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Here’s university education in a nutshell: First, the university deems me talented enough to succeed by putting me through an admissions process. Next, the university provides a series of hurdles for me to clear, primarily courses that I must complete. The courses are of varying levels of difficulty and quality, and I have a fair amount of choice over which courses I take, so my set of hurdles may be higher or lower than my classmates’, but no matter. After I complete the requirements the university has set out for me, it grants me a diploma and allows me to carry around the university’s brand name for the rest of my working life.

 

With the university’s stamp of approval, I am able to access higher quality and better paying jobs. Which is a pretty good thing because in exchange for this process, I have paid the university a pretty penny. I need a high-paying job in order to be able to pay off my students loans.

 

But what if higher education didn’t actually work like this at all? What if education were actually a transformation that occurred inside of the learner’s mind? What if professors were neither task masters nor the arbiters of my success but were rather guides in a process of transformation that I, the student,  was ultimately in charge of? What if I could learn not just in the classroom but also in the real world? And what if everything I learned, no matter where I picked it up, could “count”?   It sounds lovely, but of course there is a problem with this method of learning. Who will be there to attest to the change the learner has gone through?  

 

In other words, if you direct your own education, how will future employers know that you’re qualified to hire?

 

This, of course, is exactly the situation at hand.

The credential problem

 

When I started the No-Pay MBA project, I set out to complete the equivalent of a two-year MBA program in three years of part-time study. I have used MOOCs and other free and low-cost online resources to complete this education. I based my course progression on the curricula of top-flight MBA programs.   Now that I am nearing the end of my program - I expect to finish in May of 2016 - I have proven (at least to myself) that I am capable of learning what is taught in business school, even if I wasn’t willing to drop a hundred-fifty grand to do it.  And I have indeed gone through an internal transformation. However, I am still left with what I have come to think of as “the credential problem.” Who will legitimize my transformation so that I can take it into the job market and be paid for it?

 

Ultimately, I would like for my business studies - and yours - to provide a direct pathway to increased employment prospects. But new survey data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council shows that we still have a ways to go toward that goal. Currently only 8% of recruiters in the US see MOOCs as a viable alternative to business school (other regions view MOOCs more favorably).   I’ve thought about various solutions to this problem. Would a university grant me ‘credit’ for the courses I’ve taken? How much would they charge to do it? Would I be willing to pay $5,000 for that service? $10,000? Would I be willing to trade in my No-Pay MBA for a degree from a lower-tier university? Or would I hold out for a degree from a mid- or top-tier school? It seemed unlikely that the better business schools would go in for a scheme like this, and I wasn’t sure I was willing to pay even a modest sum for a lower-tier degree. I even thought briefly about creating my own credential, which I could grant to others who go through my program, but ultimately I rejected the idea. Quality control seemed much too difficult, and it seemed like a risky business overall.

The portfolio solution

 

The credential problem is not just my problem. Anyone who wants to leverage a MOOC-based education for career advancement faces the same issue.

Fortunately, there is a solution to the credential problem.

 

While MOOCs have gone on a wild roller coaster in the press, by turns hyped as the great disruptor and scoffed at as entertainment for the overeducated, a quieter revolution has been occurring in education. The serious thinkers seem to agree that the real disruptive potential rests with competency-based education, which emphasizes skills over seat-time or course completion.

Furthermore, while recruiters may be tepid towards MOOCs, fully 92% of employers say that proven ability to perform is critical to their selection of who to hire, more employers than for any other criterion.  

Hence, I would like to present the portfolio solution to the credential problem.   The portfolio solution says that you can legitimize what you’ve learned in MOOCs - or any other means - by demonstrating your competency, displaying what you can do for anyone who wants to know.  By creating a portfolio, you can provide external evidence to anyone who wants to understand your education. No third-party validation, just direct observation of what you are able to do.

