Imagine yourself emerging from the Way Back Machine in London, England. It’s 1526. Henry VIII is on the throne. You furtively duck into a shop, and quickly head to the back room. You’ve come to buy an English translation of the New Testament. The mere possession of this book is punishable by death.
In the 1520s, having open access to books (knowledge) was a dangerous game. It threatened the establishment. It meant that ordinary people could see for themselves what the elite had guarded so closely.
Enter Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned the publication of the “Great Bible,” in English, making it available to every church where it was chained to the pulpit to ensure it was accessible and didn’t “disappear.” While the publisher paid for this access with his life, in three short years readers were provided so that everyone, even the illiterate, could hear the Word of God proclaimed in their native English.
Fast-forward 472 years. You’re a college student. You’ve taken advantage of some amazing opportunities in the online world. You’ve listened to Nobel laureates discuss the Eurozone crisis and explain how current difficulties relate (or not) to classical theories of economics. You’ve worked through the underlying physics and chemistry for nearly every episode of "MythBusters." You regularly watch the TED lectures. And you’ve even taken courses from the Open Learning Initiative  and from OpenCourseWare  at MIT. Now you want the academic credit for those forms of learning.
Although you won’t actually be burned at the stake as Cranmer was, you have a very good chance of experiencing the modern version of this torture because it is equally threatening to the elite. It goes something like this.
First, you’ll be asked to produce the sacred document, otherwise known as a transcript, indicating that you officially took the course. No transcript you say? Sorry — your learning is then considered “illegitimate,” and you’re then often cast out into the night where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth as you stumble back to the very beginning of college to start over.
While an exaggeration, today -- through such outlets as TED, various open-source course initiatives, and primary sources through digital content providers -- we all have access to the knowledge that previously was the province of academia. In the same way that access to the New Testament gave otherwise uneducated English people access to the very heart of Christianity, that access is “dangerous.” It threatens the central notion of what a college or university exists to do, and so, by extension, threatens the very raison d’etre of faculty and staff.
Threats to a well-entrenched status quo are not well-received. But the funny thing about many of them — whether books or ideas — is that they often quickly become the mainstream.
Higher education is facing the very situation that confronted our colleagues in the P-12 world when home schooling threatened the world order. Initially considered a fringe activity of substandard quality, the sector figured out that if appropriate standards (i.e., learning outcomes) were agreed upon and stated clearly, it didn’t really matter what path students took to get to the knowledge destination.
Higher education needs to take a lesson from that experience and work much harder on specifying our analog of the Common Core State Standards. The tools are there, and have been there for a very, very long time. It just has not been in our self-interest to develop and agree on them. But we’d better, and we’d better do it now. Otherwise, it will be done to us.
What Thomas Cranmer figured out was that it was impossible to execute people fast enough to stem the desire to access the new sources of knowledge. So he wholeheartedly adopted the reform, and made it his own. What we need to learn from that is to accept the reality that anyone can access the same information we academics used to carefully mete out, so the best approach is to adapt and make that reality our own. We need to create a higher educational system that embraces competency-based achievement, realign the milestones by which we gauge increasing levels of knowledge/competence, and redefine degrees on this basis.
We have an instructive example. Standard 14 of the Middle States’ Characteristics of Excellence pertains to the assessment of student learning. The standard requires that students be told what “…knowledge, skills, and competencies [they] are expected to exhibit upon successful completion of a course, academic program, co-curricular program, general education requirement, or other specific set of experiences… .”
As stated in the Standard, the objective is “…to answer the question, ‘Are our students learning what we want them to learn?’ ” Such assessment is “an essential component of the assessment of institutional effectiveness” (Characteristics of Excellence,, p. 63). The description then goes on to discuss how learning outcome assessment should be designed and its results used. Nowhere is there a discussion of credits.
Given that we already have an accreditation system based on the assessment of student learning (i.e., knowledge/competence acquisition), then it is a rather straightforward matter of taking the existing approach to the next step to complete the conversion process from one grounded on credit accumulation (irrespective of learning) to one based on demonstrated learning outcomes.
More specifically, we need to adopt the approach already taken in many professions of clearly articulating what students are supposed to know and be able to demonstrate at various levels of educational attainment, and create accreditation standards and metrics that reflect it. This would put real teeth in the assessment of student learning outcomes by putting consequences on not doing it well, as well as put the focus on where the content comes from and its quality assurance that underlies the knowledge/competence we expect students to acquire.
