The Great Unbundling



Academic Credentials Go Micro: Will Museums and Formal Education Converge?

Twenty years from now, résumés may look quite different than they do today. Now the traditional white-collar résumé leads with the names of alma maters and dates of graduation, but the future c.v. could be a portfolio of “microcredentials” harvested from a wide variety of sources, representing a mix of face-to-face classroom learning, online coursework, self-administered exams and real-world experience. Classroom time, credits and credentials won’t have to be tied together. What role can museums play in building the résumé of the future?

The rising cost of higher education, the burden of student loan debt and the high unemployment rate are all driving students to look more closely at the return on their tuition investment in a college degree. While a college degree still strongly correlates with future employment and income, many jobs that are going unfilled in this weak economy—including trucking, medical support, auto repair and a raft of manufacturing trades—require something more akin to community college or vocational training than a four-year liberal arts degree. An increased emphasis on competency-based learning (i.e., away from the focus on “seat time” as a mark of accomplishment), at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels, is driving educators and learners to rethink traditional diplomas.

Meanwhile, online education is proliferating rapidly, with a significant move in the past few years from closed distance-learning systems—which have been available since before the creation
of the World Wide Web—to increasingly open systems. With this growth comes increased potential for students to assemble their own curricula and create their own education on schedules that fit their particular circumstances. The spread of broadband access—even in rural communities, poor urban neighborhoods and less-developed countries—makes this content accessible and distance education far more functional than in the past. This opens up a range of options for enhancing traditional coursework with online content, including self-paced virtual classes without any instructors, “flipped” classrooms (where the students stream video lectures on their own time and class time is spent on discussion) or a hybrid approach that has half-jokingly been called
“The NPR Model of Higher Ed”: combining the best lectures and online support from top universities with local content, face-to-face interactions and the social aspects of a “campus” experience.

Universities have been posting lectures and course materials online for more than a decade, starting with MIT’s OpenCourseWare project. What’s new are MOOCs: Massive Online Open
Courses that are scaled to enroll as many as 100,000 students and include opportunities for both active participation and student assessment. One consortium, Coursera, hosts free content from
33 top universities in seven countries, including Stanford, Columbia, Princeton and Johns Hopkins, and invites people to “take the world’s best courses online, for free.” MOOCs are also hosted by other universities, nonprofit organizations like the University of the People and for-profit ventures like Udemy. They jockey for position in the same crowded online space already occupied by
tuition-based distance education from universities, training webinars from companies and professional associations, instructional videos from the Khan Academy and Howcast, and much more.

New forms of online learning are, in turn, inspiring alternative forms of online credentialing such as digital badges—a kind of virtual credit that learners can display on a digital résumé, webpage, LinkedIn profile, etc., with an embedded link to information about exactly what the credit means and what the learner accomplished in order to earn it. (Digital badges can also reflect real-worldexperiences, which is the focus of Badges for Vets, designed to help translate military training into civilian credentials.) The badges are intended to recognize, assess, motivate and evaluate learning. In 2012, Mozilla launched an Open Badge Infrastructure project to create a common structure that will let any organization issue, manage and display badges across the Internet; the MacArthur Foundation complemented this with a $2 million “badges for learning competition” to fund specific badging projects. At least six museums made it past the first round of competition, and two Smithsonian museums (the National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt) received project funding.

Independent of the new technologies and challenges to the organization of postsecondary education, the Millennials are reassessing their relationship to higher learning. While college costs rise and alternatives appear on all sides, Millennials evince a desire to do real, meaningful work right away—and wield real authority in the workplace—rather than starting at the bottom of traditional career structures. (A 2011 poll by the Kauffman Foundation showed that 54 percent of Millennials in the U.S. either want to start a business or have already started one.) This, plus an unwillingness to shoulder significant debt, may encourage more young adults to forgo college at 18 and leap straight into the workforce, trusting that the portfolio of accomplishments they build will be a good substitute for a traditional degree when they apply for later positions. In the end, employers control whether and how fast these alternate modes of training and credentialing catch on. As soon as employers show they are willing to accept online courses (even free ones) and portfolios of independent work in lieu of traditional degrees—well, that sound you hear is the foundation of the ivory tower, cracking.


  • Postsecondary education, with its familiar division between two-year and four-year colleges (plus vocational schools and continuing education units at colleges), may fragment even further into a variety of viable options. By opening new educational niches and enabling students to choose training they can afford, this revolution could redress some of the current inequities of access, increasing the ability of young people to rise into or hold onto the middle class.
  • As traditional credentials become unbundled, opportunities for re-bundling will open as well, with an emerging role for new intermediaries to help people make sense of all their educational options and service providers. These intermediaries—which will probably include existing agencies, such as traditional colleges that vet prior learning and continuing education—can also provide employers with a certain level of assurance that the credentials are valid and appropriate.
  • As more young people opt out of the traditional college experience while jobs needing specific, specialized skills go unfilled, we could see the resurgence of apprenticeship programs and targeted training. Already, some employers are turning to “upskilling” to train workers to fill positions. Partnering with nonprofits, government and community colleges, companies are rediscovering their role in providing targeted training for their workforce needs. At least one nonprofit, Enstitute, is formalizing the apprenticeship model, providing a low-cost, two-year apprenticeship program that “provides an alternative path to traditional post-secondary education.”
  • As more post secondary education and career training is delivered in virtual environments, there will be pressure to provide physical spaces and opportunities for localized face-to-face learning and social interaction—and not necessarily on existing campuses.


