Gaia U and Accreditation

Gaia U is a pioneer university founded in 2006 focused on providing tuition and support for adults (young, middle aged and older) who:

  1. Are seeking to take full charge of their lives in order to have the capacity to work for ecosocial regeneration even whilst living in the context of a mainstream and apparently intractable world culture addicted to unsustainable growth on a finite planet.
  2. Understand that an ecosocial regeneration intention is profoundly counter-cultural and, therefore, the pathways to progress in this respect are to be found mostly outside of the ‘establishment’ and are, at this time, unlikely to be fostered and supported wholeheartedly by that establishment, despite the crying need.

One consequence of our small size and our “out-on-the-edge” notions is that Gaia U exists outside of the conventional higher educational mainstream. As such we have neither sought nor would be suited to accreditation from mainstream systems. From our point of view these systems are part of the problem and not part of the solution when it comes to effective, ethical action, action that seeks to a) slow down climate change and b) reorganize human cultures to put ecosystem restoration and social justice as priority. Gaia U is founded on the permaculture ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Future Care. 

Some elements of our critique of conventional accreditation systems are shown in the footnotes at the end of this document.

Instead we rely on the quality and ecosocial focus of our student associates to demonstrate their worth in the world. They do this by thoroughly documenting their action learning pathways that describe their engagement with self-chosen and designed, real world, ecosocial projects. We call these documents Output Packets and, over time, they are gathered in e-portfolios. Five Output Packets make up an action learning cycle and each degree program consists of two or more of these cycles.

The Output Packets are first made available to Gaia U sourced peer reviewers and professional reviewers, project by project. Finally we hire external reviewers (less conventional Ph.D holders from the mainstream) to further assess the quality of an entire e-portfolio. Only after meeting all the requirements of their reviewers do our student associates graduate.

Student associates keep access to their reviewed e-portfolios and use these to show potential employers, enterprise partners and other educational institutions the full detail of what they did to earn their qualifications. These rich, thick-text documents, complete with attached reviews, are a significant indicator of student associate capacities for self-direction and real world effectiveness. We regard e-portfolios as significantly superior records of work and achievement than conventional transcripts.

In addition to project work, Gaia U student associates also complete required online courses such as a Certificate in Ecosocial Design, a Certificate in Auto-ethnography and Learning Design.  Completion of these two courses make up most of the first year of study for Gaia U students. Additional face-to-face courses as well as online and other research complement and reinforce the specific interests of the students.  


Graduate studies:

By and large, our action learners are more interested in being effective, engaged world-changers than they are in long academic careers. Thus further formal courses of study are generally not a priority.  On occasion our student associates seek to be admitted to conventional institutions of higher education for further study and encounter some challenges as their degree was not granted by a university formally accredited in their country.

A successful approach by Gaia U graduates has been to seek out the senior staff in the department of the University they wish to attend and submit their e-portfolio to said seniors. It is common for these senior people to have wide discretion in admissions, a discretion that allows them to bypass ’the rules’ set by their Admissions Office. 

We have found that it is generally in the interest of Grad Schools to make these exceptions to the rules as they would be admitting an exceptional candidate (a lively practitioner of self-directed learning) whose contributions to classes will enhance the learning culture for everyone and whose agile thinking and ecosocial regeneration focus will reflect positively on their institution. 

Formal employment:

Some employers also balk at hiring people from unconventional backgrounds. This is especially true of governments and employers in some professions such as university academia, public school teaching and conventional fields of mental health. This is a policy typical of over-developed and over-regulated cultures and, generally, we think we have more constructive power (and a lot more fun) operating outside of formal civil services. Again, however, e-portfolios have been instrumental in demonstrating what the graduate has actually learned (and unlearned) rather than merely the transcript detailing course enrollment provided by more conventional universities. 

Access to Student Loans:

Most State and Government arrangements for lending to students require them to be in formally accredited institutions in their own country. As Gaia U is not one of these, our student associates do not qualify for these government plans which indebt their university graduates.

