The Growing Need to Standardize and Validate Online Education Credentials for the Job Market

"Graduation Caps", Image by John Walker

“Graduation Caps”, Image by John Walker

Near the end of The Matrix, right after Neo and Trinity have their epic battle with the agents on the rooftop , he turns to her and asks whether she “can fly that thing”, referring to a nearby helicopter. They need to do this in order proceed to rescue Morpheus. She doesn’t know how to … just quite yet. Then she takes out her mobile phone to call Apoc and ask him to quickly upload a program to her virtual self that will enable her to pilot the chopper.

The very first time I saw this groundbreaking sci-fi film, at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 on Broadway and 13th Street in Manhattan, the audience laughed at the absurdity of this dialog. While they were utterly dazzled by the rest of the narrative and strikingly original special effects (especially the astonishing and brain-melting sequence known as “bullet time” where Neo fights and clearly proves he’s no neophyte), this was still an awkward moment because people were laughing at this otherwise captivating film.

While I doubt that anyone would still laugh at this line in today’s world of all things networked and digital, we still have not reached anywhere near the point where people can have new skills and knowledge uploaded right to our brains. Well, at least not anytime soon and, to say the least, doing so would redefine the whole notion of an “upgrade”.

Nonetheless, there has been an enormous revolution in the breadth and diversity of webwide learning platforms. These are now available to anyone anywhere anytime with online access and a desire to learn. The benefits and the potential of online education were first taken up here in a Subway Fold Post on February 15, 2015 entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process. I have taken MOOCs on everything from content strategy to project management to basic programming and have learned a great deal from them.

Standards Still Lacking for Online Education Credentials

However, in today’s highly competitive economy and job market, employers are just not sure how to evaluate prospective workers when they list online courses on their resumes and discuss them at interviews. There is no standardization yet in the requirements and weighting of these credentials. This critical issue was taken up in a very timely and informative feature in the November 18, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Online Skills Are Hot, But Will They Land You a Job? by Lauren Weber. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some of my own non-academic questions.

Employers are currently searching for people with latest “technical and digital skills”. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the services rendered by course providers including Udemy and Lynda.com, coding bootcamps, and MOOCs such as Coursera and edX. These online learning platforms aim to assist workers in enhancing their skills or to provide “experience they didn’t get in college”. Nonetheless, many managers still neither trust nor recognize these new providers and their course offerings.

According to Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, there is no central authority setting any standards for these online educational providers. Some of the job seekers who have taken these online classes are likewise frustrated by this situation.

Independent Groups Trying to Create Credential Standards

An effort to create such standards has recently been undertaken by a group of academic researchers with additional assistance from trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Support for this also includes a $2.25 million grant from the Lumina Foundation, whose stated goal is for 60% of Americans to gain post-high school training by 2025. This project involves creating an online registry for use by both employers and workers to research credentials. This is intended for either group to “see exactly what skills they reflect”.

The creation of this credential registry is currently being done as a joint project by George Washington University, Southern Illinois University and the American National Standards Institute. A pilot of the directory is expected to be rolled out sometime during mid-2016.

The working group plans to assure employers that an online educator’s credentials (or “badges”) are “a sign of rigorous training”, by surveying employers about the credentials held by employees in specific roles. This will be done in an effort to provide validation for particular courses and badges.

(I also searched and found a position paper entitled Connecting Credentials: Making the Case for Reforming the U.S. Credentialing System, published by The Lumina Foundation in June 2015. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this for the clear and compelling case it makes for this project.)

Similar initiatives have also been developed by:

  • LinkedIn which is engaged in a pilot program in Phoenix and Denver. The company is canvassing area employers about the skills they are seeking and the credentials of the workers they have recently hired. Using this information, the job networking site will permit users to learn the skills they will need for a particular job and the classes and training that “recent hires in that role have had”. This service will launch in early 2016.
  • TechHire which is a new U.S. government venture launched earlier this year by the Obama administration, whose mission is to expedite training and employment opportunities “for people without traditional academic backgrounds”. It is expected to accelerate the validity of the credentials it is offering by persuading “employers to review their skill requirements” and coordinate with training providers of “nontraditional coursework” including coding boot camps and online classes.

Employer Initiative to Test Applicant’s Job-Specific Skills

Employers on their own initiatives may soon be testing job applicants’ tech and marketing skills with simulations. These could be given in conjunction with interviews. During an HR conference in 2014, a number of companies demo-ed such tests for a wide range of specific skills from “basic math to drafting legal contracts”.¹

According to Dennis Yang, the CEO of Udemy, if these gain wide acceptance, college degrees or technical certificates might no longer be relevant. Rather, for him, the two key criteria are the ability and the willingness to learn new things.

