The New York Times has its Education Life section out today, and one of the main pieces is titled “An Open Mind,” an article that takes an interesting look at the impact of open educational resources since the advent of MIT OpenCourseWare 10 years ago now. It’s a pretty balanced read, one that makes clear the potential of passion-based, DIY learning, but also gives fair treatment to the difficulties that go along with it, especially if we’re looking to get something more than just a bit more knowledge in the process. For instance, will OER “lead to success in higher education, particularly among low-income students and those who are first in their family to go to college?” Certainly, access to all of these courses (which obviously vary in quality and relevance) may be a boon to third world learners whose only desire may be to pursue learning. But for those looking to credentialize the experience in some way, very few grades are  in the offing.

It’s been a current here of late, but that whole “how do we credentialize informal learning” question has been really tweaking my brain quite a bit. As always, I wonder about this in the context of my own children, trying to imagine ways that they might begin to build something other than a diploma that might showcase their expertise in the same ways that a piece of paper might. Tall order, I know, and probably not doable in the short window that they have (10-15 years). But interesting nonetheless, especially when I read quotes like this one from Neeru Paharia, one of the  founders of Peer 2 Peer University:

She likes to talk about signals, a concept borrowed from economics. “Having a degree is a signal,” she says. “It’s a signal to employers that you’ve passed a certain bar.” Here’s the radical part: Ms. Paharia doesn’t think degrees are necessary. P2PU is working to come up with alternative signals that indicate to potential employers that an individual is a good thinker and has the skills he or she claims to have — maybe a written report or an online portfolio. “We live in a new society,” Ms. Paharia says. “People are mobile. We have the Internet. We don’t necessarily need to work within the confines of what defines a traditional education.”

Right now, that is “radical” thinking, but it’s provocative nonetheless. That “signals” piece is exactly where a lot of my own thinking and reading has been centered of late. And while this is about higher ed, a shift like that obviously has big implications for K-12. Not only is it about how we prepare our kids to learn more effectively in informal environments around the things they are passionate about, but also how we help them begin to build those portfolios of work that have real world applications, that can be used to highlight their learning and their ability to learn throughout their lives. I mean how, right now, are schools helping students be self-directed participants in their own learning who are able to share openly the learning they do and connect with others to pursue that learning even further?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to help our kids aspire to college, especially in the near term. One-third of our kids are still going to get college degrees, and many others will go down that road even though they won’t finish. But when we consider the growing scale of  collaborative study with experts that they are going to be able to do in their lives, we need to help them aspire to that as well, right?