A DSM for Achievement

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a thematic and precise way to catalogue and document disabilities. What if we could do the same for capabilities?

Illustration by OYEPERDONA

At the 2016 Parchment Conference on Innovating Academic Credentials, Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, delivered the Education Keynote Address. Levine recounted a sweeping history of the transformation of American education over the past two centuries and ended his speech with a call for profound reform in the way academic credentials are conferred.

In Levine’s view, the current credit-based model of educational credentialing relies on the outdated logic of the early 20th century, when the need to ensure that people with the same credentials had received the same level of education led to the development of a system which measured qualifications in terms of instruction time: credit hours. This decision emerged in the context of an industrial economy in which uniformity of process was presumed to lead to uniformity of outcomes, a logic epitomized by the factory assembly line. However, as has become amply clear since that time, the correlation between instruction time and actual skill is tenuous at best. Not only are credentials based on instruction time misleading, but they create many — often prohibitive — inefficiencies for both students and institutions. Levine proposes that in the information economy we now inhabit, the relevant variable to measure is not located within the (teaching) process, but in the (learning) outcome: the capability itself. Shifting what is measured by credentials from what has been taught to what has been learned may sound radical, but is actually a fitting response to the transformations in global education that are already well underway.

The DSM as a Model

Towards the end of his address, Levine says,

What we really need to do is achieve common definitions of competencies. What we really have to do is create the equivalent of the DSM in psychiatry: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It offers a common language and standard criteria for classifying mental illnesses. We need that for competencies. When we talk about competencies, we have to be talking about the same thing, or it’s just another buzzword. We have to develop assessments that measure student progress and attainment of the standards or the outcomes and help us prescribe to students what it is they need to do in order to achieve those competencies.

In other words, while the DSM employs classification of particular disabilities and difficulties as a heuristic to determine the most effective clinical interventions, a standardized credentialing system would give employers, granting agencies, professionals, researchers, and creative workers a heuristic to more effectively distribute of all kinds of labor across the landscape of generative human possibilities:

A DSM model for capability-based credentialing will likely bring up a few immediate objections, based on traditional objections to the DSM itself:

  1. The classifications of mental disorders in the DSM are highly subjective and subject to ongoing change, and are therefore imprecise and unstable. Although all diseases, disorders, and disabilities are classified based in part on how they are experienced socially by human beings, psychological disorders above all others are distinguished by their social manifestations. In other words, many things that have been pathologized as “disorders” (from runaway slaves to female self-assertion to homosexuality) were perfectly healthy behaviors that were not considered normal or socially acceptable in the cultural contexts that framed them as diagnosable. There may very well be clusters of behaviors and inner experiences that today are considered disorders which, over time, will prove to be healthy. An inevitably evolving understanding of health and disease does not mean, however, that it is impossible to gauge disturbances to psychological and emotional health in a systematic way. Likewise, our understanding of what causes mental disorders has changed over time, in a manner no different from our understanding of “physical” disorders. To demand that we have perfect knowledge of the etiology, prognosis, and trajectory of every form of human suffering before we classify it would presume an impossibility that is at odds with scientific practice.
  2. The DSM has not proven to be a reliable tool for diagnosis because medical professionals still vary widely in their interpretation of mental disorders. While this may be the case, numerous field trials and research initiatives have been launched to measure discrepancies and standardize diagnostic practice, including ever-greater coordination with the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
  3. The DSM is an instrument of the pharmaceutical, medical, and insurance industries to perpetuate the medicalization of human distress for profit, which compromises both its scientific value and its capacity to change over time. There is no doubt that the insurance industry, pharmaceutical companies, and psychiatrists rely on DSM classifications to determine and subsidize clinical interventions, which can lead to treating mental disorders like objectified entities “out there in the world” that afflict people in the same way bacteria or viruses do. Not only that, but because the prevailing hypothesis about the etiology of mental illness is neurobiological, pharmaceuticals continue to be the treatment of choice prescribed by mental health professionals and covered by insurance companies. The weight of this institutional framework certainly lends it inertia and can inspire conservatism in those who make use of it. However, as stipulated by the first objection, DSM classifications are continually evolving under the combined influence of new research and social change. Classifications — as well as corresponding treatment recommendations — thus constitute a provisional structure whose contours are always evolving.

In other words, the DSM strives to both reflect current scientific consensus and be a “living document” (p. 13), amenable to change with progress in our understanding of the etiology, prognosis, and nature of mental disorders. The same approach will be taken with regard to capability-based credentialing. Because skills are only meaningful in social context, any given classification of skill is a provisional judgment of pragmatic value within an economy in which such values can be productively leveraged and exchanged. Moreover, because the kind of skill that credentials record is at root a unit of value that has been conferred to a particular individual or entity by another, it can be recorded in any ledger that records transactions of values.

This is precisely what the Bitcoin blockchain protocol does. It records three things: the value itself, who conferred it, and to whom it was conferred. Because what the protocol records is transactions of value as such, the actual content of that value can be specified on the application layer. In the case of Bitcoin, this value is often thought of in terms of currency (“I’ll send you $35 in Bitcoin.”). Rather than serving a currency function, however, blockchain-based credentialing records which credentials have been issued to which learners by which institutions. These records are fixed and immutable, but the content of credentials can vary endlessly over time and across different professional and cultural contexts. This gives impetus to the call for standardized definitions of skills in order to streamline the evaluation of qualifications in what is already a global information economy.

