Last week, I wrote about the need for stackable global credentials in order to meet the quickly growing international demand for higher education. Globally, the lack of interoperability standards between alternative and traditional educational systems may be the single most significant barrier to making education accessible to the poor, particularly in the developing world.

How might an interoperable educational system work? To imagine such a system, we need to understand how the parts of the system ought to fit together—much like Legos do. In the traditional educational system, degrees are monolithic bundles similar to Tonka trucks that cannot easily be broken into components unlike a Lego truck that can be broken into components and reassembled into different combinations. If there were interoperable standards in education, like there are Lego blocks, the system would give way to a variety of educational products: people could buy individual lessons or courses (individual Lego blocks); purchase modular degrees, certifications, and other learning bundles (Lego kits); or attend comprehensive modular universities (Lego cities).




Standards modular educational system possible—for example, Lego blocks fit together because they are a certain size and consistent design. A good standard needs to be clearly defined and widely accepted. There are various types of standards that could enable the growth of a global interoperable postsecondary system:

1. Create international standards that enable course-level credit portability. Each country typically has three types of course-level accreditation standards: exam-based (such as AP, CLEP, and IB), peer-review based (ACE credit, NCCR, and AQC) and portfolio evaluation (CAEL). Course-level credit recognized in one country, however, often does not transfer to another country. There are several possible ways to address this:

  • Develop international course-level accreditation standards. Standards groups, like CHEA’s International Quality Group (CIQG) and the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), could develop standards that would improve the transferability of course-level and one-year qualification level accreditation across countries. International agreements exist among accreditation bodies to accept transfer credit between institutions that offer accredited degrees and qualifications. Standards are needed for course-level accreditation, so that courses certified by groups, like ACE, were regarded as internationally transferable by accreditors (subject to institutional acceptance), just as international transcripts from accredited institutions are transferable.
  • National course-level accreditors could seek multinational recognition. For example, ACE’s College Credit Recommendation Service (and/or NCCRS) could consider endorsing one-year learning paths, similar to one-year qualifications in EQF. If they became an EQF or U.K. awarding body for qualifications, they could offer credit recommendations that were internationally portable.
  • Alternative education providers could seek multinational recognition. For example, some learning paths, like edX’s XSeries and Coursera’s specializations, might be appropriate to submit to be approved as qualifications by Ofqual Awarding Bodies, EQF, or other frameworks, in addition to receiving national approval like ACE. This would both enable international portability while also providing a more flexible path to accreditation than through traditional accrediting bodies. An essential part of disruptive innovation strategy is that disruptors should gradually improve their quality and value and that aligning these course bundles with qualifications is probably the next logical step.

2. Adopt standards for alternative education credit. This would enable alternative education, such as MOOCs, to interoperate with traditional systems supporting education, including accreditation, financial aid, and private student loans. Approaches to this might include:

3. Propagate policies for more widespread acceptance of course credit to both accreditors and funding sources. Generally, alternative education and course-level accreditation have been treated as second-class citizens both by accreditors and funders. Some initiatives to address this might include:

  • Financial-led quality assurance standards, such as that proposed by the Skills Fund, could help enable more private financial investment in alternative education.
  • Accreditors updating policies to make it easier for institutions to accept course-level accreditation. For instance, right now some accreditors’ standards allow 75 percent of a degree to be transferred from accredited institutions, but only 25 percent can be accepted from ACE credit. If ACE sets its standards appropriately, then accreditors should leave the decision on whether to accept credit to individual colleges and universities. If unbundled courses were treated similarly to other courses, then schools, like City Vision, with a mission focused on access should be allowed to accept 75 percent of their credits from ACE courses.
  • Creating a centralized accreditor to enable federal funding of alternative education such as the S. Department of Education EQUIP Initiative legislation proposed by Senator Rubio and that proposed by Hillary Clinton.

It is not clear which, if any, of these approaches will become the dominant solution to the interoperability problem in higher education, but it is likely to be some combination. Given how long it often takes regulators and accreditors to establish standards, it is quite possible that the private sector will dominate future standards as the system of employer-led quality assurance by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In such a system, competencies, rather than courses, might begin to define the standardized interfaces around which the system modularizes.

As I noted in my previous post, the supply of educational experiences is on the rise. Making a dent in the interoperability crisis in higher education holds enormous potential; it stands to open up affordable credentialed education to the hundreds of millions of students who currently are not being served by the traditional educational system.


  • Andrew Sears
    Andrew Sears