Unlocking stackable global credentials


Jun 29, 2016

It took 912 years from the founding of the first university in Bologna in 1088 for the global higher education system to grow to serve 100 million students annually by the year 2000. Current projections are that by 2025 there will be 263 million students providing 163 percent growth in 25 years: a rate that dwarfs the growth over the previous nine centuries. The vast majority of new students will hail from developing countries. Meeting this increase in demand presents a critical opportunity for disruptive innovation in higher education.

As the demand for higher education dramatically accelerates, so also the supply of modular educational resources is increasing through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and EdX, open educational resources (OER) like Khan Academy, and massive adaptive apps like Duolingo. The traditional monopoly that universities once held on delivering learning is coming apart. This new supply has the potential to usher in a new system that makes learning more flexible, affordable, and accessible.

But this new supply cannot meet the demand if our global education system lacks standards for interoperability—that is, modular standards that specify the fit and function of all elements so completely that it does not matter who makes the components or subsystems as long as they meet the defined specifications. For example, engineers have lots of freedom to improve the design inside a light bulb, as long as they build the stem so that it can fit the established light bulb socket specifications. The same company does not need to design and make the light bulb, the lamp, the wall sockets, and the electricity generation and distribution systems.

As Michael Horn has argued, such standards are essential to enable unbundling and rebundling of education, Without this, the growing supply of modular learning opportunities will go unused by students who could benefit from them most. In particular, there is a need for interoperability between these alternative educational providers like MOOCs and the traditional educational system. Right now, there are millions of students in developing countries taking MOOCs and OER courses, but because of a lack of standards they cannot apply credit for what they are learning toward widely accepted credentials like degrees.

What does interoperability—or the lack thereof—look like in practice? As the leader of City Vision University, an accredited online school, I have had the fortune of working with many of the pioneers working to establish interoperability. City Vision partnered with Straighterline to apply for the U.S. Department of Education’s Experimental Sites Initiative last year to enable financial aid access to competency-based education. We worked with Straighterline to get its curriculum approved through the Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s (DEAC) Approved Quality Curriculum (AQC) process. AQC has an effective design, but its primary challenge is that it is not well recognized outside of DEAC schools. By contrast, the American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service is more widely accepted. In 2015, ACE received a $1.89 million grant from the Gates foundation to launch its alternative credit project with more than 100 courses from alternative educational providers like EdX, Straighterline, Saylor Academy, and others. Although this represents an essential step toward establishing the interoperability needed for unbundling, ACE credit is largely only recognized by U.S. schools, so it does not solve the global interoperability problem.

Globally, we lack an international counterpart to ACE credit that could provide interoperability between international alternative educational providers and accredited degree programs. Right now, the best candidate for this global interoperability is the vocational qualifications frameworks like European Qualification Framework (EQF). The Lumina Foundation made a similar argument when it announced its Connecting Credentials Framework based on the EQF standard.

This year, City Vision launched a four-year degree path targeting developing countries that cost only $5,000. As shown in the diagram below, this degree took unbundled OER courses (Saylor Academy) and used modular interoperability qualification frameworks (through Qualifi) to rebundle it into a City Vision degree with U.S. accreditation (DEAC). The modularity is such that qualifications taken by any provider are stackable to be applied as credits toward more advanced qualifications and degrees at other institutions. This provides modular courses and levels as “Legos” that can be used to build degrees by unbundling courses and qualifications in the same way that Netflix unbundles videos from the cable bundle. Although the coverage of the partnership in Forbes presented this as a workaround to a system that does not want interoperability, the support of DEAC for this degree path showed that accreditors do want interoperability as long as standards are met.


This small-scale experiment lends a hint at what a truly interoperable system might look like down the line. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some of the most promising strategies U.S. and global providers might consider in order to radically expand access to postsecondary experiences for students around the world.

Andrew Sears

Andrew is the president of City VIsion University. He previously co-founded the Internet Telephony Consortium at MIT with David Clark, one of the fathers of the Internet. For the past 20 years he has been running nonprofit organizations that develop educational programs to serve at-risk populations. He completed his doctoral dissertation on Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education, which he has turned into a MOOC on Udemy. You can connect with him at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewsears

  • Excellent article, Andrew. You’ve identified a critical issue in terms of the massive growth of the global student population, particularly in the developing world. This is a phenomenon that can’t be ignored, and I think you are providing a compelling solution for utilizing MOOCs and OER within the current accreditation structure. I look forward to seeing how City Vision will pioneer new pathways–especially for those in the developing world–in this new era of higher education!

