Credit for Watching a TED Talk? (CHE)

Credit for Watching a TED Talk? (CHE)

September 14, 2015
By Jeffrey R. Young

Here’s a sign of how willing companies are to consider alternatives to college courses: Some are buying services that can let employees track their informal-learning activities, such as watching a TED talk or a Khan Academy video, or even reading a newspaper article. The idea is that the future of credentials will include playlists of self-service online educational materials.

A prominent example of this model is Degreed, a platform that more than 40 companies, organizations, and at least one college system have adopted to log what their employees are learning online. Individuals can also use the platform at no charge to show what they’ve learned.

“When people need to learn something, they’re just going to Google,” says David Blake, chief executive and a founder of Degreed. Much professional development and learning by employees has “gone rogue,” he says. Many companies buy libraries of online-training videos, but employees often go straight to the web instead. The Degreed service “enables companies to have line-of-sight into the learning people are doing,” he says.

Workers often need to learn new skills quickly, and without an opportunity to go back to a traditional college, he says. “People increasingly are learning in bite-sized chunks.”

But can users demonstrate that reading a single article or watching a videotaped lecture has led to any worthwhile learning?

“It’s easy to poke fun at a single TED talk or a single article and say, What is the merit of this and what’s the efficacy of a single article?” Mr. Blake says. “But when you zoom out and look at a year’s worth of learning,” it adds up, he argues. “The average professional’s time on videos, books, and articles will substantially outweigh their time inside a classroom. In aggregate, it is the story of our lifelong learning.”

Of course, the idea of turning work experience or informal learning into acertification that employers might recognize is not new. But new technology makes it possible to track and make sense of smaller learning moments.

Degreed is designed to make it easy for users to show that they’ve consumed an educational resource online. Users can set it to automatically note when they’ve watched a video from a list of sites like Khan Academy or, a library of training videos. Or they can add a plug-in to their web browser that lets them record that they’ve read an article there. “It’s not Big Brother,” says Mr. Blake, noting that it is up to users to choose what the system shows their employers. “Where it’s automated, it’s done so because you opted in — it’s not like just because you are employed by the company that you’re getting monitored.”

The California Community Colleges system is among those experimenting with Degreed. Stephen Wright, director of information communications technology and digital media for the system, says he was looking for a way to encourage faculty members to engage in more online learning to keep their own skills up to date. So far about 28 professors involved with digital media have signed up to use the service there.

“When you zoom out and look at a year’s worth of learning,” it adds up.

The system has no plans to use Degreed as part of its professional evaluation of professors, Mr. Wright says. In other words, no instructors are being judged on how many learning activities they claim to have completed. But the service, he says, might keep them motivated to learn.

Even more important to him is the system’s ability to let professors create suggested “pathways,” or series of resources on a topic, and recommend those to other professors to use in their courses. “To me this is like the company picnic,” he says. “It’s a collaborative way to share what they do.”

Degreed is not out to compete with colleges, Mr. Blake says. But “the reality is,” he says, “the demand for learning is growing so fast that that void is going to take everything you can throw at it.”

The company, which began offering its service in 2013, has raised $8.8 million in venture-capital funding, according to Mr. Blake.

Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, published this year, doubts that hiring managers will be impressed by a homemade certificate based on self-reported activities such as reading articles and watching videos. “I can tell you they’re not going to be hiring new employees on the power of DIY,” he says. “It’s going to require intelligent algorithms that look behind the credentials and the résumés and look to the learning.”

In effect, he argues, there has to be some way to show, or at least make an educated guess (based on others who have taken similar paths), that an employee has mastered some skill during all that self-guided education.

But Mr. Craig, managing director of University Ventures, a private-equity fund (it’s not an investor in Degreed), thinks that such algorithms are coming, and that Degreed and other companies could add them to their services. So far this is “a first-generation product,” he says, an idea that is essentially in beta.

It’s an idea whose time may soon come, however, as employers shift their view of credentials and job training. Colleges might want to pay attention.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads a team exploring new story formats. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at