October 4th, 2012
11:01 AM ET

My View: The future of credentials

Courtesy Brad SwonetzBy Salman Khan, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a not-for-profit educational organization whose mission is “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” Khan is the author of “The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined” (Twelve).

(CNN) - When people talk about education, they are usually mixing together several ideas. The first is the idea of learning. The second is the idea of socialization. The third is the idea of credentialing - giving a piece of paper to someone that proves to the world that he or she knows what they know. These three different aspects of education are muddled together because today they are all performed by the same institutions - you go to college to learn, have a life experience and get a degree.

Let’s try a simple thought experiment: What if we were to separate the teaching and credentialing roles of universities? What would happen if regardless of where (or whether) you went to college, you could take rigorous, internationally recognized assessments that measured your understanding and proficiency in various fields - anything from art history to software engineering.

With our hypothetical assessments - microcredentials, if you will - people could prove that they know just as much in a specific domain as those with an exclusive diploma. Even more, they wouldn’t have had to go into debt and attend university to prove it. They could prepare through textbooks, the Khan Academy or life experience. Because even name-brand diplomas give employers limited information, it would be a way for elite college graduates to differentiate themselves from their peers, to show that they have retained deep, useful knowledge.

In short, it would make the credential that most students and parents need cheaper (since it is an assessment that is not predicated on seat time in lecture halls) and more powerful - it would tell employers who is best ready to contribute at their organizations based on metrics that they find important. College would become optional even for students pursuing prestigious and selective career tracks.

Think about the implications. The academic purity of a university experience would no longer be strangely mixed with student career ambitions - no more obsession with getting an “A” in a philosophy class to get a job interview at a consulting firm. Even better, pedigree and selectivity of school would no longer be artificial barriers to entering competitive fields.

College is supposed to be about opening up opportunity, but such is not always the case. The reality today is that the ultra-smart, ultra-hardworking kid from a poor family, who worked full time while getting good grades at a regional school or community college, will almost always be passed over compared with someone graduating from a more well-known and selective school.

Now, these competency-based assessments will not eliminate the need or value of universities for many students. If you decide to attend a university, you will be immersed in a community of inspiring peers and professors doing amazing things. The universities themselves will continue to conduct cutting-edge research that pushes society forward. College will become something similar to an MBA - an optional path that could help, but one that is not a requirement for a satisfying, well-paying profession.

What this will change is the opportunities for the 50-year-old laid-off engineer. He could now show that he still has the analytical skills and brain plasticity to work alongside 22-year-old college grads in a 21st-century job. It would allow the smart, young, single-mother to re-engage with a real career. It would allow recent college graduates to prove they have skills beyond what can be gleaned from their majors and grade-point averages.

It would allow people, in any field, to better themselves and prepare for valuable credentials without being forced to sacrifice money and time that today’s higher education demands.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Khan.

Posted by
Filed under: Khan Academy • Practice • Salman Khan • Voices
soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. A Teacher

    The foundation of Khan's argument is nothing new; he didn't come up with some brillant, innovative learning strategy. This idea has been around for thousands of years, and it's called an apprenticeship.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  2. Mousetrap-CH

    Too many people on this board coming up with goofy, knee-jerk reactions for why this is a terrible idea. You should use your brain power to try to think of some potential POSITIVE uses, and then decide if it would be worthwhile or not.
    Consider the following scenario (me):
    I've got a bachelor's degree in science, did nearly a decade of research in the lab, then decided I wanted to be an architect. OK, back to school for a master's degree in Architecture (and a bunch more debt). Fast forward to 2009–around 40% or architects were out of work and looking for jobs. I'd done some marketing for architecture firms and had taught myself a boatload more marketing (from books, online, etc.) but despite the fact that I had all of that knowledge, had been project manager on $100 million projects and been a designer for a decade+, I couldn't get an entry level job as a graphic designer or marketer. My only recourse was to get ANOTHER degree in marketing or graphic design. What exactly would be the point of that if I already knew most of the information and had an advanced degree? Should I really have to go back to college for a couple of years and incur tens-of-thousands of dollars in debt just to verify that I know the information? I don't NEED the college experience (again), and I don't need another degree!
    That's just ONE example of the potential of a program like the author is proposing. The sad fact us that a lot of people can't afford/don't need a college education–but the SHOULD get the employment advantages that provably having advanced knowledge of a subject would provide.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Dave Webb

      The university system is not at fault in situations like yours, and should not suffer further degradation or devaluation as a result of the requirements selected by employers. Your beef should really be directed towards the work marketplace where employers have taken advantage of a surplus of needlessly over-educated workers; thus they arbitrarily raise their selection criteria. The kind of system that is being proposed by Khan would not correct this, it would merely continue to tear apart our system of advanced education. The hoops you have been put through have been placed in your path by employers, not the university system. For what it's worth, I feel bad that you (and many, many more) have been forced into such positions, but as a university faculty member, I assure you that many professors are fighting back against the popular trends that continue to tear down the system and create these problems. There are solutions, but the proposal by Khan is certainly not one of them.

