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 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