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LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman on education: overhaul the degree, not just the instruction

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Plenty of startups — from massive open online course (MOOC) providers like Coursera and Udacity to adaptive learning companies like Knewton to the “online Ivy” Minerva Project — want to rethink it means to get an education. But bigwig Silicon Valley investor Reid Hoffman wants entrepreneurs to go one step further and upend the college degree.

In a post on Linkedin (s LNKD) and The New Republic, the prominent investor and LinkedIn co-founder argues that the way to really make higher education more affordable and effective is to reimagine certification.

“To do this, we need to apply new technologies to the primary tool of traditional certification, the diploma,” he wrote. “We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.”

Could a LinkedIn-style profile replace the diploma?

For the majority of employers, a college degree is the baseline requirement. But, Hoffman argued, at a time when the skills the market needs are continuously changing and professional development and lifelong learning options are exploding, that position is becoming sorely outdated.

Given his connection to the world’s biggest professional networking site, it’s not surprising that he wants a LinkedIn-like profile to replace the diploma.

By some estimates, almost half of college students have never used LinkedIn. But last month the company announced a big move to court universities and students as young as 14 years old. And it’s not hard to imagine a world in which kids who were raised on Facebook (s FB) might take more pride in an online educational and professional profile than a piece of paper that just hangs on a wall.

In his post, Hoffman singled out Mozilla (where he is on the board of directors) as one organization pioneering a new approach to credentialing with its Open Badges initiative. Announced about two years ago and launched earlier this year, the program lets people earn badges for skills acquired on and off the web and then gives them a way to share their achievements on social networks, job portals and other websites.

But Hoffman isn’t the only one thinking up ways to displace the degree and the non-profit Mozilla isn’t the only group that’s made some headway in getting it done. As MOOC providers like Coursera and Udacity attract more students with online courses offered outside the traditional university setting, many thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors have talked of the “unbundling” trend in education. Investor Fred Wilson, for example, has also identified credentialing as an area of interest for his firm Union Square Ventures.

‘Jailbreaking the degree’

In various ways, a few companies already reveal what digital degree alternative might look like: startup Smarterer (see disclosure) offers lifelong learners and job candidates ways to measure and prove skills acquired outside the traditional classroom setting through crowdsourced tests. And job search site Bright gives employers a quantitative way to assess and rank applicants’ experiences and education.

But Degreed, a startup launched by a member of the founding team of ed tech company Zinch (which later sold to IPO-bound textbook rental site Chegg), comes closest to matching Hoffman’s vision of technology-driven credentialing. Its slogan (“jailbreaking the degree”) lines right up with Hoffman’s goal of “disrupting the diploma” and its service is very similar to the design specs he lays out.

The company, which has raised $900,000 in funding and just graduated from Kaplan’s TechStars-powered ed tech accelerator, gives users an online, updateable and machine-readable repository for tracking all of their learning — from a Harvard education to classes on Coursera or iTunes to educational books and videos. It also aims to score those experiences so that users and employers have a modular way of understanding a person’s collection of skills. Since launching last year, the company says, users have uploaded 1.5 million pieces of credentialing information to the site.

As Hoffman noted, a shift to new models of certification is going to take some time. As “dumb” as paper diplomas may be, they have hundreds of years, powerful institutions and entrenched cultural norms on their side. But it looks like momentum is building behind disrupting the degree and it will be interesting to see how active a role LinkedIn plays in their undoing.

Disclosure: True Ventures is an investor in Smarterer and the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

15 Responses to “LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman on education: overhaul the degree, not just the instruction”

  1. Definitely on the right track here. Many Uni courses are not sufficiently aligned to career needs, that’s why a degree these days won’t necessarily guarantee a job – in fact far from it. Real practical business experience and testimonials are more reassuring to employers. Skill acknowledgments perhaps less so. I suspect most employers are already checking LinkedIn profiles of job applicants already, they must be less easy to fake than a CV.

    Malcolm Davison

  2. Peter Usinger

    MOOCs and blended forms of instruction are just an interim reform trigger. The discussions on the federal and accreditor levels already include competency-based credentialing and transferable badges, etc. The underlying problem resides less in the structure of higher education but in the dismal output of a K-12 system driven by local politics and the associated status quo.

  3. Actually we should be careful to NOT dismiss remedies that will/can change our education Industry!
    I have been promoting my clients and there kids to start asking Universities why a completed degree is 120 credit hours and not 100? If 50% of students are dropping out before completion because of money or simply boredom doesn’t that set them up with a perceived notion of failure and a feeling that they have no chance for success?
    Killing hope is not the end result Universities should be delivering based on number of credit hours completed.
    An attempt by Reid to get more engaged workers into the workforce doing things they want to do will benefit them and business owners who wish each and every day that we could find the right people for our companies as we write pay checks out to ones that don’t because something is better then nothing.
    The point i am trying to make is that education and learning things is very important.But lets let people learn whats interesting and important to them that may benefit them now or in the future not a curriculum that is “cookie cutter”.
    I believe if you give someone a reason to do something that gets them where they want to go mostly they will.
    Don Garrett

  4. See “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” by Clayton Christensen. I teach at California State University, Chico. My discipline is financial accounting. With today’s technology, most of my introductory accounting students could skip my lectures, and learn just as much from their dorm rooms and apartments by watching my “Khan-like” videos. Instead of coming to “class,” they could come to my “open labs” each Tuesday and Thursday where I can give them individualized instruction. Soon, even these labs may not be that productive, once I learn how to monitor their progress and intervene “virtually.” I guess you can say that I’m flipping off my students–a flipped classroom, for now. Classwork becomes homework. Homework becomes classwork. These are exciting times.