      October 10, 2012 at 4:03 am |
  3. Geo

    Too often the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. The author says that regular universities will still be needed and that all these neat things will still happen, but people work for incentives. Fewer people going to college means less revenue which means less incentive to do all those neat things.

    October 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  4. psikeyhackr

    43 years after the Moon landing and our economists can't talk about what we lose on the depreciation of automobiles every year. Are credentials certification to lie.


    October 8, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  5. fiftyfive55

    I sure hope my doctor didnt get his degrees online,how would anyone know if it was actually him taking tests honestly.Some ideas should be kept to one's self.

    October 8, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  6. Tulloch

    The Future of Online Education for anyone, anywhere, anytime. Free online courses (with optional low-cost credentials) are already available from MIT, Harvard and Berkeley through edx.org.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  7. PhillyCoder

    This would be excellent – the people bringing up that standardized tests and diplomas leave out soft skills are correct – and also completely missing the point. The idea is that you'd also be able to test for these soft skills (the ability to teach, to persuade, to work together, etc) so that you could decide whether you want the well rounded engineer who can communicate or if you need the hard core programmer who prefers to work in the basement. The main benefit of my private university education were soft skills – most of my academic learning came from the internet.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  8. Silence

    Here we go, now we will have the testing companies making more money on testing teachers as they come out of college. Sorry, but there is more to teaching than being good a taking standardized tests. The worst teacher I had in college was an engineer who taught night classes at the university. He was a graduate of Caltech and had a PHD. He also worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories. He clearly could pass any test these companies could throw at him and yet he did not have the ability to impart knowledge. He had the personality of a wet noodle. Not all people who can pass a test are cut out to teach young people.
    Mr Khan is being paid by the Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Walton foundations to work toward privatizing public education. He is being paid to help push the accountability nonsense.These guys make millions through sheltering their money in education foundations. Bill Gates is trying to push through common core standards and has made the comment that there is no need to buy different 4th grade math books for schools across the country because there is economy in scale by having every school in the US use the same 4th grade math book. Any guesses as to who owns interest in Pearson education textbook company that is the first to have common core standards? You guessed it, Bill Gates.
    Khan has a great product in his online tutoring, but should stick to that and not try to help Gates and the Billionaire Boys Club make millions off of our children. Remember, when corporate America controls the way people are educated, it will have total control over America. After all, if corporate America is able to design the tests that determine success, it can control who is successful.

    October 7, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • allenwoll

      Like I said immediately below - Forget Standardized Testing. It does NOT, It can NOT work ! ! !

      It only demonstrates the student's ability to take Standardized Tests ! ! !

      These abilities have little or NOTHING to do with the student's ability to produce on the ground.

      October 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  9. allenwoll


    "ONLINE EDUCATION" should be differentiated from truly AUTOMATED EDUCATION. . In the latter, the student is assigned an AUTOMATED TUTOR dedicated solely to him/her - assigned in Kindergarten and one which stays with the student at least thru higher education and on into adulthood if he so decides.

    This tutor would ALWAYS know the exact state of the student's education and would remediate it continually whenever shortcomings were noted. . No exams would EVER be required : The Tutor Always Knows ! ! . The student could NEVER know WHEN to try to cheat, for the testing of his knowledge would be a subtle, but deep and never-ending continuous process of which the student would be completely unaware..

    By the same token, the student could not cheat by impersonation, for the Automated Tutor would know him so intimately by voice, appearance and mannerism such that an imposter would be detected instantly and an alarm would be given.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  10. Been Around

    I have been around long enough to have met enough people with numerous higher degrees as MS, MD, MBA, pHD, etc. that do not know what they are talking about and do not have the brain function to understand. Degrees mean nothing. I went to undergrad with people who got straight A's, but didn't know what a screwdriver was for and could barely tie their own shoes.

    October 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  11. James M. Brundage-Neill

    Jeallousy of your betters is unbecoming, Mr. Khan. The finest universities are Western and they are the special preserve of the monied elite.. You have not learned your place, Mr. Khan. Ergo, you have not received an adequate education.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • U.R. Impertinent

      Wow. If you're a product of western education I will toss my diplomas into the nearest fire. That comment is simultaneously predjudiced, wrong, and insipid.

      October 6, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
      • Lou Cypher

        How does yelling at the messenger help?

        The University System is a money-pipeline, and Khan's heretical suggestion will not be allowed to menace that.

        October 7, 2012 at 2:26 am |
      • Scott M.

        If you can't tell that Mr. Brundage-Neill's comment is sarcasm, then I feel quite sorry for you. You must get offended a lot.

        October 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  12. Joe

    Nothing useless about having the breadth and depth of knowledge provided by a four year university degree. as for the super specialization, that is how they do things in Ghana west africa. Pretty useless for the most part.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  13. bencoates57

    Why not? We're becoming more drone-like by the day anyway and corporations are increasingly defining what it means to be smart. Pfft.

