People move, but credit does not.
Credit transfer is the bugbear of university students worldwide. There is no more guarantee today than there was decades ago that they will be given acknowledgement for their studies at more than one institution. This is the case regardless of whether they transfer institutions, study abroad, or wish to combine the offerings of multiple providers.
This is despite supranational and supraregional agreements ranging from the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Europe (1997) to University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP), to state-based regulations such as the Texas Closing the Gap 2015 initiative, the provision of web tools like collegetransfer.net, individual institutional credit calculators, and the rise of credit aggregator institutions like Charter Oak State College in Conneticut.
Why credit transfer doesn’t work is often assumed to boil down to judgements about equivalency of courses, and the quality of a student’s grades and institutional choices. Grades ain’t grades, courses ain’t course and institutions ain’t institutions, it seems.
At implied fault here is the student for not choosing the right institution in the first place, not staying within the bounds of the institution, or not working to its standards of assessment. Credit transfer, at bottom, is a student problem.
Or it seems so. If you disagree, try to fill out a credit transfer form sometime without coming to the conclusion that you are being punished.
It is clear that we are not making any progress in addressing the problem for students by looking at things in this way. And a less than kind appraisal would suggest that we are more interested in protecting the revenue that flows from students taking our courses than supporting freedom of movement. The truth is, we do not know how much is lost or gained across systems by inhibiting or encouraging movement. This is the fundamental problem with credit transfer, not student choices.
This is because while we might have the equivalent of free trade agreements across university systems, decisions on granting credit still rest with individual institutions, and even individual staff members. It is like asking a local car manufacturer to decide whether imported cars are cars, and not insisting that they explain their decision.
I can therefore understand it if anyone sighs when I tell them I am part of the credit transfer working party for the not for profit MOOC provider edX. What makes us think that we will manage to navigate a credit minefield littered with great projects that have not gained the traction they deserve, like the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) and the Universal Credit Transfer Scheme (UCTS)?
But I think we have more grounds to be confident, and that confidence stems from the rise of peer-to-peer supply chain management in the digital world.
That’s right. Credit transfer isn’t a student institutional, course or study habit choice problem. It is a good old supply chain problem that fortunately we have new tools to combat. Students want something that we are generally not prepared to give, or not well set up to give, or dependent on ad hoc moment in time decisions to give.
Our credit decisions lack supply chain maturity and transparency. This is why technologies like blockchain are so interesting. Blockchain is a database associated with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ripple. I agree with Gideon Greenspan that blockchains are overhyped. Sure, we could use a well-established Structure Query Language (SQL) database or even a NoSQL database via a global enterprise provider. But these kinds of databases rely upon governance structures to authorise and recognise credit transfers. That is exactly the arrangement we have in universities at present, with poor results.
Blockchain uses disintermediation, which is just a way of saying that it allows peers or strangers—who generally do not trust one another—to make transactions directly with one another in a transparent manner. Validation is not done by an intermediary—generally a single staff member with credit transfer authority—but is built up through a transparent record chain of decisions. That means an institution can offer credit before a student asks for it, and a student can seek to validate that credit with multiple, competing suppliers. The double virtue of this approach is that the decision is transparently available for us all to see, and that decisions can change over time.
So Doug Belshaw is quite right to stress the use of blockchain for the verification of open badges, which are the cryptocurrency of the academic credit world. But I wouldn’t give up on formal course credit yet. This is because there is enough of a gap between MOOC offerings and formal programs and courses of study to have already supported credit experiments like the MIT micromasters, which have started—ironically—with the study of supply chain management. For a relatively small price, students can bundle five supply chain MOOCs together and take the qualifying exam that grants them half credit for an MIT masters.
This is interesting, but not enough of a step to take us away from the current world of credit transfer. Transparency of credit record and dynamism in that record are the key. I do not think we need to wait for all players to sit around the table and agree to the impossible: that there is a standard, single system of credit and that past decisions apply to dynamic curriculum. Blockchain support in venues like the edX course handbook are a great place to start.
But let’s stretch ourselves even more. I indicated that there is no fixed value in credit, and that’s one of the critical reasons why standardisation endeavours have not worked. Here’s a bold thought: I can see credit being traded, not just transferred. If MOOCs have supported the rise of machine marking, they can also support the rise of machine plus human decision credit transfer, recorded in transparent blockchains that can change over time as credit is traded. So picture a time when there is a credit market, and we can see fluctuations in credit transfer values that reflect supply and demand.
This may be a long way off, or even deeply confronting, but the only truly confronting thing about credit transfer is how little traction we have gained in addressing the issue over a long time. A shift in focus away from end user deficit towards transparency and dynamism might be just the change we need. We have a supply chain problem that we need to fix. Bring it on.