This is one of those ‘the problem is the solution’ features. Because they cannot borrow from the conventional sources for higher ed. our student associates do not leave our programs saddled with unpayable debts. Indeed, the very design of our programs (with pauses, soft goals, low costs, staged payments, work-as-project zones …) enables student associates to ‘earn while they learn’ and to pace their programs so that tuition comes out of disposable income (often with modest assistance from allies such as family and friends). 

And, beyond this design being a good way to provide affordable tuition, it also provides the student associate with a prolonged period of experience in managing their own monetary affairs, a zone of life-long relevance much neglected in conventional education.

Our current approach to accreditation

Beginning in 2004 and until the end of 2017, we enjoyed accreditation from the International Management Centers (IMC) in the UK through their action learning university, Revans University in Vanuatu. Despite IMC’s ability to grant degrees in the UK while they were operational (under an exemption to the 1988 Ed. Reform Act), their action learning approach was not recognized by the government agencies that developed the official “lists”.  Undeterred, and convinced of the power of the action learning approach, Gaia U has since 2004 developed successful and powerful programs as witnessed by testimonials from our student associates and the significant livelihoods and projects in which our graduates are engaged. 

At the end of 2017 IMC closed its doors, although (due to a clerical error on their behalf) it was mid 2018 before full notice arrived to us. Despite the closure of IMC, all Gaia U associates who began their capstone year programs prior to the closure of IMC on December 31, 2017 and who have or will successfully complete their Gaia U programs, are eligible to receive IMC credentials.

Gaia U programs place deep demands on our student associates and the sustained self-directed, self-paced action learning we expect from them is every bit as challenging as conventional academic courses. In most cases, more so. Their online courses and project-based learning and unlearning gives them the opportunity to trial the academic content and evaluate what does and does not work in the real world.  Given that each student associate graduates only after their extensive portfolios have passed thorough reviews by our qualified professional reviewers and, finally, by selected senior External Reviewers, we know that their success with us is well-earned and worthy of the degree awarded.

Going forward

iCAFS and the Open Badge System:

Although there are many universities in the USA and worldwide which operate successful self-accredited degree programs and whose graduates move forward in their chosen fields with learning as worthwhile as those of conventionally accredited universities, Gaia U has decided to support the creation of a global accreditation system for “post conventional “ universities to be called iCAFS- the International Coalition for the Accreditation of Future Skills. 

Partners include: –

The Ecoversity Alliance – Gaia U is a founding member of the Ecoversity Alliance, a growing community of learning practitioners from around the world committed to re-imagining higher education to cultivate human and ecological flourishing in response to the critical challenges of our times.

The International Permaculture Colab – Gaia U is also an active member of the International Permaculture Colab, an agile group within the international permaculture community intent on bringing fresh coherence to this dynamic, self-organizing, global work-net. 

Both of these leading edge organizations are sponsoring Gaia U to develop an Open Badge system to enable widespread issuing of micro-credentials to people developing practical and conceptual skills in ecosocial regeneration. 

A member of the Ecoversities network, Ananda Marga Gurukula (AMGK) and Gaia U have recently signed a Memo of Understanding to partner in the development of the Open Badge system. Their intention is to explore use of the iCAFS/OB system to develop and acknowledge learning and skill-building in neo-humanist practices for school teachers.

The International Permaculture Education Network (IPEN) – a recently formed wing of the Colab currently focussed on translation of the key permaculture materials required to anchor permaculture design courses in non-English speaking countries and the international extension of the iLand system used by Permaculture Association of Britain to develop and accredit land based projects seeking to become training and experience providers. 

The Open Badges system will be administered by the new accreditation body:  iCAFS (International Coalition for the Accreditation of Future Skills). The total arrangement was recently presented at the “Educating for a Bright Future Conference” in Italy 2019 for evaluation. The plan is set to roll out amongst interested organizations for trialing and tweaking in the Fall of 2019.

Open Badges (also known as Digital Badges and Micro-Credentials) are rapidly becoming significant tools in the development of open path learning and unlearning journeys and are used to acknowledge the skills, knowledge and wisdom an individual acquires as a life-long learner. Both the California, USA Community College and the Colorado, USA Community College systems are now using Open (digital) Badge Systems.  