  5. Exactly what educational degrees does Mr. Hoffman have? Is it his money and/or his company which makes the media anoint him as capable of pontificating on how best to change the educational system? Just the list of company names tossed out this article suggests this is all about money and driving revenue and brand. Same for Mr. Gates and all the other technology types who feel empowered to use their money and bully pulpit to drown out the voices of real teachers, educators, parents, and children in the debate about how we can continue to have a world class educational system.

    Unfortunately life is about more than business. And education is more than creating compliant workers for business. Indeed, if people really want a competitive society, they would push for college (and Pre-K through high school) to be about creativity, problem solving, and self-starting and not about rote memorization, testing, and collecting badges. Success in life doesn’t lie in mastering one set of skills. It lies in the ability to adapt and change and imagine multiple solutions to problems. And while work is often a necessary evil, for those able to work, teaching kids how to appreciate and make the most of their time on this earth is perhaps of greater value.

    So keep pushing your ideas, Mr. Hoffman. That’s your right. But don’t be surprised if many people object to your limited and uneducated view of education.

  6. I see both sides on this, and part of me is cautious about the possibility if LinkedIn introducing this idea as a way to add more power to its network and not necessarily help improve the overall system. It is also important to be mindful that there are now a lot of seminar like schools that have are loosing market share to universities and want to fix that problem. Also, this is really good for those that do not have a degree, but the question still remains..what is the best solution for everyone, all biases and agendas set aside. I have never had a degree and have always said that I can learn anything I need to without it. However, I am currently attending a university to get my BS and am now learning skills that i never picked up on my own. i sm also learning many things that i need but would never have studied on my own. I realize now that I struggled through a lot because I never got a high her education. I really don’t think the answer is to do away with the university. It is important to realize that a great deal of research comes from these universities too. I definetely think reform is in order, times are changing and our universities need to adjust. Getting the cost down, would be a plus, and perhaps changing the system, Post BS, there are basic college level skills that people need, like research and writing, humanities for a broader perspective. I think a badge system is great at developing certain skills, but it doesn’t create a broad and educated person. This is pet of the reason the tradespeople (speaking as an electrician) generally don’t have the same understanding of how the world works as the more educated do. Just go to a developing country where they do not have a large number of educated people and you will see the effects in the class system, infrastructure, quality of life, etc. I think we have to be really careful here about how we decide to educate our people. Many shortcuts have short term gains and long term losses.

  7. I was glad to come across this article as someone who feels strongly about the need for a shift in how education is offered, packaged, and delivered. I think its worth noting that small business owners or those who aim to venture outside of their current professions and who don’t fall within the typical college student demographic, would significantly benefit from a change in educational certification.

    In a post to an Entrepreneurial client base, I recently shared three online education providers, two being Udacity and Coursera.

    I’m very interested in learning about the Open Badges program and look forward to any other alternative educational recommendations I can share with my audience.

  8. George Mentz JD, MBA, CWM®, QFP, MFP®

    Very interesting points. Standards in certification is very important. Further accredited education and exams from top business schools can also be used as a pathway to badges or certification. The key is to maintain high standards for requirements for badges, designations and certification including: courses with assessment and exam, experience, ethics, professionalism, continuing education and so forth. See: Ibanez Supreme Court Dicta

    My view is that MOOCs will continued to be approved by the ACE American Council on Education and other credentialing agencies. Then, individual courses will be counted toward a degree or diploma. The key would be to have a college or university that can accept or consolidate these types of MOOC credits toward a degree? Many accreditation agencies or school policies require a certain amount of credits from the actual school to obtain a degree.

    While linkedin is already the gold standard of a resume and skills repository, sites like LinkedIn will continue to integrate skills, certificates and even board certifications into their system.

    While many certifications are regulated in the USA, most are not. Medical and legal board certification are regulated by the states and federal laws. See 9th Circuit decisions on Medical Boards. Public accounting certification is regulated in conjunction with the AICPA. Investment advise is regulated by the SEC, CFPB and states. Each state has its own list of regulated professions such as plumber, teachers, electrician, barbers etc.. Other than that, most all other badges and professional designations are open for discussion including necessary skills such as project management, e-business, life coaching, financial management, management consulting and more.

    Some companies are now even creating clearinghouse websites for MOOCs where you can consolidate and document all of your learning in one place and use one login.

    I think that LinkedIn’s natural progression is to promote and engage education, skills, certifications, assessment and more to help more people build their portfolio of skills and accredited education, and I am sure that many of the to e-learning and brick and mortar bodies will be willing to help.

  9. Tarun Mitra

    We live in a world where a programmer looking for a job is now asked if he has an active GitHub profile. His designer friend, on the other hand, is hired based on their peer-reviewed portfolios on Dribbble or Behance. Writers now have platforms like WordPress and Tumblr to begin, grow and shine. Where then, on a priority scale, do we rank our college education? We need to re imagine the certification and this is a thought that need further debate.

  10. We should be careful of giving up fragmented stores of a person’s identity, even more now in the light of Federal agencies collecting too much power and then abusing it.

    If we have this lovely, live collection of all of your academic and professional credentials, and one FBI officer suspects you of something, your identity will be erased instantly without notice or recourse.

    Imagine the dream of cashless society in this context – people will be cut off from any financial value they may have stored over their entire lives. Again, instantly, without notice and without recourse.