Part of this was included in Schmidt et al., 2009Schmidt, J. P., Geith, C., HåklevS., & Thierstein, J. (2009). Peer-to-peer recognition of learning in open education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(5), Article--10.
Education and accreditation are not value-neutral, but are extremely political and have important consequences for how we organize relationships in society. As open education evolves as an alternative potentially replacing parts of the current formal system, it is important for the open education movement to reflect upon the role of education and accreditation, both for the individual and for society as a whole. Discussing the role of education in a society, Bills (1988) lists four main views: human capital, credentialism, screening and cultural capital. Let us review these four, with a view to how they could be applied to concepts of open education.
Becker (1964) introduced the concept of human capital, and the idea that just as one could invest in infrastructure or better machines to increase productivity; investing in training and education of human resources would make workers more productive, and would generate economic benefits to both the individual workers, and society as a whole. This idea, which rapidly gained currency, was an important factor in the rapid expansion of higher education in North America and Europe during the last fifty years. Human capital theory fits into the functionalist framework, where the expansion of higher education is seen as responding to a real need for better trained people in the industry (Dornbusch, Glasgow & Lin, 1996). Accreditation then becomes a mechanism to signal skills and expertise to the economy, reducing the transaction costs of having to review each worker's competencies individually.
The three other theories could be said to fit in under the conflict theory of education, where schools are arenas for power struggles between different groups in society (ibid.). Credentialism, as propounded by Berg (1971) and Dore (1976), is the persistent social trend towards ever-increasing educational requirements for jobs, which is not connected to any rise in job complexity. This is often called credential inflation. Credentialism theorists agrees with human capital theorists that credentials are beneficial to those who receive them, and lead to higher salaries and better jobs, but according to Boylan (1993), the link between education and productivity is much weaker than the link between education and rewards - thus diplomas entitle you to society's spoils, but you or the credential are not necessary responsible for producing them. Thus, in Boylan's view, expanding education should do little for overall output, devalue credentials and may increase inequality among groups.
According to screening theory, people with high educational achievements really are more productive workers, but not because of the “value added” from education. Rather, formal education is seen as an (expensive) method for sorting out those workers that have innate capabilities for working better, or are more receptive to on-the-job training (Tyler, 1982). Viewed through this lens then, education is a positional good, and more education for all is innately wasteful – the students who finished high school 50 years ago were just as capable of doing today's jobs, as those finishing BAs today, we have just moved the measuring stick by increasing general levels of education.
Finally, cultural capital theory comes from Collins (1979) and Bordieu (1973), who believed that formal schooling's main function is to provide the “mainly non-cognitive 'cultural capital' that helps dominant groups maintain their status” (Bills, 1988, p. 440). Thus, the future leaders are taught to dress, to socialize, patterns of speech, taking initiative and working independently, whereas students in schools serving working class neighbourhoods are more likely to taught docility and obediency, punctuality and obedience of authority. In a study from England, the HR manager of a consulting company stated that they only hired university graduates, because they got better along with clients, and presented a better image of the firm. Of the six different large organizations that were interviewed about their hiring practices, only a small percentage of managers said that the specific skills acquired in school were important to the jobs they were hiring for (Bills, 1988).
As we have shown above, the theory distinguishes between four functions of accreditation. Only the human-capital framework award accreditation a direct role in the welfare of individuals and societies, although disappointingly only through it's role in enabling economic development. However, we record that the quality of the actual learning that takes place, is the fundamental factor, and accreditation is a convenient expression of that learning.
We will discuss the consequences of each of these views within a micro- and a macroperspective. If human capital theorists are correct, then an actual increase in skills and knowledge among citizens of a country will likely lead to economic growth. People will be able to gain more education (both quantitatively and qualitatively) for a lower cost, and will become more productive, thus commanding higher salaries, and contributing more taxes. This will benefit both individuals and society as a whole. In this scheme, the quality of the actual learning that takes place, is the fundamental factor, and accreditation is just a convenient expression of that learning.
