems to me that what you are saying is pretty much right on. In 1981, while taking a Calculus class at 32 years of age, I kept asking the prof, “Why?” After his trial of patience was replaced with a thorough disgust of my insistence, he just plainly told me (and this quote is word for word) “Look Brian! It took Lebniz (he never even mentioned Newton) 40 years to discover these equations, and we ARE NOT going to understand them in this class!” I started to ask myself very seriously, “Why did I do so well in high school and yet can’t seem to master university?” The answer was simple. Learning is not the imprinting of content inside the brain. It is the ability to process information for the purpose of an intended result. In 2002, after helping my youngest son achieve success in his grade 9 math course, I told my wife, “Kids can learn 10 times faster than the school is teaching them at the moment.” What is the future of academic education? It is 3D technology, because the brain/mind operates best in a spatial capacity. Everything else is learned by playing. Kayaking is playing. Riding your horse is playing. Dancing is playing. Right now, video games are the closest thing to engaging the brain in all of its needs, which is why kids love them so much, and why a lot of educators are turning to them. Next will be the ingesting of learning skills that involve self assessment principles, brain/mind learning principles, balanced brain learning principles and a redesign of the information that is to be assimilated. Brian Vass
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Brian, Very well stated. Too often we are trapped in the "because that's the ways its always been done" excuse. Calculus certainly has value, but not for everyday people. Learning doen't have to be a chore. Make it fun and we'll blow the doors off the competition. Tom

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