Currently, recruiters believe that badges and credentials from online education programs indicate someone’s receptivity to learning. For example, Melkeya McDuffie, the Senior Director of Talent Acquisition recently promoted an employee at Waste Management, Inc. partly because he had taken some relevant MOOCs on Coursera. She was impressed that he had taken the initiative to do so and could demonstrate his knowledge.²

My Questions

  • Would a hybrid of credential standardization and skills simulations be another viable approach? That is, could the groups involved in each of these efforts could inform, influence and shape each others’ work?
  • How would either or both of these processes be affected in jobs requiring state or federal licensing?
  • Should employees in certain jobs be somehow incentivized by their employers to take duly certified online courses in order to remain current in their fields? Should companies factor online courses taken into an employee’s annual performance review?

 


1.  See also a September 12, 2014 post on Lawyerist.com entitled The Legal Tech Audit Proves Lawyers Are Terrible at Technology, by Lisa Needham.

2.  See also an October 23, 2015 article in the Houston Chronicle entitled Waste Management Overhauls Its Recruiting by Sarah Scully, where Ms. McDuffie is also quoted several times.

IBM’s Watson is Now Data Mining TED Talks to Extract New Forms of Knowledge

"sydneytocairns_385", Image by Daniel Dimarco

“sydneytocairns_385”, Image by Daniel Dimarco

Who really benefited from the California Gold Rush of 1849? Was it the miners, only some of whom were successfully, or the merchants who sold them their equipment? Historians have differed as to the relative degree, but they largely believe it was the merchants.

Today, it seems we have somewhat of a modern analog to this in our very digital world: The gold rush of 2015 is populated by data miners and IBM is providing them with access to its innovative Watson technology in order for these contemporary prospectors to discover new forms of knowledge.

So then, what happens when Watson is deployed to sift through the thousands of incredibly original and inspiring videos of online TED Talks? Can the results be such that TED can really talk and, when processed by Watson, yield genuine knowledge with meaning and context?

Last week, the extraordinary results of this were on display at the four-day World of Watson exposition here in New York. A fascinating report on it entitled How IBM Watson Can Mine Knowledge from TED Talks by Jeffrey Coveyduc, Director, IBM Watson, and Emily McManus, Editor, TED.com was posted on the TED Blog on May 5, 2015. This was the same day that the newfangled Watson + TED system was introduced at the event. The story also includes a captivating video of a prior 2014 TED Talk by Dario Gil of IBM entitled Cognitive Systems and the Future of Expertise that came to play a critical role in launching this undertaking.

Let’s have a look and see what we can learn from the initial results. I will sum up and annotate this report, and then ask a few additional questions.

One of the key objectives of this new system is to enable users to query it in natural language. An example given in the article is “Will new innovations give me a longer life?”. Thus, users can ask questions about ideas expressed among the full database of TED talks and, for the results, view video excerpts where such ideas have been explored. Watson’s results are further accompanied by a “timeline” of related concepts contained in a particular video clip permitting users to “tunnel sideways” if they wish and explore other topics that are “contextually related”.

The rest of the article is a dialog between the project’s leaders Jeffrey Coveyduc from IBM and TED.com editor Emily McManus that took place at Watson World.  They discussed how this new idea was transformed into a “prototype” of a fresh new means to extract “insights” from within “unstructured video”.

Ms. McManus began by recounting how she had attended Mr. Dario’s TED Talk about cognitive computing. Her admiration of his presentation led her to wonder whether Watson could be applied to TED Talks’ full content whereby users would be able to pose their own questions to it in natural language. She asked Mr. Dario if this might be possible.

Mr. Coveyduc said that Mr. Dario then approached him to discuss the proposed project. They agreed that it was not just the content per se, but rather, that TED’s mission of spreading ideas was so compelling. Because one of Watson’s key objectives is to “extract knowledge” that’s meaningful to the user, it thus appeared to be “a great match”.

Ms. McManus mentioned that TED Talks maintains an application programming interface (API) to assist developers in accessing their nearly 2,000 videos and transcripts. She agreed to provide access to TED’s voluminous content to IBM. The company assembled its multidisciplinary project team in about eight weeks.

They began with no preconceptions as to where their efforts would lead. Mr. Coveyduc said they “needed the freedom to be creative”. They drew from a wide range of Watson’s existing technical services. In early iterations of their work they found that “ideas began to group themselves”. In turn, this led them to “new insights” within TED’s vast content base.

