60-Year Curriculum,  New Credentials & A Silver Lining for Learning

Join Credly CEO, Jonathan Finkelstein, for a series of conversations with people advancing change that leads to a better and more equitable future of work. Meet change-makers, problem-solvers, and leaders who are bringing big ideas and doing the hard work.

In this episode, Jonathan chats with Christopher Dede, Ed.D., Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies, Technology, Innovation, and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Chris is the author of The 60-Year Curriculum, as well as the host of the Silver Lining For Learning podcast. 

Chris and Jonathan have an open conversation about the shift from traditional education -- focused on courses and degrees -- to a world centered on upskilling and capacity building. This "60-year curriculum" is characterized by lifelong relationships between adults and learning providers, where every individual is able to leverage a global network of skill-building resources. The discussion explores new forms of assessments and what they look like at scale,  the appropriate grain size for new credentials, and how to facilitate the development of the kinds of human skills the modern workforce most demands -- including capacities like negotiation, embracing diversity, and collaboration. Chris also shines the spotlight on how to achieve systemic change at scale, the shift from role-based to skill-based credentials, and a silver lining behind the human tragedy that is the global pandemic. 

Watch the full interview below:  

Conversation with Chris Dede

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining me for another conversation. Today's conversation includes a very special guest. It is Dr. Chris Dede, who is the Timothy E. Wirth professor in learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And if you're not already familiar with his work, I hope that this will be a very important introduction. If you're in the world of education and technology, you probably already are, and have been inspired by his systems level thinking around technology and innovation. This is a really interesting time, Chris, to be thinking about systems wide change and technological innovation. We've got a pandemic that has forced schools to close from K to 12, school districts through college campuses that may not be reopening this fall.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

We've got workers who have seen the new normal become telecommuting and working from home. When you look at the world today and you think about system wide change and the potential impact of new ways of thinking about learning, do you see the world right now as a laboratory? Are you kind of champing at the bit to see some of the ideas you've been espousing and thinking about be brought to fruition at scale?

Chris Dede:

Well, Jonathan, first thank you for inviting me to share ideas. This is a terrible human tragedy, so I don't want to sound as if I'm dismissive in any way about the disruptions that this is causing to people's lives. But there is a silver lining to the disruptions and an opportunity that this presents because we are faced with the necessity of doing things differently. And often, out of that come insights and models that even when the world returns to some kind of post pandemic state can aid us in doing better as a result of that. And I think that does apply across the whole spectrum of education, so pre college, higher education, continuing education, workplace training, they're all in the same mix.

Chris Dede:

And one of the interesting things that's happening, and it's something that we're trying to capture and document is that command and control structures for education and training have broken down because of the pandemic. And so there's a lot of bottom up innovation that suddenly is empowered. And we have wonderful but anecdotal stories about teachers and even students doing really creative and powerful things with remote learning, so it's a great time in that respect, even though it's a terrible situation that has created this opportunity.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I appreciate both you grounding our conversation in that reality, but also sharing what is I think an optimistic view about what opportunity we have in front of us. And I appreciate you pointing out that sometimes system level change is driven by individuals having necessity be the mother of invention, and opening their mind to new kinds of technologies. And sometimes it's that ground swell of experiments that are done at a very local level that can lead to systemic change.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I did want to turn to a topic which I know predates the pandemic. But is so turns out that you've put together a book that was published just a month or two into the stay at home orders that have impacted so many people around the world. And the topic of your book is around what's called the 60 year curriculum. And I'm wondering if you can take a moment, and in a nutshell, explain to people what you mean when you talk about the 60 year curriculum. Maybe we can pull at a few strands that live behind it.