  • Matthew Henry

    Very excellent article! Even considering the current (2016) American political environment and one of our presidential candidates technology plan to promote such an unbundling. Can’t wait!

  • Cali Morrison

    I take the Legos example one step further. In a degree the legos (aka learning) are like the boxed sets you buy now that have the exact instructions, and pieces, for making the castle. Whereas stackable credentials are like the old school, primary colored legos – you get a giant box, and you can stack them into what you need (want) them to be. So you might build a tower of desktop management skills next to a tower of web programming skills next to a tower of communications skills. And the best part? You can knock them all down and rebuild, or just keep adding on – whatever you need for the next step in life.

    • Andrew Sears

      Cali, I agree. The analogy I’ve been using is that you can buy just a general set of individual legos or a specific lego kit. I think much of the future of degrees could be lego kits, and the future of universities could be lego cities. There is value added in the design and synthesis of the whole using commoditized interchangeable parts.

  • Studies indicate that there is a serious gap in the soft skills, many of which stackable content expertise lacks the skills to effectively deliver. Most faculty in this stackable design are staffed by such content experts. As these programs are increasingly international the problem becomes amplified.

    The program set as a model is in business. Unlike STEM courses, harmonization seems problematic wrt soft skills except at a basic level. Unlike advanced Legos which are often more complex and interconnected, the model goes back to such basic units where the “interlocking” is one of convenience giving the impression that the parts will automatically equal the whole beyond basics.

    This is the issue with microcredits and badging. Straighterline’s original effort was to provide a low cost path or entrance to a university where the institution accepted the credit if the student then matriculated in that institution, hopefully creating an integrated experience. This model in its basic form turns accredited institutions into repositories, more like filling a book with appropriate stamps to be turned in for a certificate.

    • Andrew Sears

      Tom, good point. I agree that a downside of stackable, modular content is that it is more difficult to use for both soft skills and higher levels of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy. Part of our solution on the soft skills is to bundle mentors in local learning centers that can help address the soft skills issue. We’ve done that in our partnership in Kenya (see: http://web.cityvision.edu/graffinscollege/)

  • hi Andrew:

    1) one of the problems is taking a metaphor too literally or too far. In fact, if your Kenya program is as you state, the two efforts are woven as are the more complex kits from Lego, even with specialized parts.There be dragons here in carrying the metaphor and even buying into its rationale.

    2) I am not sanguine regarding “mentors” in general. Your pgm in Kenya does not have the full spectrum of a university. It is more in the “applied” area. The sense seems to be that, as with professional programs, key is On the Job experience linked closely with the academic institution. That creates concerns in many in more comprehensive universities that they become “vocational”, or as in some of the “diploma mills”, they become “counters of coup” to quote a phrase from American history.

    3) My experience in Africa is that even with OJT, the issue still can be problematic since many of those in the workplace, themselves are weak and that also means that mentors and faculty often are content strong and soft skills weak and they don’t have the experience to know how or the incentives to overcome these gaps themselves.

    • Andrew Sears

      I agree that initially the quality of modular education such as I’m proposing is initially lower than the interdependent approach. Disruptive innovation theory has shown that in many other industries while the interdependent architecture wins out in the short-term, the modular architecture wins out in the long-run. Higher education is likely to be a bit different that other industries because of its industry structure and regulation, but I still think that modular architecture will be dominant for the lower-end of the market, which will rapidly expand market share. The market opportunity is those who are left out of the current market and will accept “good enough” quality at orders of magnitude lower cost. So unbundled mentors are may not have the highest levels of quality as the ideal comprehensive university, but the cost performance will be far superior for those priced out of the current market. I think that you are right in pointing out that probably the most difficult challenge they will face will be 1) soft skills 2) higher levels of learning like application, creativity and synthesis. In the end, the unbundled players will have to prove themselves by continually improving their quality in the domains you listed too.

  • Thanks Andrew for this insightful and informative post! Overall, your argument for greater interoperability as the key to meeting the global growth for higher education makes sense, and you provided concrete examples of how this could be done in practical and realistic ways. Let’s hope academic leaders will listen and learn from your blueprint.

  • Anvayaa Kin care

    This article gives a clear explanation about skills and jobs importance. Higher learning skills will surely act as crucial part in finding and keeping a job after graduation. This helps many scholar to stand on their own feet and be a backbone to the family.
    Job searching will play a great role in microcredentials and other alternative stackable studies irrespective of strategy. Read more at anvayaa.com to know more about microcredentials.