For all of my career, there has been a constant debate about the value of certifications. Early on I saw one boss move ahead because of his CNE (Certified Netware Engineer) credential. That got me moving in that direction, though I switched to an MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) track once Windows gained prominence and I found myself working in that arena.
These days there seem to be less certifications around in one sense. Certainly Microsoft and other vendors are spending less effort building and maintaining a program. At the same time, there is a variety of different products that you can get certified in using online learning. A friend recently showed me the Redis University where you can complete courses and get a certificate. We even have Redgate University, designed to help you improve your ability to use our products.
Like many credentials, completing a course doesn't mean you are an expert, or competent, or even qualified with a product. There are numerous stories of people holding credentials and being unable to perform simple tasks in the real world. I'd counter with the fact that there are plenty of people with lots of experience on paper that equally cannot perform fairly rudimentary tasks. I do think that people that have made an effort to complete some course have likely learned something.
Microsoft Philanthropies is experimenting with micro credentials, an idea of helping people to learn skills and tasks that aren't equivalent to formal education, but perhaps can take the place of other educational opportunities, such as a college degree. It's an interesting idea, and it fits nicely with my thoughts that your career requires continual learning and improvement, or as they put it, up-skilling.
There is a great quote in the article: "Careers are no longer ladders. They are more like vines in a rainforest. You can swing on one and then grab another." I think that's true in technology, and likely true in many other fields as well. I've seen plenty of issues with workers trying to undertake year+ long programs to retrain in some other field, only to find out there aren't enough jobs or the skills are becoming obsolete quickly.
The future, in my mind, is that we need to be adaptable and flexible. We should have some basic skills, like logical problem solving and communication, but the specific syntax and muscle memory to work on any particular implementation are something we need to pick up quickly and gain competence in without a long learning period. This doesn't mean that expertise isn't valued, but flexibility and the willingness to continue to improve skills over time is more valuable.
Will this replace traditional universities in our business? I don't know, but I do think it could. There are still places where a formal education is valuable and useful, but I'm not sure if it matters in the field of technology. At the same time, unless organizations that hire individuals stop requiring four year degrees, I'm not sure this matters. I hope they do, because a degree says something about you, but not necessarily more than other experiences and efforts that you can undertake.