Chris Dede:

So there's been an initiative growing and continuing in higher education that, as you say, predates the pandemic, that's about re-conceptualizing lifelong learning. And some of that re-conceptualization comes from the fact that, pandemic aside, we're all living longer and longer. And this next generation is expected to live into their 90s and beyond, which means that you've got to work for about six decades to avoid outliving your money, which is where the 60 years comes from. But the other piece of it is that, again, even before the pandemic, we're entering an epic half century that is going to be both challenging and offer great opportunities. The analogy I would make is the period between 1910 and 1960, two world wars, a pandemic, the great depression, the sort of beginning of the battle between communism and capitalism, and the great generation that met those challenges.

Chris Dede:

I think we have another great generation coming up, for better or for worse. And so the idea is that lifelong learning shouldn't be episodic and just happen whenever you need to change positions or want to change positions. Lifelong learning should be continuous and it should begin with the assumption that you're going to have not just a few different jobs, but perhaps six to seven careers. And some of those don't exist yet, so we can't say, "Well, let's make sure we teach this or that."

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I think now in a different way than I did just a few months ago. I am a recent new dad, and when I think about my now seven month old growing up into the world we now live in, I am reaching at the kinds of values and skills that are going to be important to his growth and his success in the future. To think about five years and where and how he will learn in pre-K, or in nursery, or kindergarten, not to mention what 60 years looks like. When you start to break down what a 60 year curriculum looks like, which can sound daunting, I know you talk about it in terms of a global network, the idea that a 21st century workforce is learning in all different ways.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I kind of think of it almost like a figure eight. You're going in and out of educational and workforce experiences. It kind of feels like an infinite loop, which in many ways, 60 years can feel like to people. When you talk about a global network, is that a very literal concept? Do you think that this takes system wide groups coming together to form the relationships between and among each other to enable this kind of learning for individual learners? Or do you mean it more in a figurative way that people kind of are their own nodes on a very disparate, non centralized network?

Chris Dede:

I think it's both literal and figurative. And I look to the graduates that just came out of our master's program at Harvard in technology, innovation, and education. They were very distressed when they were graduating because the job market of course has dried up in terms of positions being advertised because the economic disruption of the pandemic, as well as all the uncertainty connected with it. And yet, I try to give them a very positive message. Some of it was saying, "Well, at least you're graduating in technology and not hotel and restaurant management." And some of it was saying, "This is a time when you want to create your position, rather than waiting for somebody to advertise your position. You know a lot about remote learning. People are desperate for people who know about remote learning. But you're going to have to go out and find them. They're not necessarily going to know how to find you."

Chris Dede:

And that is that network sort of a concept that people are now in a situation where if you're going to have five, or six, or seven careers, you're going to be spending some time as a consultant. And your social capital, the network of people that you know, is going to become very, very important. And the world's interconnected. I mean, we see that with the pandemic. No matter how much you may say, "The only country I care about is the one that I'm in," it's going to be affected by things that are happening half the world away. And so understanding those perspectives, becoming part of a network where they're articulated is going to be a big part of life in the next half century.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

You've mentioned your master's students and the advice you gave them. I'd be remiss for not mentioning that one of the reasons you and I are talking today is because of one of your former students, Katie Sievers, who now works at Credly helping customers deploy credential systems, an amazing professional and person, who I know was inspired to reach out to us because of her work in your class. So two things, one, thank you. I think it's rare where an employer gets to thank the educational professionals who helped inspire the people from whom we now benefit as an organization, so thank you for inspiring her.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

And it's also, too, I think a reminder of what you're talking about, that people become an HR department of one. I believe Katie learned about Credly in your class while she was exploring the network and the world at large and thinking about her next step in the world, and took the initiative and extend her learning from your classroom into her next or first step in her career. I imagine that level of being an HR department of one and thinking about your next move becomes the new normal for many people navigating careers with so much uncertainty.

