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Posted: February 15, 2013

The futurist: The wonderful world of micro credits: Part 1

A tool for self-organizing the complexities of education

Thomas Frey

A recent TEDx talk about solving traffic jams started by asking the simple question, “Who is in charge of the daily bread supply for the city of London?”

Food supply chains have become enormously complicated, but as it turns out, there is no central “bread czar” for London or any other large city. The bread supply chain is a great example of a self-organizing system.

Most likely, if London decided to appoint an official Bread Czar to oversee distribution, it would be fraught with daily bottlenecks and supply problems.

As society grows in complexity, how can we design systems that don’t require daily oversight, with self-regulating mechanisms capable of unleashing the true potential of humanity? Perhaps our most broken system, in dire need of reform, is education, and I’d like to start with college-level education.

So how can we put in the right mechanisms and sub-systems with built-in checks and balances along with monitoring points, and yet have it be tweakable enough to make the complex systems used to govern colleges and universities self-organizing?

Admittedly, the world of academia is exponentially more complicated than the London bread supply, but I’d like to take a few minutes to explore this idea using the concept of Micro Credits as the entry point.

So, after spending the past few days consulting with Senior Fellows at the DaVinci Institute, here is what I’ve come up with.

“Who is going to jump first into granting a degree that doesn’t have the seat time requirement that we do today that employers will see as credible? Where does the credibility come from?” – Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum 2013 in Davos, Switzerland

Micro Credits Defined

University of California researchers James Short and Roger Bohn determined that the average person in the U.S. in 2009 was consuming information 11.8 hours a day, the equivalent of 100,500 words every 24 hours. While much of this “learning” may be relegated to low-effect, background noise, a portion of it will naturally fall into the category of higher impact learning with significant formative influence.

The question then becomes one of assigning credentialing to the learning moments that happen during any given day. With so many options, it becomes an exercise in “separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Learning experiences should not be based on the time spent learning, but rather on the value of learned skills that can be adequately defined by questions. Let’s begin with describing the smallest possible credentialing unit. Learning experiences should not be based on the time spent learning, but rather on the value of learned skills that can be adequatelydefined by questions.

MICRO CREDIT FORMULA: One Micro Credit = 0.01 of a traditional college semester credit or, stated another way, 100 Micro Credits = one traditional college semester credit.
Micro Credits will be an assessment of learned skills, based on outcomes.

The granting of Micro Credit is based on testing, with a minimum of 10 questions for the first Micro Credit, and one additional question for each additional 0.2 Micro Credits.
All questions will be multiple-choice with four possible answers. Answers to questions must be 80 percent correct.

This will mean that for someone to achieve the equivalent of one college credit, they will need to answer well over 500 questions and get over 80% of the answers correct. Once all questions have been answered, people will be asked to assign five words to describe the kind of skills developed through the learning experience. These words will serve as the foundation for the user-based skills classification system described later.

EXAMPLE: An 18-minute TED video may be filled with rich content, enabling 30 good quality questions to be asked about the subject matter. In this situation, the learning experience would be valued at 5 Micro Credits. At the same time, a less content rich 3-hour documentary may only warrant 10 questions, or one Micro Credit assigned to its content.

The Micro Credit system, as described here, has a series of built-in self-limiting checks and balance mechanisms. First, the content must have sufficient value to ask a minimum of ten questions. Second, all Micro Credit learning applications and questions will be evaluated by an independent third-party organization skilled in Micro Credit assessment.

Most importantly, users will have to feel the expenditure of time and energy to be worth the credits they receive. Since time is a precious commodity, the length of a test will be inversely proportional to likelihood that someone will complete it.

Here is a brief description of some of the other characteristics recommended for this system:

• TEST LIMITS: Micro Credit Tests will be limited to granting no more than 10 Micro Credits on a single test.

• EXPERIENCE AUTHENTICATORS: People who develop a Micro Credit Test will be referred to as Experience Authenticators.

• TEST-TAKING MECHANISM: Testing will be conducted through a web-based online secure system that enables people anywhere to participate.

• COSTS: All testing and the assignment of Micro Credits will be minimally priced for consumers, approx $1 per Micro Credit. Additional fees will apply to the test approval process, as well as storage and retrieval of records from the Credit Bank. (NOTE: This is a change from the original post where I suggested Micro Credits be free.)

• CREDIT BANK: All testing results and Micro Credits will be instantly assigned to a personal account in a Credit Bank, a service to be developed as the default repository for the Micro Credit system.

• USER-BASED CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM: Past attempts to create a top-down classification system like the Dewy Decimal System in libraries have invariably grown out of control over time. Skills, and the words we use to describe them, naturally evolve over time. So, while its important to have an Experience Authenticator attach meta tags to an initial question set, the tagging mechanism will need to evolve over time. For this reason, users will be asked to add five words to describe the skills they learned to every test.

• ANTI-HACKER MEASURES: To avoid the potential for people to game the system, a number of anti-hacking measures will be employed including a question order randomizer, an answer randomizer, and optional questions and phrasing.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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