How Certification Can Be Reformed with Online Education

Certification, especially a college degree, is how students convey to employers that their education was worthwhile.

Currently, students acquire certification by graduating with a college major. This is a very macro-level scheme that only reflects the aggregate of your performance in a number of individual classes, because the transcript only shows letter grades per class. Likewise, the metric of the college GPA is only an aggregate measure, and also provides the perverse incentive for students to take easy classes.

However, it is possible to imagine more micro-level certification schemes. For example, the transcript is a good start, showing the classes attempted and the grade in each one. We could easily imagine a space for a startup to appear that tracks the equivalence of courses between universities (for example: course A at university B is equivalent to course C at university D, and here is the amount of grade inflation at each school).

We could even go more fine-grained that aggregate course grades, and break down performance metrics to the level of grades on individual assignments and exams. In fact, Peter Norvig has suggested that fine-grained metrics could offer an alternative way to pay for online education:

“And so you could offer the class for free and tell the companies “Look, we have a lot of students. Do you want to hire some?” You’re better off coming to me than coming to Stanford because you get a transcript with one letter per semester per course, but we can give you a history with 1000 clicks, so if they ask us for somebody with specific skills, we can tell them who the best students are for those skills”

Students could also opt in to have their education subsidized by a large corporation, in exchange for that corporation having access to the raw content of each of the student’s assignments, essays, and tests. Examples of this raw content are how the student scored for each quiz on each topic, how long it took the student to learn topics, and the final product of the final project of the student. Since this new improved certification would provide much more detailed information about each student, it would be much more valuable to companies. Currently, the value of certification is highly regarded by many companies. Two of the most prestigious certifications are a Bachelor’s degree and a company certification. It is imperative to establish the value of certification, how it would change with remote education and what ethical concerns this reform would bring.

Value of Certification by Corporations

In 2007, Microsoft Corporation released a report about the value of a Microsoft certification (Source 15). The report explores the relationship between an employee being certified and the positive effect that the employee does to the team. According to this report

“The added market value that a certification brings can be as high as 30%-40%.”

The report clearly established if an employee has certification in technical areas such as databases, systems programming, security and applications development, they will receive higher pay premiums because they increase the productivity of their team. The below graph demonstrates the correlation between percent of team certified and performance percentile. It is clear that the higher the percentage of certified employees in a team, the higher their productivity is.

Taken from "The Value of Certification: Connecting the Dots between Employers and Employees" (Source 15)

This makes clear that companies value certifications highly. Certifications also have different values according to where they are from. For example, a Microsoft application development certification is more valuable than a similar Sun certification. The below table demonstrates the differing value of certifications for applications developers in July 2006:

Pay premiums according to different certifications in application/solutions development. Taken from "Market Compensation Study" (Source 16)

 As can be observed, any company will pay more for a more prestigious certification, such as the MCSD. Since companies value certification highly because it shows competency, companies will be willing to pay for students’ education in return of detailed certifications, which include the students’ click histories, specific exam scores, final projects and learning rates.

A College Degree’s Value

Prestigious college degrees, similar to corporate certifications, are highly valued by companies. There is a strong correlation between a high pay and a professional degree. More degrees mean higher wages and lower percentage of unemployment in most companies. The Bureou of Labor demonstrates this in a graph:

Thus, the same correlation, which exists between a corporate certification and a high payroll, exists between a college or graduate school degree and high wages. If corporations value college certifications, which are valued with letter grades and a grade point average, and if an online degree was as prestigious as a Bachelor’s degree, the corporation would value the online certification more. It would also be willing to pay for the online education of an employee because the marginal costs of an online student’s education are $0 to $100 are outweighed by the marginal benefits, which is hiring an employee, who has a higher chance of being successful than an on-campus student with a high GPA, because the online certification provides more detailed information about the degree (every quiz taken, every project accomplished etc) than a college degree.


If an online certification that is equivalent to a college degree is prestigious, then most corporations will be willing to invest in the remote education company that provides the online certification, because the corporations value certifications and would be more certain of the qualifications of a student, whom they are hiring.
Thus, remote education can be free to students,  proving that remote education can be accessible to anyone in the world in the near future with no charge.

Ethical Concerns

Let’s imagine a future where companies fund remote education and every student takes online classes for free. In return, companies have access to every detail of the online education for every student. The main ethical question that needs to be raised is “should companies have access to such detailed information on students’ online education?”

Should how fast a student learns topics, how the student codes, how he/she does on coding/essay writing projects, where the students clicks be considered private information, which companies should not access?

Peter Norvig proposed that the remote education company could have a disclaimer, similar to most online services, where the student explicitly accepts that his/her information will be shared. For example, the sign up form for the online class could look like Google Account signup form, which has a Terms of Service section. Norvig stated that the remote education company could explicitly ask both the companies that are willing to obtain students’ information and the students for consent.