Chris Dede:

I think it does. And Katie brought a tremendous amount to the table when she came to us. And we did our best to add value to the tremendous value that she already had. But I think one of the characteristics of Katie that we really need to inculcate in everybody in the educational system is the ability to see the glass is half full, to take even a troubled situation like the present, and see the opportunities that are buried in all of the challenges, and to believe in herself and believe in the opportunity to bring others together, to form initiatives, to make a big difference, to do the kinds of transformative work the Credly is doing in terms of assessment. So I think that disposition of seeing opportunity in uncertainty, as opposed to being paralyzed by ambiguity is a big thing that we need to think about inculcating in all of our educational experiences.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Let's dig into that a little further. You're teaching at the graduate level. When you think about experiences that result in the development of skills like the ones you're talking about, and you think about a 60 year curriculum, how do credentials need to change to respond to this new way of thinking about lifelong learning?

Chris Dede:

Well, the grain size of our credentials in traditional education is much too large, and frankly, much too vague, as you know all too well. Somebody wants me to provide a recommendation for a student because what they see is that they got an A on a transcript. Well, that's not much help to them, given the breadth of the kind of courses that we teach. So maybe what they really want to know is: Did this student take to remote learning like a duck to water? And do they really understand how remote learning works? And do the kind of personality that can help people who are scared about learning get excited and move their teaching in that direction? That might be what they want to hear.

Chris Dede:

And those are much finer grain skills and capabilities than are conveyed by sending a course description. So I think that we're moving towards a kind of micro credentialing and portfolio based assessment that gives people a chance to show the array of skills that they have, and characteristics that they have as people. And that in turn, much more richly informs others as to what they're bringing to the table when they're involved in some kind of group enterprise.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I can't help as I listen to you, and I've been reading your recent thoughts and work on this topic, about my own middle school experience, where back then, the report cards were a piece of paper that you carried with you from period to period, to each teacher, four times a year. And you'd bring up your report card. Some of them wrote the grade down right in front of you while you sat at their desk, and others collected it and gave it back to you at the end of the period, after doing some independent work. But you literally brought your card with you and got your grade.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

And I think of the 60 year curriculum, and I think about the way you talk about credentials as not dissimilar. We have compartmentalized groups. You're the common element. You appear in each of those venues and those learning contexts. But today, as you describe it, those are not just periods during school. Those are gigs and projects, maybe apprenticeships, one job to the next, a learning experience, a continuing education program you go back to, maybe a skill observed by a peer through some kind of immersive or authentic experience.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I'm wondering if when you look at where you derive energy and optimism for the future around this topic, when it comes to what micro credentials, as you've described them, can look like. Are there examples where you're seeing the systems level thinking that you think will yield to massive change versus more incremental change, any partnerships that you think are really doing a good job? Because obviously, credentials in order to have value, need to be valued. And that means people need to have some appreciation for what a person who presents them will bring. Who are the groups that are you think creating micro credentials that will have that kind of value?

Chris Dede:

Well, I've got a couple groups that I work with that I want to talk about briefly. But first, I think that the underlying concept is that you need to think about yourself not as a role, but as a suite of skills. So if I think of myself as a role, university professor, and I don't know, Harvard gets bilked by its financial managers, and suddenly, the endowment is gone, and I'm out on the street looking for work. And I say, "Well, who's advertising for university professors?" That's not going to be a happy situation.

Chris Dede:

If I think of myself as somebody who's good at explaining complicated things to a wide variety of people, somebody who listens well and can mentor, somebody who has good social capital and can pick up the phone and connect to a lot of different people, then that suite of skills suggests a much broader range of roles than just university professors. And so I think the places that are really succeeding in moving towards micro credentials are not so much traditional education, but they're the kinds of places that understand that you're working on a suite of skills that enable different kinds of roles, depending on where you want to go next, or what the world is making available to you.

Chris Dede:

So one group that I've worked with recently is called Harappa. They say that they're a university, but they're not a conventional university with degrees. They're a place that young professionals can build up very specific skills that are largely oriented towards social emotional dimensions and towards the kinds of leadership dimensions that are important. And so you can take asynchronous courses through Harappa that help you to build a skill and then certify that skill as part of your suite, part of your portfolio, that then you take and show to other people.