However, if we believe with credentialists that the amount of people finishing higher education has risen far quicker than the amount of jobs requiring higher education, and that the value of credentials have thus been deflated, the situation looks different. On a personal level, it can still be helpful to people who are currently not able to access specific credentials needed to participate in the competition, but the actual amount of learning that happens is less important, and the societal impact is much smaller. (In many ways, this would be a situation opposite to the one currently present, where open education is all about learning, and generally offers no accreditation).
Screening theory similarily says the actual learning that takes place is not as important as the way the system winnows out people who do not have “what it takes”. If we meet a candidate who has achieved a BA, we know that this person is able to fill in forms, meet deadlines, show up punctually, work independently, meet targets, follow instructions and defer gratification. Depending on the form and shape of the open educational experience, it might signal something very different about the same person. It might signal that the person is able to be work self-directed, can work without much supervision, is well prepared to continue with life-long learning, is able to construct a social network of peers and mentors, and is very self-motivated. For some companies, these signals might be more desirable than those emitted by a traditional BA, for others much less. But a big difference is that the college experience in the US is quite standardized, and companies know what to expect, whereas open education intrinsically comes in many forms, and especially for people who only have competency based accredition at the end of the learning process, the company will know little about the process – you and I might both speak Chinese at a similar level, but for you, it came naturally during childhood, for me it was the result of years of hard study.
Finally, the cultural capital theory does have some similarities to the previous theory, in that it emphasizes the process of formal schooling. An example is the oft-repeated mantra that studying from MIT OpenCourseWare will never be the same as attending MIT. What this implies is not just that one learns more testable skills at MIT than anyone could ever conceivably do on the outside, but that attending MIT, or Harvard, is a unique experience, where the intimate interactions with other elite students and professors over several years has a formative effect on your personality that cannot be easily duplicated in the online space. You become part of an elite group – some companies might hire you, in part, because of the networks that you can access – and all of this is both hard to measure, and hard to replicate in an online, open space.
This discussion is premised on the idea that we would like for open education to become a real alternative in the current educational landscape. If we simply think of open education as offering interesting courses for leisure, or to complement or formal education, then we need not worry about any of this. But if we are serious about replacing some parts of formal schooling with open education, then these questions become crucial. We can look at it in a short-term, personal perspective, to see how open education can “slot into” the existing system - can it, for example, for all purposes replace a “regular” four year college degree? If the question is only “can you learn the same amount of skills and knowledge through open education as a typical person gains through a four year degree”, there is no question that the answer is yes. Certainly much more focus needs to be put on the learning aspect of open educational resources, but even before the internet, motivated individuals using the library and good friends and mentors have been able to learn what they needed. To see a BA's function only as gaining skills and knowledge, however, is as we have seen above too simplified.
According to human capital theory, your newfound skills and knowledge would increase your productivity, however you would have to prove that you possesed them. Since process is not important, this could be done through competency based exams and assessments. However, with credentialism we are moving away from the focus on skills and knowledge. Competency-based is probably not enough anymore, and we would have to create the equivalent of a four year college degree (whether or not we thought that was the best way of learning and teaching). For some individuals, this could be beneficial, but it would have scant benefit to society as a whole.
Screening theory and cultural capital theory presents different challenges. For screening theory, it is no longer about whether you have certain skills, but whether you going through a certain process, that says something about your character. Thus rather than everyone pursuing learning at their own pace, we would have to exclude a large number of people (the more people excluded, the more valuable the credential), and we would have to strive to make our credential as highly rated in the market place as the top universities. We would also have to think about whether the “hoops” someone had to jump through to acquire our certification were congruent with the perceived needs of the market.
As for cultural capital, this again presumes some level of exclusivity, as well as the fostering of a culture. This is not impossible on the internet, there are certainly many subcultures that interact intensively and socialize new members into ways of speech, and certain values. However, it is uncertain how compatible this is with the ideals of open education. It is also striking how a large number of recruiters seem to favor general skills (such as English composition and critical thinking) and “teachability” as outcomes of university education, whereas most open educational courses so far have been targetted towards the acquisition of specific topical areas. It would of course be possible to structure the learning process so that the general skills are also acquired.