Published on 2016/09/08
The EvoLLLution | The Path Forward for Alternative Credentialing
By making use of blockchain verification, stackable credentials can grow to meet the specific needs of today’s just-in-time, dynamic labor market.

The spiraling cost of higher education coupled with the growing need for employees to advance credentials to qualify for promotion and career advancement has led us to come up with ways to provide accessible and affordable advanced credentials. One logical, effective strategy is to scaffold learning with credentials granted at each important incremental node in development. For decades, students have completed the associate’s degree prior to advancing to completion of a baccalaureate. The AA/AS may lead to the BA/BS and that in turn to a MA/MS. Building upon the learning with each credential, the student makes progress while reaping recognition of learning/skill levels along the way.

This incremental approach is particularly well suited to professional studies in which students are part-time students advancing their credentials in order to best qualify for mid-level jobs. Affordable, just-in-time stackable learning modules and classes can enable students to progress through their learning in step with their increasing and changing work responsibilities.[1]

The stackable approach has also found an important niche in the advent of MOOC-delivered degrees. The challenge has been how to assure an open-enrollment sequence or degree draws students who have the qualifications and abilities to successfully complete an accredited program. It is not fair or appropriate to admit unqualified students into programs that cost money and time. On the other hand, it is a goal to provide open access to such programs for those who may succeed. The University of Illinois is opening its accredited master’s degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration in MOOC delivery mode to students who successfully complete the first few classes in the programs. MIT is developing its own stackable master’s in supply chain management in a similar format.[2]

An emerging model in the stackable program includes competency-based learning because such credentials rely heavily on demonstrable skills and competencies. It is important to assure that the credentials that are offered are acceptable and valued by employers. Other aspects of stackable programs suggested by the New America Foundation’s Iris Palmer include: letting student attendance patterns inform the design of the credentials, focusing on momentum points and emphasizing active advising practices for students seeking such credentials.[3]

We are especially well positioned as leaders in continuing and professional education to capitalize on this emerging model. Perhaps we can build upon long-standing credentials to provide a scaffolding to the next level of credential, or offer an assortment of credentials that draw upon modules or courses that currently feed only one credential path. In any case, the movement toward stackable credentials opens opportunities for expansion of our programs that serve the working student.

Perhaps you have heard of blockchain; if not, you will surely hear about it in the coming months. Blockchain is a distributed database architecture that manages dynamically changing records and protects them from unwanted manipulation and corruption. Developed in 2008, it became (and still is) the central technology for bitcoin. It has the potential to become the cornerstone of innovations and collaborations in higher education.

To see how this may become important to our future, it is important to understand the just the basic structure of a blockchain:

A blockchain is a data structure that makes it possible to create a digital ledger of transactions and share it among a distributed network of computers. It uses cryptography to allow each participant on the network to manipulate the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central authority.

Once a block of data is recorded on the blockchain ledger, it’s extremely difficult to change or remove. When someone wants to add to it, participants in the network — all of which have copies of the existing blockchain — run algorithms to evaluate and verify the proposed transaction. If a majority of nodes agree that the transaction looks valid — that is, identifying information matches the blockchain’s history — then the new transaction will be approved and a new block added to the chain.[4]

Now, consider the case of stackable credentials where those credentials come from a variety of sources in a number of forms. Students may take a variety of non-credit, for-credit courses as well as MOOCs in the same or a related field. Using blockchain, these credentials can be linked together across institutions, modes of delivery and types of learning. They could include demonstrations of competencies via examinations as well as less formal learning activities certified by badges. Sense could be made of a whole milieu of learning pointing to a sum of learning that has taken place.

Perhaps most importantly, a group of institutions who have reached consensus on approved learning experiences could create a way to transcribe learning across institutions and formats.[5]

As one might imagine, MIT has jumped into the blockchain environment for credentialing learning. Last year, the MIT Media Lab began developing blockchain software for issuing certificates to members of their community.[6]

Stackable credentials, coupled with blockchain verification, combine to make for a bright future for alternative credentialing. Just-in-time, customized, expandable and dynamic credentialing affords the flexibility that is demanded by the rapidly changing nature of the workforce environment. This coupling of technology and content design is the path forward for providing a responsive and effective 21st-century model for professional and continuing education.

This article is sourced from Issues 81 and 83 of the “Online: Trending Now” series of articles authored by Ray Schroeder and published by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

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[1] Ray Garcia, “Stackable Credentials: An Approach for Middle Jobs and Beyond,” Educause Review, January 27, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Tara Garcia Mathewson, “Stackable degrees gaining prominence as entry points to grad school,” Education Dive, March 31, 2016. Accessed at

[3] Iris Palmer, “Five Things to Remember When Building Stackable Credentials,” The EvoLLLution, July 2, 2015. Accessed at

[4] Steven Norton, “CIO Explainer: What Is Blockchain?” The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2016. Accessed at

[5] Kerri Lemoie, “What Blockchain Means for Higher Education,” EdSurge, Mary 12, 2016. Accessed at

[6] Philipp Schmidt, “Certificates, Reputation and the Blockchain,” MIT Media Lab, October 27, 2015. Accessed at

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