The ever interesting Will Richardson got me thinking again today. He talks about how to credentialize learning in a post titled An Open Mind (In Higher Ed at Least) from open course ware such as the MIT OpenCourseWare project. How do we validate the self-learning that does on? And I add anohter question, when does it matter?

Years ago I was working on my master’s degree on my employer’s dime. Tuition reembersment is a wonderful benefit at many large companies but it seems like too few take advantage of it. One of my co-workers asked management if they would get a raise if/when they completed an advanced degree. The answer was no. The way management looked at it they paid  for performance. If the employee got real value and real learning from the coursework they were taking it should show up in their performance. Either they would be more efficient, able to take on new tasks or jobs but in someway the company’s normal pay for performance should take care of it so that the employee saw tangible benefit from their education. And that is how most companies look at learning. If you really learned something there will be tangible benefits in performance and the company will reward that. Heck of a theory. And honestly I think often it works well. It also means that employees are rewarded as a result of any learning they do and not just formal classroom learning.

On the other hand if one is looking for a new job that credential – be it a degree or a certification or other tangible acknowledgement of completion of training – can be very helpful. It serves to show that you have jumped through some hoops and passed some educators bar of demonstration of knowledge. Again, great in theory. How then do you demonstrate your knowledge to potential employers without the credential? Portfolios of work can be helpful though hard to demonstrate before actually getting an interview. Awards can be helpful. I suggest to students that besides internships, portfolio projects they may want to try for awards in competitions to differentiate themselves. I like the Imagine Cup competitions for this but there are others as well.

I keep coming back to one thing though. The real lasting value is in the knowledge one gains. The high GPA or the advanced degree might get you an extra interview or two but the real test of the interview will be how well you demonstrate that the degree or GPA actually translates into real knowledge. I’ve seen my share of students who really knew how to game the grade system and who graduated with honors but somehow didn’t seem to have much depth of knowledge. The more students focus on grades as a goal rather than as the natural outcome of knowledge gained the less useful certificates and diplomas become. I have no answer for this – no simple way to weed out the grades without knowledge or how to find the students whose knowledge is higher than their grades. But I do believe that companies who put too much emphasis on formal degrees and GPAs miss out on some good people. And hire some they may regret as well.

My advice for students remains, get the degree but focus on learning so that the degree means something. Learn outside of school as well but document it and create artifacts that you can show to demonstrate that you learned something.