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What's in a name?

What role do institutions like TAFE or universities have to play in a self-educating world?

Every day I receive pamphlets in my letterbox (the physical one outside the house) advertising all manner of services, from window repair to roof tiling. This week I found received three flyers offering house cleaning.

I didn't take it to heart (although my house is quite messy), but one of the ads did stick out more than the others  – in a large box on both sides of the flyer were the words "Certified by TAFE Certificate II Cleaning Operations".

Now I didn't even know that TAFE ran a Certificate II in Cleaning Operations. Yet the cleaners had felt that including this statement of certification would benefit their chances in obtaining business from me. Why? Does the statement assure me that they are better cleaners?

It comes down to reputation and credibility. If you say you can do something well, how do I know that you can? Higher education institutions have traditionally taught accredited courses to an agreed standard, and have then assessed and certified the course participants.

These days we live in a SEW - a Self-Educating World.

It is now possible, with the right motivation, to use online tools from YouTube to Lynda.com, from the Khan Academy through edX , Coursera and any number of unofficial means, to educate ourselves in almost any subject, usually to a broader level than can be provided by many traditional higher education institutions. After all, we have access to all of the world's knowledge about everything.

I teach Digital Media at the Northern Sydney Institute, and I certainly can't pretend that I know everything, or even more than many of my students. We all have access to the same information, and process it in our own ways. This is very different from the old model of teacher-centric learning.

When anybody can learn anything, at anytime, in any place, at any pace, then an institution could lose much of its appeal.

So what role do institutions like TAFE or universities have to play in a self-educating world?

Firstly, they create an environment where the social aspects of learning can take place. Most of our classes are collaborative in nature – students are sharing, discussing, comparing their work. Admittedly this can take place via social networks too, but there is a different buzz when people come together physically around a common purpose.

Secondly, a student's work needs to be accredited by a respected expert (or institution) before it is generally recognised that they are competent, and the value of this accreditation depends on the esteem of the expert or institution.

So in the future, institutions may find that their main business will be administering assessments, filling in the gaps, and accrediting students. And the esteem in which this accreditation is held will be totally dependent on the reputation of the institution involved. This means, of course, that people will pay more for accreditation from a more highly respected institution. Yes, did I mention that they'll probably have to pay for it?

So when I receive a flyer advertising cleaners, I may not know that they are self-taught, but if they have been certified by a credible institution, then I can assume they know their stuff. If only they could tidy up for me, too.