  • When any learning, on or offline, can be converted into a recognized workplace credential, museums are less likely to be confined to the fringes of the formal education system and more likely to move into the mainstream. Microcredentialling through digital badges (or other systems of recognition) is a window of opportunity for museums, a way to validate the education that draws upon their digital resources and education staffs. The fragmentation of credentials could also increase the value and visibility of non-degree training that museums already offer, like in-service teacher training.
  • Museums need to be aware that third parties can incorporate a museum’s online content into courses (open or commercial), whether or not the museum itself decides to offer structured digital learning opportunities. How will museums monitor and control such use of their resources?
  • Museums need to come up with a business model for digital content that makes sense and then do a good job of explaining their reasoning to educators and students. How do we reconcile a  world where many people feel that content ought to be free with museums’ need to cover the costs of digitizing and interpreting their collections?
  • The three biggest challenges to the future of unbundled digital learning are finding viable business models, maintaining the quality of content and instruction, and assuring the credibility of credentials. The expertise of museum staffs and the extraordinary trust that people place in museums as credible sources of information can help address at least two of those challenges.


  • The Smithsonian’sCooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in partnership with LearningTimes, will use its award from the HASTAC/MacArthur competition to integrate digital badging into an existing DesignPrep program for underserved high school students in New York City. They plan to award badges for student achievements in specific design disciplines and overall design thinking, reflecting competencies for in-person and Web-based learning. Some of the badges will be accredited by the Council of Fashion Design in America and AIGA, the professional association for design.
  • The National Museum of Natural History is also working with LearningTimes to develop NatureBadges: Open Source Nature & Science Badge System. This badge system will connect the onsite, physical museum experience to digital tools for lifelong learning and engagement. The museum intends to become the hub for a strong international network of science and nature badges.
  • The American Museum of Natural History offers online courses that are recognized for graduate and continuing education credit at a number of virtual and brick-and-mortar universities. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art partnered with the University of Alaska to offer professional education credits to teachers enrolled in online classes; the teachers did not have to be in New York or Anchorage.
  • In the physical world of learning, the Hill Aerospace Museum (part of Hill Air Force Base in northwestern Utah) is providing local high school students with in-depth training in aircraft repair as part of an aeronautical mechanics course. According to curator Nathan Myers, “Our museum is a good teaching tool, because [students] get a good representation of a whole aircraft. These students could be our future workers on the next models of aircraft, and this can be their start.” (Plus, it may be the coolest shop class ever.)
  • Museum attendance is highly correlated with a college education (though it’s not clear how much the social experience of college contributes to this). If more young people decide to bypass the traditional college experience, museums may have to work harder to attract their attention.

“[Digital badges have the] potential to propel a quantum leap forward in education reform…. By promoting badges and the open education infrastructure that supports them, the federal government can contribute to the climate of change that the education, business and foundation sectors are generating.”
—Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education


  • Inventory the museum’s digital resources and consider how these resources might be used to support online courses, whether created and managed by the museum or by others.
  • Identify potential partners who might work with the museum to make its resources—collections, digital resources and staff expertise—available to learners at all levels.
  • Consider the local job market and any gaps between training and employment in the communities you serve. What can the museum do, within the limits of its mission and resources, to help fill the gaps providing specialized training, on its own or in collaboration with others?
  • Consider “college-age” as a prime audience for your museum, and engage this group either by working with universities and other online education providers, or by supplementing the services offered by these providers.
  • Think about the educational advantages of physical spaces, too. “Unbundling” isn’t just about digital badges and virtual content; it’s also about distributed face-to-face learning and real-world experiences. Can your museum be part of a distributed campus? Can you provide apprenticeships or other kinds of vocational training opportunities? Learners who rely heavily on virtual education will be looking for physical places to meet up with instructors and fellow students or explore additional sources of information. Museums can help fill this role for higher education—as they already do for home-schoolers!


7 Things You Should Know about Badges (Educause, 2012).

Kevin Carey, “A Future Full of Badges,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 8, 2012).

William B. Crow and Herminia Din, Unbound by Place or Time: Museums and Online Learning (AAM Press, 2009).

The Future of Higher Education (, 2012)

Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem (KnowledgeWorks, 2012).

Siva Vaidhyanathan, “A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole,” Cato Unbound (Nov. 16, 2012). This article offers a more critical look at the MOOC trend.


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