Solving Concrete Problems in Education and Hiring

Not only will the shift toward a standardized, competency-based credentialing system allow us to address the social question of what constitutes skill with some consistency and reliability, but it will also decouple credentials from any particular institutional arrangement, in particular the over-reliance on university degrees as arbiters of skill. This solves several major problems in education and hiring:

  1. The problem of uneven quality of instruction across institutions. This is a problem that equivalent numbers of credit hours mask. Public knowledge of this reality leads individual and institutional actors to lean heavily on prestige as an alleged guarantor of quality instruction. Not only is prestige not such a guarantor, however, but a prestige-based economy of credentialing is one of the most effective mechanisms of reproducing social inequalities. In a competency-based credentialing system, there is no shortcut or stand-in for the skill itself.
  2. The problem of academic programs that are too broad to be useful to evaluators looking for particular skills. For instance, the dataset used by the Computing Research Association to measure racial discrepancies in the hiring practices of major tech companies uses a B.S. in Computer Science degree as a measure of skill. Yet “Computer Science” is as broad a designation as “Natural Science.” The particular labor needs of a technology company cannot simply be mapped to “Computer Science graduates,” in the same way that a particular hospital’s needs cannot be mapped to “Natural Science graduates.” Conversely, program requirements may inhibit students from cultivating other related or unrelated skills they wish to develop by prescribing a “just in case” course of study (in Levine’s words) which is not necessary or useful for that particular student.
  3. The problem of non-transferability of credentials from one country to another. Millions of professionals around the world are prohibited from practicing their trades outside of the countries in which their credentials were conferred because other countries have no way of evaluating what skills those credentials entail. This results in massive losses of productivity and hinders international cooperation on vital issues. A standardized set of global definitions would render an already de facto mobile workforce empowered to practice wherever in the world they are.
  4. The problem of (exclusively) top-down educational models. Such models presume that learning is a transfer of knowledge from those who have it (usually older generations) to those who don’t (usually younger ones). This presupposition creates social hierarchies in which students are treated like clients rather than independent seekers of knowledge. Under the new credentialing models, Levine says, people will be able to acquire credentials through a combination of “experience, self-instruction, formal and informal education offered by a host of providers.” Top-down educational structures would endure in some situations, while falling away in others. Learning would be acknowledged as the organic and multifaceted process it always is.
  5. The problem of the purpose of the university. The current four-year degree model is premised on the presupposition that four years at a university is the right amount of time for all students to come to a kind of vocational preparedness through scholarship. This presupposition — that scholarship is the path to vocational preparedness and that four years of it are necessary — is belied by the actual economic behavior of college students and prospects. For some students, dropping out of college to become entrepreneurs is the consummate badge of honor, while many others spend years after graduation struggling to find entry-level positions in industries completely unrelated to their courses of study, all the while carrying extraordinary burdens of student debt. Finally, there are the many who either never enroll or just drop out. And while employers compound the problem by taking advantage of a “buyer’s” labor market to demand university credentials for jobs that could easily be filled without them, they then complain that their college-educated hires in fact lack the skills they need to be successful at their jobs.

The problems and solutions presented above are, of course, all economic in nature. Another view of the purpose of the university holds that college is a time dedicated to the exploration of self and world via scholarly deepening in a spirit of humanistic inquiry and collegial bonding with fellow-students. Four years has become the American convention within which this spirit of discovery and friendship-formation is said best to flourish. Those who hold this view assert that the true value of a college education is intangible. It seems clear that four years (or more) spent in a pedagogical and collegial environment that privileges critical thinking, intellectual and interpersonal experimentation, and friendship-building can be profoundly valuable and transformative, not only personally and interpersonally, but also rendering the student a more innovative and effective professional. However, the extraordinary price tag attached to this time of experimentation and growth renders it a great luxury for most Americans. And, as employers have made clear, this personal development often occurs at the expense of or with disregard for building employable skills.

In practice, a capabilities-based credentialing system would isolate the question of practical skills, leaving students and professionals free to pursue whatever practices of personal formation they choose, whether that is a university education; global travels; creative production; volunteer work; athletic training; or anything else. The notion that universities should provide all of these things — academic, interpersonal, spiritual, physical — for all of their students places an onerous burden on univeresities, and by proxy the students and families paying for them. It also ensures that universities fall short of fulfilling these numerous expectations, leaving many students and their families disappointed and indebted. Capabilities-based credentialing would free up institutions to do what they do best, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

Conclusion: Beginning the Implementation

Open-source blockchain-based credentialing is currently being rolled out by the MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine as part of a collaborative project. The ethos behind this rollout is similar to the ethos of Bitcoin itself: empower a decentralized community of learners with full control over their trusted credentials and transcripts. These secure records can be shared directly with any other person or institution, at any time and at any level of granularity, and be immediately validated without a third party. The use value of credentials differs from the use value of currency in that they are deployed differently in human societies, but they are both conferrable, ownable, and translatable into concrete projects of creation, discovery, and building.

The technology is now in place for educators and credential-granting entities to begin collaboratively thinking through and building out a DSM-style approach to the standardization of skill definitions. Some have already taken up the call to create a universal taxonomy of credentials: Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, has recently outlined a detailed project to do just that, for many of the same reasons we have outlined here. As the world’s labor force becomes increasingly mobile; college costs spiral ever-higher; and skill sets are less confinable to the disciplinary boundaries of university programs; a standardized set of definitions would direct aspirants to the knowledge and experiences they must acquire in order to qualify for particular credentials. This, in turn, would provide employers with clear signals that a particular applicant has what they need to be successful on the job. The result is that people and institutions that have previously been both overextended and undervalued are more focused, more flexible, more cooperative, and more empowered.

In the next installment of the Learning Machine series on socially imagining capabilities-based credentialing, I develop a sociological account of the process of standardization. Identifying the vectors of standardization that are always already at work in any social context allows me to describe how capability-based credentialing is currently being implemented and to identify processes by which it may be stewarded toward desired outcomes.