MOOCs, Completion and Credentials

I’m thinking about MOOCs again. This started when Coursera announced to participants in the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC lead by Duke’s (Soon to be CUNY’s) Cathy Davidson, that almost 1500 of us had met the requirements of one of the two levels of completion certificates (Disclaimer: self included — Aside : I wonder when this will be available as an OBI compliant badge). When I asked how many participants there were (yes, I was wondering about completion rates), I was immediately reminded that completion wasn’t a good measure of learning (by the way, about 18000 signed up for the MOOC, which doesn’t say much about how many actiively participated or how they did it.) Then Stephen Downes, at halfanhour, compared MOOCs to newspapers and other media, pointing out that one doesn’t do every activity in a MOOC (especially a cMOOC) any more than one reads the entire newspaper from cover to cover.

I hope we have reached the point where we can acknowledge that learning happens without completion of a set curriculum as a prerequisite. Alas, the current structure of higher education is at least as much about signaling and sorting as it is about learning. John Warner argued recently in Inside Higher Ed that…

“…the demand isn’t for education, per se, it’s for what we believe education can provide: a secure, stable life. This narrative may not even be true, as Freddie DeBoer argues in a recent post, but we cling to it anyway because what choice do we have?” *

Given the growing focus on education as an economic lever, I’d argue that the demand is for something with the signaling function to potential employers that a degree has.  At least some of that signaling function works because colleges and universities assert that someone who has a degree has at least done certain coursework and hopefully acquired certain knowledge and skills in the process.  Whatever a MOOC non-completer learns, there’s nobody making that sort of assertion.  It’s largely because of those assertions that governments, employers, families and individuals are willing to pay for education, both directly and indirectly.

In an imagined world where a large proportion of adult learning occurs through environments like MOOCs where learners are free to pick and choose what they do, how do we back up assertions of knowledge and skills so the process is one society is willing to invest in?  My best guess would be some combination of open badges and e-portfolios.  What do you think?