    October 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  14. BiggaThomas

    This is the future. He is not outlining an idea as much as he is simply describing the future that we are very rapidly hurling towards. I have started a company that focuses on marketing and business development in the education space. I have worked at cutting edge companies like Google, AT&T, and a major for profit higher educator (Kaplan). This is the future in a global economy. How else would you evaluate labor that resides in another country?

    October 5, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  15. Susan

    I love the ideas here. My two questions are these. One, because this threatens the established system of education and assessment whereby people's jobs, income, and wealth are dependent, might the place to implement transitioning be on the assessment/employer end? And second, besides showing an employer that you can do the work, you also must appear as someone who "belongs" with their organization (culture, etc.). Without the credentialing filter, what would be a good way to do this?

    October 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • BiggaThomas

      Interviewing type processes. Each organization could develop their own as they do now. I worked at Google a few years back. I had multiple interviews and the process was like no other organization I had seen before. They interviewed to see if you were "Googly". It is not innovative. Just a serious focus that is integrated with respect to their strategic goals.

      October 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Chimptron

    In the Computer and the Security world, we have recognized credentials (CISSP, MSSE, etc) that prove a person has a certain level of knowledge in that area. I would fully support this type of knowledge-proofing once it distills to a level that employers would recognize and accept. That would be the difficult part. One drawback is there wouldn't be the social interaction that is a dynamic and vital part of college. On the other hand, colleges now put students in tracks (follow the money) so the benefit of when I went to college, to see and experience other topics, is now gone. My son is in college now as an Engineering student, and if he were to switch majors, he would have to start over, even with the math. Colleges have learned that they make more money on kids who don't know what they want to study. This mindset of colleges charges money for the opportunity to try different topics which makes it even more unaffordable. Something has to change, and I would support the implementation of recognized demonstrations of knowledge.

    October 5, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  17. Paul Eipper

    "you could take rigorous, internationally recognized assessments that measured your understanding and proficiency in various fields". Yeah, and free energy would be available to all if only we used fusion power. I mean, it's hard enough to get good assessments of the real knowledge level today, when educators can follow the student's trajectory relatively closely. Good luck on defining a standard across the board that measures any human knowledge objectively and in a fair manner without that.

    October 5, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  18. Hmn Bng

    I think this view is surely worthy of consideration. At the same, the idea is complicated by the fact that there are various schools of thought on which philosophy of education ought to predominate (Perennialism, Idealism, Realism, Experimentalism, Existentialism). Are states free to enact one philosohpy above others? These questions must be worked out first before Salman's innovate (British?) hypothetical assessments can be implemented. Credentials are not the same as competencies, for teachers or students. I think competency-based assessments are the best and used them in training for a decade. It leaves no questions.

    October 4, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  19. wc

    The reason that the 50-year-old laid off engineer has trouble getting a job is not that employers do dot believe s/he has the stills, but that employers doesn't want to compensate more experienced and skilled people, and don't want to assume the health care costs of older employees. Get real.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Joe from Indy

      That's not all there is to it. People over 50 often have a real difficult time accepting change. Many refuse to get with the current technologies. I work with a lot of engineers. The ones over 50 tend to want to stick with outdated technologies or information on those technologies. I don't know if it is a matter of burn out, comfort zone, or what. I'm not just talking about people that shy from email or still want to use a fax machine (though this is a real problem, itself). I'm talking about people that refuse to acknowledge the value of new energy technology or how things like VFDs have come a long way in a short time. They want to continue to keep a library of vendor catalogs in their office instead of going online and quickly finding the manufacturer that will help fix an immediate problem. They choose to make phone calls to customer service and sit on the phone too long instead of using an online tool that will give them immediate answers because that's how it was done before. I keep telling my kids, "Don't hesitate to point out when I start acting like that. I don't want to make myself irrelevant too soon." My daughter says it has already started because I don't use Twitter. Maybe it has.

      October 5, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Bazoing

      There would be more older people employed if the employers could be indemnified for the added costs due to sickness and accidents. For instance, older workers have on-job injuries and that causes the employer to have to pay higher workman's comp.Another factor is that workers tend to get small wage increases as they go along. It is often very cost efficient to hire a slightly less experienced person and let your higher payed older person go. In reply to Joe from Indy, I think you will find as many unpleasantly stubborn young people as older people.

      October 6, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  20. hadimous

    Khan accademy is a good educational tool. It allows students to interact more with each other and their teachers.
    This social interaction prepares and teaches student more about life, which they need along with accdemic traning once become active member of their society.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  21. Brandon

    Thank you for teaching me algebra, calculus, differential equations ad physics.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  22. Mikayla

    This is brilliant. This would require those with the opportunity for a traditional education to seek actual learning and it would allow credentials and opportunities for the lifelong learners without the chance to go to school.

    October 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  23. RJA


    I think my 6 yo old son would like to receive a micro-credential in Basic Addition.

    Best Regards for all the good work you do.


    October 4, 2012 at 3:00 pm |