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Belmont Club

The Diploma In Your Pocket

December 27th, 2011 - 3:39 pm

Stephen Gordon asks the question: what if an employer were faced with a choice of applicants between a person with a regular diploma from a nondescript school and someone who had successfully completed an online course at MIT? Who should he hire?

Imagine a personnel manager at a mid-sized industrial corporation in Kansas who’s looking for a candidate with a particular set of knowledge. There are two candidates: one from the local state school with an appropriate college degree, a second with relevant MITx certificates of completion.

Let’s say all other things between the candidates are equal. Which should be chosen? It’s true that an online education is not the same as the college experience. The candidate who went to college probably enjoyed his experience more, but how much is that experience worth to a potential employer? Unless he’s a member of the same fraternity, probably not as much as the college candidate would hope.

His formulation of the problem is good, but perhaps it is not general enough. What Gordon is asking is: ‘which is the better proxy for competence, the online degree or the brick and mortar one?’ But it may go beyond that.  Consider these other other scenarios:

  • An employer is asked to choose between someone with a computer science degree from Cambridge University and a high school graduate who has successfully developed a very complex, large scale software application.
  • An employer is choosing between a person who has an MBA from Harvard and someone with a BA from Stanford who got to California as a political refugee having escaped from China by trekking over Tibet and making his way down to India impersonating a Hindu.
  • An applicant for editor of  an historical journal on the Napoleonic War is an senior academic who has taught the subject all of his life; the other is the recognized guru of a website devoted to the subject with millions of yearly visitors and who has walked every major battlefield of the Era himself.

In the general case you have two or more sets of proxy indicators for qualification at the task at hand. Sometimes one is traditional and the other is nontraditional.

Your job is to determine which of the two is the better descriptor of actual suitability.  In an era when most people climbed steadily up a single career ladder the usual answer was to judge entry into the first rung by academic degree and to use job experience thereafter. In cases where people made a career change (shifted ladders) the basic idea was to predict suitability from one track record as to how the applicant might do in his new environment.

The two traditional repositories of proxy data were the diploma and the resume. The academic and job experience repositories. In order to make sense of this data, companies employed professional recruiters or human resources departments. But today things are no longer so simple.

In an era where the academic degree may be devalued by political considerations and when there are more alternative proxy indicators of competence than ever, the choices are no longer so cut and dried.  The resulting multiplicity of indicators is challenging the old gatekeepers. Recruiters and HR departments now need to interpret a wider range of credentials to arrive at a value.

And what exactly is that value?

Wouldn’t  it be really convenient if there were some market-validated way of assigning weights to different experiences and achievements and storing that as a secure hashed value? The value we are after would be a summary number, which for convenience we may call a reputation or alternatively, a decomposition of its components.  That’s really what we want the HR department to compute.

But since people are good at manipulating their own reputational stores, one ideally wants a repository maintained by someone else. Perhaps by everyone in a transparent process. Now suppose each time a person did something cool in a valuable activity, the result could be stored in a log not as raw numbers, but as peer processed reputational data.

Such numbers could be positive or negative. Win the Medal of Honor and get a positive value. Rob a bank and get a negative value.  Top the test scores at an online course and get a positive value. Top the class at MIT and get a positive value. Maybe do all of them together and let your mixed record speak for itself, at least to those who you authorize to analyze it. The first thing to realize is that the components are domain specific. A person with a Medal of Honor would be a god in some communities, but not necessarily among C++ programmers and vice-versa.

But this is an valuation problem and the employer can weigh them for himself.

The net result will be a world in which the school becomes not the Internet cafe, as Stephen Gordon suggests, but life itself.  Rather than simply being a content delivery system for delivering subject area knowledge, a University could transform itself into a cross between an experience booking agency and a bank.  The job of the University would be to enroll a student in jobs, expeditions, online courses, licensing exams and forum debates that are evaluated by peer communities other than the University itself. You can call these creditable activities, in traditional academic parlance.

The only restriction to enrollable “courses” would be that they are evaluable by others in the real world; that they produce results whose effect can be judged and challenged transparently by anyone qualified to do so. The role of University would simply be to ensure that the resulting reputation is decremented or incremented according to a secure process.

Your diploma would essentially become your reputation log, rather like the debits and credits that you see when you view your  bank account. That is your “rep”; your human capital balance. In the end it will include achievements and bloopers that you may have forgotten yourself; including plaudits that will surprise you; or criticisms from others that still sting you and whose effects you have to work through, like the payments on the gold upholstered sofa you foolishly bought at a store.

The role of the University in such a world would be to add value to a student’s store of human capital over his working lifetime.  To manage its students learning over time. It will suggest opportunities, make arrangements, put you in touch with others who might be interested in an entirely new ‘subject’. It would do far more than simply operate rooms in which a teacher lectures to students. It might still do that, but not just that. And that is exciting. Could this be the future of education?

Maybe not. It could be something different. But as education goes through a crisis of mounting costs and decreasing returns; as it struggles to throw off accusations of declining credential value, it is clear that higher learning must reform itself.  One place to start is with the realizing that you don’t graduate once — to the strains of Land of Hope and Glory — but many times over your lifetime when your smartphone beeps to let you know that yet another entry has been made into the your online diploma.

Now, if they could only invent online beer.

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