Core business competencies

 

When I first released the portfolio feature on No-Pay MBA, I didn’t yet have specific guidance to give about what to put in a portfolio. Having had some time to mull it over, here is my take on what a competency-based business education might look like. (Keep in mind that this is just a first draft.)  Below is a list of the skills that I believe every business student should strive to master, along with some suggestions on how to display those skills in an educational portfolio.

Communications

 

Business professionals need to be able to express themselves in a variety of settings and through a variety of media, including oral presentations, written reports, and slide decks. You should be able to make a case for your point of view, giving a compelling argument that draws on concrete evidence. You should also be a good listener, able to understand the viewpoints of others.

Suggested portfolio pieces:

  • Recording of a talk you have given,
  • Slide deck you have produced,
  • Article or blog post expressing an opinion.

 

Strategic Analysis

 

A business professional should be able to analyze the strategic position of an organization, understand market opportunities, and assess the potential of a new project or idea. Strategy brings together many disciplines, including finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing. Effective presentation of a strategic viewpoint also requires excellent communication skills.  

Suggested portfolio pieces:

  • Strategic analysis report,
  • Business model canvas for an entrepreneurial idea.

 

Management and Leadership

 

Management and leadership are at the core of the MBA, yet they are the most difficult skills to demonstrate virtually. However, among our colleagues we all know who we want to have on our team. A business professional should be able to organize a team to produce a deliverable (project management), delegate and supervise the work of others (management), and be able to contribute to a team she is not leading (teamwork). She should also be able to conduct a negotiation on behalf of the organization she represents. One of the main functions of the No-Pay MBA Network is to provide opportunities to hone one’s management and leadership skills, including managing projects, facilitating teams, and conducting negotiations. We do this through facilitated group courses, team projects, and business simulation activities.

Suggested portfolio pieces:

 

  • Narrative feedback from those you have supervised or from a team you have facilitated (available through the No-Pay MBA Network),
  • Narrative assessment of a negotiation or feedback from a negotiation partner,
  • Feedback from team members in a business project or simulation.

Financial and Quantitative Analysis

 

Business professionals need to be able to work with numbers. They must understand the key concepts and language of finance, and should be comfortable reading and interpreting financial statements. They should be able to build financial models, value projects and companies, and make recommendations regarding investment decisions. In today’s data-rich environment, it is also helpful to be able to extract insight from large datasets.

Suggested portfolio pieces:

 

  • Financial model you have built,
  • Valuation report for a project or company,
  • Data analysis report.

 

Technology

 

While a business professional does not need to be a computer programmer, he does need to be able to use the technologies of the day. Coming out of a business program, a graduate should be comfortable with a wide variety of organization, communications, and productivity technologies. These include email, shared calendars, video-conferencing, messaging (e.g. Slack), file sharing, and project management softwares. Standard business software solutions such as spreadsheets, word processing, slide presentations, and database management should also be part of the repertoire. Above all, a business professional should be comfortable adopting and learning to use new technologies, given the rapid pace at which technology is changing and the impact technology has on all businesses.

Suggested portfolio pieces:

 

  • Links to social media profiles,
  • Implicit use of technology as demonstrated in other portfolio pieces.

What I want No-Pay MBA to be for you

 

This website has been a critical component of my business education. It has been my calling card, a facilitator of new connections, a place to share my thoughts about what I’ve learned and to display my education in a way that allows anyone in the world to judge whether I’ve been successful.   My goal for this website is to provide a portal for you to do the same. And I want it all to be free or extremely affordable, while building a sustainable business model that allows me to continue creating new and better resources.   So far, I am able to offer guidance on what to study, a way to meet the people who are critical to your business education, and a way to demonstrate mastery (now with suggestions on exactly how to do that). In the coming year, my focus will be on providing more advice on how to build a great portfolio, as well as more and better opportunities for you to put your skills into practice in a hands-on way.

Get the list of Core Business Competencies

Along with suggested portfolio pieces to demonstrate your business skills. 

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