Negotiations with progressive formal Colleges:

In addition, we have begun negotiations with formally accredited higher education providers in both the USA and Mexico with a view to these institutions recognizing Gaia U as an accredited pre-provider. If this is successful, students with Gaia U qualifications will be issued credits into programs in these institutions thereby gaining access to formal accreditation in the respective countries. As these negotiations progress we will report further details. 

Footnotes:  More detail on Gaia U’s views on accreditation

A first critique (of conventional accreditation)  is that conventional accreditation agencies oversee institutions that are active in perpetuating and growing the current, anti-life mainstream culture infused by what Charles Eisenstein calls “the separation story”. That is, whilst these agencies insist on certain markers of quality (and financial) regularity for their charges (the institutions), they do not invite these institutions to consider what the consequences of the education they offer is to the essential ecosocial webs on the planet. This, we think, is a gross dereliction of duty and, whilst the accreditation agencies would be unable to deconstruct the unethical behaviors of the Academic/Corporate/Government/Military Complex all on their own they do have a unique position of leverage.

Kathleen Kasson says it well in her 2010  paper “Thinking Against” “From Within” :Reconstructing the University as a Democratic Space. She writes “ I want to take a very strong position here—one that is guaranteed to meet with vociferous resistance. That position is simply this: most of the problems of global magnitude that we face have been initiated and perpetuated by highly educated people who have not been taught to assess the full consequences of their activities. 

Let us take one well-known example. The loss of genetic diversity in plant species, with its potentially catastrophic effects on agriculture worldwide, is largely due to the efforts of agricultural scientists to hybridize and select for traits consistent with the needs of agri-business: mechanized harvest, long storage, and transportation viability. It is quite well documented by now that the “Green Revolution”, designed by highly educated people to increase food production in developing countries, actually resulted in hyper-dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides sold by the same companies that marketed the hybrid seeds.

The application of these chemicals has resulted in the pollution of water tables, erosion of topsoil, and diseases, including cancers and sterility, of farm workers. Local farmers everywhere, who once maintained stocks of non-hybrid seeds from generation to generation from which they selected for adaptation to local growing conditions, are now dependent on transnational corporations for their yearly quota of hybrid seeds, and the necessary chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, all of which contribute heavily to the degradation of their environment.

It is a sad story with a familiar plot: subsistence farmers, operating from a traditional base of knowledge, often cannot afford the machinery or the chemical inputs necessary to remain viable in this “modern” system and are forced out of production to make way for the development of an export economy. The result? Cultural dislocation, increased poverty, environmental degradation, and the loss of both traditional knowledge and traditional species. Many other stories could be used as exemplars to demonstrate the way in which modern knowledge, based on scientific research and technological innovation, and promoted universally in the name of “human progress” by university-educated people, has resulted in the destruction of local ecosystems, economies, and cultures.”

 That is not to say our action learners give up on learning. Far from it. Rather what they come to realize (if they don’t already know this) is that an alert, engaged learner can gather enough applicable theory in 2 weeks (for an example, consider the Permaculture Design Course delivered over 72 hours) to absorb their full, hands-on attention for at least a decade. 

And, by adding in one or two additional weekends of good theory now and again during that decade plus some hundreds of hours of self-foraging online plus some mentoring from various skilled people whilst in-project, a well-prepared, self-reliant action learner continues to develop their knowledge and skills in active and agile ways.

This decline is part demographic and part cultural. Demographic in that higher ed. in the past expanded to accommodate boomer needs and since now that bulge has gone past, there are less people seeking degrees. Cultural in that more and more folks are realising that conventional degrees a) are increasingly irrelevant to a post-warming, post-growth context and b) are no longer a worthwhile return on investment for many as the guarantee of well paying jobs post graduation continues to melt away – this is especially painful if the student has to take out loans and/or their parents and grandparents borrowed on their behalf in order to afford college only to find that the family is saddled with substantial debt for life.