When that happens, the recognition of prior learning becomes very straightforward, and its source becomes irrelevant as long as the appropriate competencies are shown. In other words, we already have all the basic elements necessary to take the Cranmeresque step of moving from banning the immediate and unquestioned acceptance of demonstrated knowledge/competence to creating the postsecondary equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Brave New World
Adopting an accreditation system predicated on the authentic assessment of student learning outcomes liberates faculty to serve a much more important role — that of academic mentor and guide for the student’s learning and knowledge/competence acquisition process. In a way, this will return us to the past, whereby through the judicious use of technology faculty will be able to provide far more individualized instruction to many more students than the current system could ever possible allow or support. In another way, it means that the kind of individualized attention we give to doctoral students can be extended to all. This would be a major improvement for students and faculty alike.
To continue to have legitimacy, accreditation must focus on the core issue — student learning. Accreditation must begin certifying that students actually learn, and that what they learn matches the stated objectives of a course, an academic program, or a specific set of objectives (such as in general education). In short, accreditation must move from certifying that an institution claims that it is doing what it is supposed to do to certifying that students are learning and progressing in their acquisition of knowledge/competence.
Because people can simply wander around the Web and pick up content that is neither amalgamated by a content provider nor verified for accuracy, it will become necessary for some entity to engage in quality assurance in terms of learning outcomes. The job of verifiying bona fide knowledge/competencies and establishing where along the continuum of knowledge/competence acquisition a student falls can become the province of organizations that resemble LearningCounts.org, or even broader entities.
In both cases (i.e., using content offered by an certified provider or doing it on your own with no official guidance), a credential or type of certification would be provided each time a new level of knowledge/competence is reached. The student would then deposit those credentials or certifications into a credential bank for future reference. The student -- not the registrar’s office -- owns the credential
Degrees Deconstructed and Decoupled
We get to this alternate accreditation world in two ways: by clearly defining what each degree means and aligning accreditation with content providers (not institutions that confer degrees).
This requires that we come to quick agreement on what different types of degrees mean. In the United States the TuningUSA effort is just beginning the work of more clearly articulating what knowledge/competencies a student is supposed to demonstrate before being awarded a postsecondary degree.
This is in contrast with the current practice of awarding degrees based on a student's spending a specified minimum amount of clock-defined time amassing an arbitrary number of credits and obtaining a minimum set of grades. Nothing in the current definition says anything about what knowledge or competencies the student actually demonstrates. We need to test it — look up the degree requirements for English literature degrees across a variety of institutions and compare them. This loose approach is in contrast to efforts in other parts of the world, such as Europe, where degree qualifications discussions have been ongoing for over a decade.
Once the accreditation focus is placed on student learning outcomes for real, accreditation becomes tied to learning and is decoupled from institutions granting degrees. Accreditation then becomes aligned with entities that provide content and the parcels or “courses” in which they are delivered. The seal of accreditation would then be placed on the separate pieces of content offered by content providers who demonstrate that the content offered comes with embedded authentic assessment of learning. To be sure, most of these providers will still be postsecondary institutions, but the accreditation umbrella is extended more broadly to reflect the current reality that content comes from many sources.
In such a system, regional accreditation no longer gives thumbs-up or thumbs-down only on the traditional degree-granting institution. Rather, it focuses on what is provided by any entity that wants to claim it’s in the business of offering content. If and only if that content meets certain standards would it be “accredited.”
Shifting the focus from the institutional level to the content level would strengthen the link between accreditation and federal financial aid eligibility. If and only if a student was using content from an accredited source would the student be able to apply for and receive federal financial aid. Likewise, if the student has amassed knowledge/competencies from self-instruction or from noncertified sources and wants to convert that into “certified learning,” then federal financial aid could be spent only at accredited entities in that business.
Charting a Future Course
The possible future I have described here is both scary and exciting. We can choose to sit down in the captain’s chair and help chart our own course by fully embracing new opportunities while really being serious about quality as defined as authentic assessment of the acquisition of knowledge/competence. Or we can put up the shields, claim that the way we provide access to knowledge now is to remain immutable for all time and that change will bring our world crashing down and condemn us to eternal damnation, and have a modern equivalent of Thomas Cranmer bring it all crashing down.
It’s up to us. Shields will not work. We have only one real option if we want to build on the true legacy and meaning of education: to boldly go where accreditation has never gone before.
John C. Cavanaugh is Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.