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Assessing Steve Jobs

This week Steve Jobs resigned.  With the numerous articles written regarding his impact on the world as we know it, I thought it was an opportune time to discuss college degrees, open educational resources, the internet, assessment for prior learning, e-portfolios, and personal learning environments *whew*.  Yes, they are all connected and in connecting them all it’s easy to see where the future of education as we know it may be going.  As you may or may not know, Steve Jobs never obtained a degree.  He was, in fact, a dropout.  But, let’s for the sake of argument, imagine that at some point he decided it was necessary to go back and get that piece of paper: maybe a BS in Computer Science, or Marketing, or Business Strategies,…   Wouldn’t it actually be a bit absurd, especially if he wasn’t granted any credit for prior learning?  What if he submitted his portfolio of work to a college, only to be told “We don’t care.  We give no credit for prior learning.  You’ve got to start from scratch unless you have some transfer credit from another institution of higher ed”  Well, as we can guess, he probably wouldn’t choose to go to a school like that, and yet aren’t the highest rated colleges like that?  Aren’t most colleges? And, don’t most colleges have a bit of an attitude towards those colleges that do accept credit for things an individual has learned in life?

Yet, what employer wouldn’t want someone who was a self-starter, creative, committed, a life-long learner, a visionary, and all of the other things demonstrated by the an individual who has learned simply for the sake of learning?  Think of the person who does all of the work for a course offered by MIT’s OpenCourseware, or views all of the videos for a particular course at Stanford offered on iTunesU, and uses the information on their job.   Honestly I don’t believe there is anything you can not learn by working with a mentor and using the resources freely available on the web.  Nothing.  Especially with all of the educational resources out there, and the ability to connect with people all over the world.  With some initiative and thought and commitment, a person could learn almost anything, if not everything.  So, what if through the use of a Portfolio you could prove you had the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for a particular job?  What if by your own initiative you had acquired these things?  Would it hold any meaning?

This is where personal learning environments (PLEs) and ePortfolios will eventually take the place of credits, if not entire degrees (for some, if not most, fields).  This is true now, because there are individuals in this world that are learning on their own, that are doing the courses offered through open universities, and that have a great desire to learn and do.  They will seek ways of getting acknowledgement for their work, and they will get it.

Still there will be those who will, 40 years after obtaining their degree and without any further accomplishments of note, tell you how they had this degree or that degree from some important institution of higher learning–as if it was proof of anything.  What does it prove actually?  There are plenty of people in this world who are truly brilliant, truly capable visionaries who do not have the money or other means to attend one of those institutions who will certify their brilliance.  Perhaps like Steve Jobs their portfolio will speak for them and when they are talking with the individual who asks “So where did you get your degree?”  they will say “Life” and that will be sufficient.

I work for institutions of higher learning, and far too often the first question someone asks is “So, what’s your degree in?”  Followed closely by “Where did you go to school?”  I like the quote from The Little Prince “Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters.”

So, if Steve Jobs applied to your college, how would you set up a program for him?  How would you assess him in your courses?  Unlike Steve Jobs, most individuals who have learned a great deal already from life do not have quite as high a profile and are required to get that piece of paper; so they do.  They sit in the courses “learning” about things they already know and have been successful at.  There’s the executive who is brilliant at marketing, who was told he needs to have a degree to move up, so he’s sitting in Marketing 101.  There’s the individual that has worked as a Wilderness Guide, who is told “You still have to do a wilderness internship because we don’t count what you did before you entered our program.”  There is the individual that builds web sites for big bucks on the side, who is told that a course in web page building is a required course in their degree program and they can’t opt out.   So, they either pay the big bucks and waste their personal time sitting in a classroom so that someone can “officially” certify they know their stuff, or they go without that piece of paper.

The proof is in the pudding.  The pudding is what we should be assessing.  If the pudding has already been made, then taste it before you tell the individual they need to make pudding so you can make sure they know how to make it. There are many ways to learn, and there needs to be more ways of achieving authentic assessment.  Steve Jobs is an exceptional human being, that’s for sure, but there are many exceptional human beings in this world, with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them highly successful individuals yet without the degree.  How should we be assessing these things?