Disrupting the Diploma

I worked with Reid Hoffman (and Greg Beato) on a long essay titled: Disrupting the Diploma: How updating the communication device known as a “diploma” will help students acquire the right skills and help companies hire the right talent. We take on the under discussed topic of credentialing, and how credentialing as a platform will improve higher education.


In the same way that trailblazers like Coursera and Udacity are making instruction faster, cheaper, and more effective, we should also make certification faster, cheaper, and more effective too.

To do this, we need to apply new technologies to the primary tool of traditional certification, the diploma. We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

Once we make this leap, certification can play a more active role in helping the higher education system clearly convey to students what skills and competencies they should pursue if their primary objective is to optimize their economic futures.


Imagine an online document that’s iterative like a LinkedIn profile (and might even be part of the LinkedIn profile), but is administered by some master service that verifies the authenticity of its components. While you’d be the creator and primary keeper of this profile, you wouldn’t actually be able to add certifications yourself. Instead, this master service would do so, verifying information with the certification issuers, at your request, after you successfully completed a given curriculum.

Over time, this dynamic, networked diploma will contain an increasing number of icons or badges symbolizing specific certifications. It could also link to transcripts, test scores, and work examples from these curricula, and even evaluations from instructors, classmates, internship supervisors, and others who have interacted with you in your educational pursuits.

Ultimately the various certificates you earn could be bundled into higher-value certifications. If you earn five certificates in the realm of computer science, you might receive an icon or badge that symbolizes this higher level of experience and expertise. In this way, you could eventually assemble portfolios that reflect a similar breadth of experiences that you get when you pursue a traditional four-year degree.

For students, the more modularized approach to instruction embodied in such diplomas would have immediate benefits. Traditional four-year degrees maximize tuition costs, because they only award certification for lengthy courses of study that require substantial capital investments. A more modularized system would move beyond this all-or-nothing approach. Instead of taking general education classes for two years and then dropping out and ending up with little to show for their efforts except two years of debt, students could make smaller investments — in money and time — to acquire specific credentials.

6 comments on “Disrupting the Diploma
  • Hey Ben,

    Read and loved the essay. The shift makes sense and is one of the last main areas that needs to evolve to “fix education”. Well done.

    Another thing that would be great on Linkedin is demonstrating somebodies knowledge about their area of expertise. Today people do this through “publishing” – be it a book, a blog, or a scientific paper. But these, like a diploma, are static and dated. What would be great is making it easy for someone to have a “live document” where they could share “what I know about X” that is always being updated and that people could “subscribe” to, comment on, and participate in.

    This would be a great way to demonstrate knowledge to employers and customers and enable the individual to build – and maintain – an engaged audience and develop their brand around their knowledge.

    As an entrepreneur who loves learning and hates the classroom, I read your essay perpetually nodding – great work!

    • Thanks, Scott. Appreciate the comment. Interesting idea. Agree that we need more live sources and signals, not static ones.

  • While you have an interesting approach to the idea of a document that transforms you into a person “capable of work”, I believe that the education system being altered would have a more profound effect than just changing a paper document that may even encourage people to drop out of the educational system. Specialty schools for example, while many exist only after you receive a diploma, would it not be just as drastic to increase the number of specialty schools, and lower the requirements in order to go into those schools?

    While your method is different I see even more potential for people to be pushed aside if they do not show the same level of expertise on their diploma as a peer of theirs. Would it not be easier to allow high school graduates or someone at a certain age requirement into a specialty school for the next however many years it takes to become an outstanding individual in such a field. No levels of expertise, no ranking system, just a group of people graduating from a school striving for perfection in only one field?

  • The purpose of a 4 year degree is not to give people useful skills. Instead, it’s a luxury item. Community colleges focus on useful skills. If governments stopped funding luxuries then more students would attend community college for 2 years, earn some money for a few years, and possibly later go to a 4 year school when 27-35 years old. A 2 year certificate is recognized as meaningful and leads to work that pays well. A 4 year degree is unimpressive; it merely indicates that you enjoyed a good time.

  • I’m an undergrad student at a 4 year college and I sadly have to agree that the general classes I have to take are a waste of time and making me go broke. Why do I have to take an art, history, health, science class etc. when what I want to specialize in is business management? What I’m learning in college is time management and apart from that racking up a mountain of loans. I’d appreciate some kind of specialty school and cut to the chase.

  • I’m curious to see how Coursera at al are going to handle disparate impact lawsuits and other similar civil rights litigation as their certifications grow in value. An unfortunate unintended consequence of civil rights litigation was to effectively destroy the myriad alternative certifications of the middle of the 20th century that allowed people to gain and signal particular expertise.

    Note: I’m a user of Coursera and Udacity and a big fan.

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