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May Yet Be Done

Pearson Throws Down (the Credentialing Gauntlet)

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This past week, at the Summit to Reconnect Learning, education behemoth Pearson announced its new credentialing platform, Acclaim.  Pearson’s hope is that Acclaim, built on Mozilla’s Open Badge infrastructure, will serve as a standardized certification system for different skillsets in the new online economy.

My earlier post on Credentialing looked just at one provider of a credentialing service, Coursera.  I noted that the most logical institutions out there to assume the mantle are MOOCs.  Pearson obviously thinks otherwise and, while it’s too early to provide an outlook on Acclaim, I’m curious to see what they’re able to accomplish here.

(Before discussing Acclaim further, let’s all be thankful that OpenBadges even exists right now.  Mozilla isn’t considered an EdTech giant but in terms of expediting the credentialing movement, this is a great way to have an impact.)

The Bull Case on Pearson

Pearson was, until basically the last decade, a textbook publisher, a provider of unmediated educational content.  Competing with McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, they should be a one-trick pony, struggling right now to adapt their print media to digital and maybe supporting online quizzes for some of their textbooks out there.  Instead, they’ve been massively acquisitive, buying (or investing) in nearly 80 companies in the last decade.(1)  Many of these have been in the technology space – whether the $650M purchase of Embanet or the $2M seed-stage investment in Google Hangouts-dependent education collaboration tool Scoot & Doodle.

The general consensus is that it’s too early to tell how nicely all these new toys will mesh together for Pearson.  The general consensus is also that Pearson pays “full value” for their investments (read: more than anyone else would).  But my take is that this is almost certainly a strategy that’s going to payoff in the end for Pearson.  Compared to their closest textbook publishing comps from a decade ago, it’s undeniable that Pearson is in a better position for sustained long-term growth.  They made a bet on the tech space.  They were bold enough to buy first, ask questions later, and while that strategy rarely works, it will likely work in Pearson’s case.  They won the land grab.

To that point, a credentialing platform in Pearson’s hands could be an impressive institution.  Combine the textbook world’s educational content expertise that is the DNA of Pearson and their complete neutrality to educational institutions, and you get really the platonic ideal of something that certifies that knowledge was gained.  In contrast, Coursera may not be as neutral as Pearson given that, even though it doesn’t bestow its own degrees, it will be inherently biased towards its own partner institutions.

Pearson PowerSchool, a K-12 focused SIS platform, only adds to its impressive heft.  Adding academic outcome data to basic demographic and educational information – like registrar records, transcripts, travel – from students’ entire learning history and you have the makings of a big data play for credentialing.  If you had to pick one player that is best set up to collect the most amount of data from the largest number of students, I think Pearson has to be in the pole position.

The Bear Case on Pearson

Here’s why Pearson will fail: because it simply doesn’t have the wherewithal or focus to become a trusted credentialing source.  Could Pearson hire 100 really smart guys and turn them into a course assessing machine?  Sure, but when that’s one of just 50 different things you could buy from Pearson, you’re less likely to trust it for that.  Their background, as I mentioned, is in print publishing and while they’re making valiant efforts to diversify out of that, it’s still way too early to trust them fully as a competently and fully integrated Education Panopticon (my words, not theirs).  Additionally, I’m sure some people will have questions about their ability or willingness to be fair arbiters of courses run with textbooks / other content provided by their publishing competitors.

Another reason for pause: it’s possible Pearson stops being as neutral a vendor as it currently is.  Its expansion plans are so ambitious, Pearson could well start running into MOOC territory.  (After all, most of Pearson’s content is already digitized or in the process of digitization and it’s a step away from turning that into a standalone LMS.)

There are a lot of people that still view Pearson as a textbook publisher or K-12 SIS and until we see real focus and purpose materialize in their long M&A history, it’s going to be hard to trust them as a capable provider of something as important as determining gained knowledge.


Admittedly, Pearson’s ambitions for now seem restricted to offering their academic partners with support for using the already existing Mozilla OpenBadge software.  It looks like they’ll only be there to help professors or HR managers set up badges for students / employees completing certain courses.  It’s a huge leap to go from that position to independently assessing the value and comparability of different courses across all institutions.

Mark Johnson, Pearson’s VP of Career and Credentialing, though is saying some pretty good stuff:

“Acclaim was designed to expand internationally and connect individuals with jobs in emerging global economies.  Acclaim Open Badges are a game-changer in the way credentials will be handled, by both employers interested in quickly verifying qualifications and learners who will now be able to prove and showcase their achievements whenever and wherever they like.”

Global economies; learners proving achievements on their own terms – those are all foundations of what a true credentialing platform ought to do.  Even in early days, Acclaim is doing its part to democratize learning.  It’s now up to employers to hold their end of the bargain.

(1) Source: CapIQ

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

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