Chris Dede:

Now those courses are roughly six to eight hours, and they are grouped in sets of five. So if you do all five things, then you might end up by investing about 30 to 40 hours, and then having a certificate that shows those skills. I think that's a very interesting model to look at, and something that is different than what universities do, both in terms of the grain size and also in terms of the kinds of skills that are being built, not reading classic books about leadership, but really practicing some of the kinds of skills like vision that are very important for leaders to have.

Chris Dede:

More on the assessment side, but also on the learning side, I also am an advisor to a company called Mursion. And Mursion is essentially digital puppeteering. It's a bit like the Wizard of Oz, where you are interacting with a digital person, the wizard. But the wizard is controlled not by some computer, but by a person behind the curtain who portrays the wizard. Except that with Mursion, the wizard can take many different forms. It's not just a single wizard. The person behind the curtain can become many different people of different ages, of different backgrounds. And so it's like a flight simulator for interpersonal skills. And in particular, something very interesting is happening with companies like Mursion because of the pandemic, which is that people who are well along in getting their teaching certificate, or their school leadership certificate, can't do the student teaching. Or they can't do the field experience that's mandated as a way of getting that because of the pandemic.

Chris Dede:

And yet, it's not fair to those people to say, "Well, I'm sorry. But you put in all this time and effort and money, and now we can't certify you." So the question becomes: Is there a kind of simulated experience that we can control well enough and document well enough to warrant that this person has certain kinds of skills? That's some of what Mursion is doing, first, providing learning environments where people can practice the way the pilots might practice in a flight simulator, but then ultimately putting people into a controlled situation, seeing where they succeed or fail, and warranting something about their performance. I think again that's a very interesting direction to look at as we move forward.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

The concept, by the way, in the latter example of digital puppeteering, talk about preparing people for skills that we don't know will exist in the future. It's a stark and fascinating reminder of what that looks like today. In full disclosure, I note that Mursion is actually certifying people in the use of and in digital puppeteering skills. And I've just come to realize that this new sim specials certificate from Mursion is actually on Credly. And I can see what some of those skills are that would live behind it.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

You talked about that unfortunate fictitious story of Harvard's endowment running out, and you being on the streets and taking a non role based view of the world. But what are the skills? Even if you didn't know what digital puppetry was, you can start to see that by thinking about this through the skill based lens, we understand that this includes skills like building empathy and active listening and critical thinking. And yes, understanding of Mursion software, which is an important and critical skill for all this, so fascinating reminder.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

One quick question about this in particular. When you think about scale, obviously one part of scale is not requiring us to get lots of people in classrooms, which has never been more difficult, in order to have authentic experiences. The other part of scale is then taking that to reach more and more people. What's fascinating about this is you still ... It seems though that while there's artificial intelligence involved, there's real humans that sit behind these puppets. When you think about scale and something like Mursion, what do you think the real potential there is?

Chris Dede:

Well, I think the potential takes two forms. And one of the forms is something that you just noted, which is the existence of things like Credly to provide a certification for a skill like sims specialist because I wouldn't want to start a master's program in sims specialist. And people invest an entire year and come out with some kind of a degree that's sims specialist. It's the wrong grain size for something like that. But on the other hand, there has to be some group that says, "This person has a validated set of skills that we warrant," meaning that they can rightfully have that title. And I think that groups like Credly are playing a very important part in systems like Mursion, give groups like Credly a way that they can provide that validation with some confidence.

Chris Dede:

Where we're going with digital puppeteering, and I'm using Mursion as an example, but it's a broader field, is essentially that we do something unconscious that is very interesting, which is that consciously, we decide what we're going to say and how we're going to say it. But unconsciously, we have a whole set of nonverbal signals that go along with that. And what's challenging about being a sims specialist in Mursion with no artificial intelligence is that you're having to bring into your conscious mind all of the things that you ought to be doing in terms of interpersonal distance and gestures and facial expressions and so on, as part of what you're doing for the puppet, when with people, we just think about what we're going to say and how we're going to say it, and the rest is automatic.