Ms. McManus recently received a call from Mr. Dario asking her to stop by his office in New York. He demo-ed the new system which had completely indexed the TED content. Moreover, he showed how it could display, according to her “a universe of concepts extracted” from the content’s core. Next, using the all important natural language capabilities to pose questions, they demonstrated how the results in the form of numerous short clips which, taken altogether, were compiling “a nuanced and complex answer to a big question”, as she described it.

Mr. Coveyduc believes this new system simplifies how users can inspect and inquire about “diverse expertise and viewpoints” expressed in video. He cited other potential areas of exploration such as broadcast journalism and online courses (also known as MOOCs*). Furthermore, the larger concept underlying this project is that Watson can distill the major “ideas and concepts” of each TED Talk and thus give users the knowledge they are seeking.

Going beyond Watson + TED’s accomplishments, he believes that video search remains quite challenging but this project demonstrates it can indeed be done. As a result, he thinks that mining such deep and wide knowledge within massive video libraries may turn into “a shared source of creativity and innovation”.

My questions are as follows:

  • What if Watson was similarly applied to the vast troves of video classes used by professionals to maintain their ongoing license certifications in, among others, law, medicine and accounting? Would new forms of potentially applicable and actionable knowledge emerge that would benefit these professionals as well as the consumers of their services? Rather than restricting Watson to processing the video classes of each profession separately, what might be the results of instead processing them together in various combinations and permutations?
  • What if Watson was configured to process the video repositories of today’s popular MOOC providers  such as Coursera or edX? The same as well for universities around the world who are putting their classes online. Their missions are more or less the same in enabling remote learning across the web in a multitude of subjects. The results could possibly hold new revelations about subjects that no one can presently discern.

Two other recent Subway Fold posts that can provide additional information, resources and questions that I suggest checking out include Artificial Intelligence Apps for Business are Approaching a Tipping Point posted on March 31, 2015, and Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World posted on December 27, 2014.


*  See the September 18, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process for the full details and some supporting links.

A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process

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Image by Ilonka Tallina

[This post was originally uploaded on November 15, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on February 18, 2015.]

Studying for and then taking the New York State bar exam was about as much fun for me as having a root canal without Novocaine. In fact, root canal might even have been preferable.

Nonetheless, the most extraordinary learning experience I have ever had while studying for anything up to that point was attending a two-day comprehensive lecture on the Federal Rules of Evidence by the legendary law professor Irving Younger. This subject is a challenge to fully master and always a favorite topic throughout the exam. Having attended Professor Younger’s mesmerizing lectures, not only did I feel prepared for the questions on evidence but I left fully convinced that he could have taken in anyone at random walking by the building and taught him or her enough about this subject to pass. Please check out this video on YouTube of his dynamic lecture on 10 Commandments Of Cross Examination at UC Hastings College Of The Law for, well, incontrovertible evidence of this.

For many years during and after Professor Younger’s life, some US law schools kept audio tapes of his lectures on evidence and civil procedures on file in their libraries. If he was lecturing today, it is a near certainty that his classes would now accessible across the Web.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are classes presented on the web so that anyone can learn just about any subject from anywhere across the globe. Universities, public and private schools, and other for providers from many fields have placed video lectures, syllabi, downloadable course materials, and
discussion forums available. Homework assignments and projects are often part of the MOOC experience.

Users can audit these courses, obtain certifications for having attended them and done the course work, and even have degrees conferred. MOOCs related by topic are often group together into pre-packaged options. Of course, the quality of these offerings can vary quite a bit. But to a highly significant degree the web is transforming the process of education.

If you are not yet familiar with this revolution in education, I suggest starting with this report by correspondent Sanjay Gupta on 60 Minutes on CBS that was first broadcast on September 2, 2012. It is about the wildly popular and highly effective classes offered online by The Khan Academy for students around the world on a multitude of subjects. The video classes are largely designed for grade school through high school levels. I think The Khan Academy’s smashing web-wide success with students and educators add new credence and incentive the old adage that a great instructor can effectively teach his or her subject to anyone interested in learning new things.

This Wikipedia page provides an excellent survey of the expanding universe of MOOCs, with a surfeit of valuable links baked in, to help you navigate this rapidly evolving world. As well, an article posted on BusinessInsider.com on November 4, 2014, entitled 15 Free Online Resources That Will Make You
Smarter by Sujan Patel is a terrific reference and fully linked on-ramp to today’s leading MOOC providers for business, finance, tech and academic topics.

During the past year I have had an opportunity to take a number of MOOCs available on Coursera.com (one of the 15 online providers covered in this article). Two of these quickly became Professor Younger-like experiences from which I learned more than I could have imaging at imagined from the course description when I registered, and for which I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to participate.

