Excelsior College, formerly known as Regents College, is a fully accredited New York state private institution that grants degrees based on exam scores and portfolio evaluation.  As such, it is a natural fit to students who want to study using free online resources and who cannot afford to attend college (or more precisely, who can’t afford to pay back the loans they’d have to get).  I’ve been mentioning them on this blog, and have been following them since touting a Tutorial Manifesto back in 1995.  There are a couple of other established state degree-by-examination institutions as well, including Thomas Edison State College and Charter Oak State College.

A vice president at Excelsior e-mailed me to point my attention to Excelsior’s new “10K Degree Program.”  If I were a high school junior or senior, I’d definitely give it a serious look.  My favorite argument for such degrees, quite apart from the arguments about cost and the abundant free college-level content online, is that one-on-one education by the tutorial method is more pedagogically sound than the lecture, text, and exam method used at many universities.  The advantages are similar to the substantial advantages of homeschooling—only at the college level.  Such a system, expanded and found in all 50 states and around the world, is a key component of my notion of how higher education might be revitalized in light of the Internet revolution.

Whenever I think about Mozilla’s Open Badges project, I can’t help but think that Excelsior’s program is a bird in hand.  I’ll be surprised if the badges idea ever goes anywhere, mainly for the following argument: a badge is a credential; to have any appreciable practical use, a credential has to have credibility; credibility can be conferred only by careful evaluation by experts of examinations or work; and experts don’t work for free.  This requires something similar to an accredited degree-by-examination program–like Excelsior’s.  To be sure, there is a need for a cheap, widely-accepted, credible credentialing process that is beyond traditional degrees.  But that is already available, it seems.  The market just needs to be expanded and, perhaps, updated.

The Open Badges program promises “a simple framework that’s open to all.”  But they sometimes write as if Open Badges is mainly about letting people define their own badges, which they then claim on their own say-so.  “What’s wrong with that?” my fellow free knowledge advocates say.  Well, it’s great to trust others when it comes to letting them participate in a wiki or a software project.  That’s a little risky, but it often works.  It is a completely different kettle of fish to trust others uncritically when they make claims about their own qualifications.  That’s just naive–just look at the false claims people already make about their skills on their resumes.

Insofar as Open Badges wants badges conferred by objective third parties, based on real quantifiable achievements–MIT might be one of them–then we’re back to talking about things like accreditation and solid credential-granting bodies.  But as long as the open badges system has reliable checks in place that establish that badges can’t be claimed when they haven’t been earned, I’ll be a supporter of open badges, too.  But I think that the more anarchistic free culture types aren’t going to like such a result, and, as happened with Wikipedia, their influence is bound to spoil the Open Badges project.  We’ll see.

Excelsior, at least, has already solved the credibility problem.  They may not be an Ivy League institution, but an Excelsior degree is a real and valuable degree–and a very inexpensive one, too. 

(I have no relationship whatsoever to Excelsior and am commenting only out of a long-standing personal interest in distance and alternative education.)