education's digital future

Jan 22, week 3: what happened in class—symbolic deference, the inherited system of credit and accreditation in US higher education

This week's class began with a review of the previous week's discussion, which centered on functional and conflict theories of the formation of educational systems. Both theories offer plausible explanations for why schooling formed in the way it has, from a top-down desire for differentiated instruction, to an arms-race of would-be elites seeking status and exclusivity. However it formed, schools today treat student agency as a binary value that flips from "child" to "adult" at age 18 or high-school graduation. However, as Tim Reilly pointed out, our true ability to remake and direct ourselves waxes and wanes more gradually over the course of our lives. The public often takes a simplified view that responsibility passes from the teacher/school to the learner at the magic number 18. However, as Mitchell noted, data from online courses may challenge our views by demonstrating the agency of students who are below 18 and the impact of bad teachers/schools for those beyond 18.

With that, Mitchell introduced his mini-lecture for the week — "What Is Accreditation? Why Should You Care?" He began by emphasizing that colleges and universities can be considered "quasi-sovereigns" in that they have partial autonomy from the government and other regulatory bodies, they have their own infrastructure and bureaucracy, and they have multiple overlapping jurisdictions. He illustrated this with a slide depicting colleges as bubbles in a Petri dish of public and private organizations. Though universities are not typically seen as money-making institutions per se, they require money to sustain themselves as much as any other bubble in the dish, and they seek to cooperate with other organizations in order to thrive.

How does accreditation function in this world? Mitchell argued that accreditation is a way to certify the legitimacy of the work offered by colleges and completed by students. To a large degree, universities seek accreditation to make money by qualifying for federal grants and attracting students who see a college education as a legitimate ticket to a job. (Picture the "Stanford" bubble linking up to the "Federal Government" bubble through the intermediate "accrediting body" bubble.) This relationship has been stable throughout the 20th century, but the last ten years have added significant strain. Reduced federal funding of higher ed and new federal expectations of accountability have encouraged colleges to either compete more intently for the government resources available, or to break off in search of self-sufficiency. In addition, the dish is now filled with "free radicals" (pun intended), potentially disruptive ed-tech startups that promise to deliver better learning opportunities for little or no cost. The remainder of the class was spent discussing the many strategies that the free radicals in this space could take, including attempting to interface directly with the government, banding together to create alternative forms of accreditation, or attempting to merge with the DNA of colleges for mutual benefit.