The first was Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization taught by Professor John Lavine of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. (Creating a free membership online will give you access to the links for both classes described here.) This was a brain-bending six-week MOOC that thoroughly defined, explored and demonstrated what exactly “content strategy” is in the rapidly changing world of e-commerce and how to put its best practices into action. The home page for this MOOC does an expert job of describing the particulars.

The second was Understanding Media by Understanding Google taught by Professor Owen R. Youngman, also of Medill. This was a captivatingly deep and wide examination of the numerous services, influences and technologies that have made Google such a pervasive global phenomenon. Again, please see this MOOC’s home page for the flight plan of an educational journey will not soon forget.

In both of these MOOCs the classes were given assignment and projects to provide valuable practical experience that could readily be adapted and applied back in the workplace. Moreover, what I found that really rocked were the discussion forums for these MOOCs. Thousands of participants from across the globe generated and joined into thousands of online discussion threads about the contents of each week’s lectures. A strong sense of community quickly arose and rarely have ever seen such high bandwidth, crackling virtual exchanges of ideas, experiences, commentary and enthusiasm as I did here. The highest levels of civility and respect were also scrupulously maintained by everyone who participated.

Both of these MOOCs will be given again in 2015. I highly recommend checking the Coursera site for their scheduling and then registering for them.

Did I mention that these two MOOCs and all others of Coursera, as well as the majority in the links to Wikipedia and BusinessInsider.com above are reasonably priced to sell: They are available for free!

February 18, 2015 Update

Are MOOCs still being perceived as truly disruptive? Well, maybe not so much for now at least.
Notwithstanding my enthusiasm and appreciation above for MOOCs as a genuine shift in the paradigm of technology-enabled learning, their star might not be shining as brightly as before.

According to an article posted on the Chronicle Of Higher Education’s website on February 5, 2015, entitled The MOOC Hype Fades, in Three Charts, by Steve Kolowich, the latest data gathered about this phenomenon appears to be trending this way. I will sum up some of the key points, and ad some links and comments. I urge you to click through for all of the details and three informative charts.

The Babson Survey Research Group released its 2014 report entitled Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2014 on February 5, 2015. Its initial key finding is that while the number of schools offering MOOCs has steadied at 14%, doubts remain among 2,800 academics surveyed that online courses could generate funds or reduce costs. The first chart clearly shows sentiment in this regard has reached nearly 51%.

The fiscal sustainability of MOOCs depends on these educators’ points of view. A mere 6% actually expected MOOCs to make money or lower costs. Rather, their main motivation for their MOOCs is to raise their school’s profile and enhance student recruitment. They further realize that quantifying this is rather difficult.

The second chart is a bar graph of six factors those surveyed believe will prospectively have the largest effects upon higher education. “Cost/student indebtedness” ranked highest with 62% and “self-directed learning” ranked last with just 9%.

According to the third chart, 20% of the schools also felt that trying out MOOCs would provide “new insights about teaching and learning”. Nonetheless, there has been a steep decline from 50% to 28% in the last two years of the number of schools that felt compelled to learn more about “online pedagogy” (which, in its simplest terms, means studying and implementing the best teach methods).

Thus, according to this Chronicle article, the “hype” surrounding MOOCs has been reduced. Educators are trending towards not seeing MOOCs as quite so transformative. Rather, the consensus is now that MOOCs have their place in recruiting and research for those schools with the resources available. These findings also provide incentives for those schools still reluctant about MOOCs to at least give them a try.

As with any meaningful new online phenomenon sweeping a broad market sector, I remain optimistic about the future of MOOCs for the following reasons:

  • The growing utility and ubiquity of MOOCs can reach people across the web who neither have the time nor funds to attend traditional classes. They are indeed priced to sell and free is a tough price to beat for such a useful and dynamic product.
  • Attending MOOCs helps students to maintain and enhance their levels of skills and knowledge which, in turn, have an upward effect on wages.
  • As educators and MOOC platforms such as Coursera continue to move up the experience curve they will be able to better market their content and shape their course offerings. Moreover, they will continually learn and thus refine how MOOCs are structured, taught and distibuted.
  • As mobile technology, web accessibility and cloud storage capabilities continue to accelerate while getting smaller, faster and cheaper, MOOCs will likewise be able to take advantage of these trends and reaches even greater numbers of students with more expansive offerings. Their economies of scale will continue to be reached and surpassed.
  • Based on my own personal experience with 10 MOOCs during the past year, I have found them to be invaluable in keeping my skills and knowledge current in a number areas. I have learned about subjects, resources and online communities that I might have not otherwise had an opportunity to discover. Surely many other MOOC participants have had the same experience.