Chris Dede:

Well, the evolution of Mursion is moving towards AI doing all the non-verbals, so AI listens to what you're saying and how you're saying it, and then it understands what the appropriate non-verbals would be. That's going to be an evolutionary process that's going to take some amount of time. But it's going to make it much more scalable. For example, I've done some research on using Mursion to teach negotiation, which is a big topic in higher education and a very useful skill to have throughout life, as anybody who is married understands quite well.

Chris Dede:

What Mursion could do for negotiation teaching, and over time what this evolution could do is that you wouldn't have to have a sims specialist. You could have a teaching fellow, or you could have a successful former student, who might get the two week certification, play the role of sim specialist, but not have to have a lot of acting credentials in order to be able to do the non-verbals. So that's an interesting plan for how things might evolve. And the remote nature of human interactions now is just underscoring the value of that kind of approach.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I want to segue from that to one perhaps final topic today. You talk about negotiation. It's a great example of the kind of skill which some might've traditionally thought is difficult to teach at all, what's more, to teach it authentically online. And you've talked about other kinds of similar skills like reconciling tensions and dilemmas. How do you help people understand how to apply moral or ethical agency? And certainly, the notion of respect for and how to embrace diversity. These are also skills that are being laid bare today because, number one, we have a pandemic, which is I think really helping people understand what empathy means in a whole new way.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

And two, we have a very robust and long overdue movement for social justice, which has taken root at the same time. When you look at skills like appreciating and respect for diversity, and bridging conflict and differences, are there other examples of things that give you hope or promise around the ability to do better perhaps at applying and teaching those skills in tech mediated ways than we ever have even done in classrooms before?

Chris Dede:

I work across a wide range of advanced technologies. That's been kind of my career trajectory. But of all of those technologies, immersive technologies, which I've been working in for about 30 years, have been sort of the primary one. And that's because immersive technologies can be used to develop skills that can be learned, but they can't be taught. So you can't teach somebody to be a leader. You can't teach somebody to be empathetic. But you can put them in situations that help them elicit and develop those skills, and an understanding of how they're contextually driven. And then you can mentor and coach and help them to increase their learning over just blind experience of positive and negative feedback.

Chris Dede:

And I think that the evolution of immersive technologies, Mursion is a mixed reality. We see different kinds of fully digital realities, virtual realities. We see augmented realities, where you've got the real world and a light overlay of digital information on top of it. I think all of those have promise to move towards these skills. And even the dispositions that we've been talking about in ways that you just can't do in a classroom setting. The analogy would be a virtual internship, or a virtual apprenticeship, where you're learning by doing. But you've got his guide and this kind of Vygotskian relationship, where the expert helps you get closer and closer to being able to do what they do.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Well, speaking of experts helping people, I wanted to thank you for sharing your expertise and your insights. This conversation with you and this series is part of my own 60 year curriculum of trying to reach out and learn and keep an open mind. I hope others are doing the same, especially during this period. You've cited at the outset of our conversation, this is a great time to try new things, and to know that you're doing it together with others, and also to look for guidance. There are people who've been trying to prepare for a future that looks a lot like the one that was sadly foisted on all of us. And so I encourage them to check out your Silver Lining for Learning podcast series. Somehow you have already managed to do over 19 episodes, I think. And there's another one coming up any day now, so check that out. And also, certainly we hope people will check out your recent book, published in April and as timely as ever, on how to think about different models for the 60 year curriculum. Chris, thank you so much for being part of this conversation.

Chris Dede:

Well, thank you again for letting me share ideas. And thank you for what you're doing with Credly. At the end of the day, assessment is the biggest single barrier to these bright images of the future. And it's the new models of assessment that are beginning to emerge that give me a lot of hope.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I appreciate that. Assessments are what provides the full faith and credit and the backing of the currency we know as credentials. I couldn't agree more how important thinking about assessment in new ways really are to the future. So again, thank you, Chris.

By Jonathan Finkelstein