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Bring in the Translators and Decoders: The Language of Credentialing Needs Help – Part Four

  • Larry Good, President & CEO, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce
  • Nan Travers, Director, Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning, SUNY Empire State College; PI and co-lead, Credential As You Go
  • Julie Uranis, Vice President for Online and Strategic Initiatives, University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA)
The language we use in higher education to assess and define learning may not be uniform, but it must at least be transparent to ensure everyone has the same understanding.
The language we use in higher education to assess and define learning may not be uniform, but it must at least be transparent to ensure everyone has the same understanding.

Credential As You Go (CAYG) sponsored the virtual Summit on Language Used in the Credentialing Space: Big Concepts, Many Terms, Multiple Perspectives, Different Voices on March 16, 2022. The Summit focused on three troublesome areas of language use: Credentials and Pathways; Equity, Inclusion, Fairness; and Competencies, Skills, Learning Outcomes. The first three parts of this four-part series focus on these three areas, the fourth on key takeaways.  

Julie Uranis, Larry Good, Holly Zanville and Nan Travers identified their top takeaways from the discussions at the Summit. They agreed that we are clearly experiencing major problems in the use of language, with language defined as 1) the terms, 2) the concepts behind and related to the use of terms and 3) the context in which these are used. The cartoon drawn by CAYG’s artist-in-residence, Chloe Epstein, in part one portrays the confusion as a game show, with many names existing for the same definition of a short-term credential. Synonyms are not the problem. The problem is a lack of understanding that there are synonyms in play for the same definition. Issues of complexity in effective communication are growing, as more terms appear on the credentialing landscape, and many stakeholder groups are impacted: learners, higher education, employers, accreditors and quality assurance agencies, workforce boards, researchers and policymakers.

Uranis noted that transparency and context are important. Think about the system we have. Higher education says it doesn’t work for various reasons, employers for their set of reasons, and we have learners that don’t know anything about what’s going on. If nothing is working, then we must chart an entirely new path. We must get beyond the “We’ve always done it this way, so this is how we’re going to do it” perspective. We must challenge these systems and look at new ways of doing things. Action is needed at both the macro and micro levels within the learn-and-work ecosystem. Talking about context and transparency is incredibly important because we can take these conversations back to our constituencies and ask, “How are you supporting transparency in the credentials you build? How are you putting these in context within regional employers and engaging them?” We have often invited employers to meet with higher education to talk about curricula, and it has not necessarily had a great impact simply because we’re not talking to the right people—we’re not getting in front of hiring managers. So, there has to be a really concerted effort to move in these directions, and we need 100% participation from everyone in the ecosystem—inclusion is critical.

Good identified a couple of threads that connected across the panels. We must understand that we’re in a constantly changing and chaotic dynamic system. The terminology is not precise because we are in the middle of a reinvention. We are making up the next steps from different angles and trying to add more precision as we move forward. We will need to be patient with this uncertainty and accept that it is going to be part of this work, that not everyone is going to use the same words exactly the same way and do the underlying work to explain, “When I use this word, this is what I mean.” New terms will solidify as time goes on but understanding our linguistic challenges as we change that process is important. There is ambiguity around some terminology, but that is a symptom of the dynamism. It is not coming from a lack of care but from trying to make sense of things in the moment and be more precise as we go. 

Another key takeaway is the importance of inclusion. Competency and skills are the DNA of the future. And this is an unstoppable movement because ultimately they will be the basis of hiring, labor market transactions and learning. We are on the way to that. We must be certain whether that work is being done right and whether the right voices are participating in the right conversations. How do we use this opportunity to really make the changes needed? 

We talked about every person having competences. But are we counting them? Not often, especially not if they lack formal credentials. So, how do we start thinking about how to credential them, how to capture and think about education as a continuum of earning lifelong learning competencies?

Zanville underscored the complexity of these linguistic issues. Though we all agree that many of these terms may not have a single definition—and that is ok in our dynamic ecosystem—we must strive for understandable communication. That requires transparency and indicating what we mean through our use of various terms, concepts and contexts. She highlighted six additional takeaways:   

  • Incremental credentialing is not only about undergraduate education but graduate education, too. Although most of the conversations around credentialing tends to be about sub-baccalaureate certificates, badges, micro-pathways, etc., we need to think about graduate-level issues in the context of incremental credentialing as well. 
  • State statute and boards of higher education administrative policy can be very important in setting (institutionalizing) the language of credentialing.  
  • Employers face serious challenges by not understanding the diverse words we use. We will need translation tools to make credentialing more transparent for employers, especially considering how candidates show up for job consideration with an array of terms on their resume, e-wallet and/or traditional transcript to describe their knowledge and skills.
  • Machine-readable tools will grow in importance. We cannot have a linked data system using terms that are not machine-readable. Most terms, for example, on the Definitions Working Draft provided in advance of the Summit are not in machine-readable terms. We do not yet have a system that enables linked data.
  • We will be working to link outcomes and metrics to different types of credentials, and data is key in this work. We must code the array of incremental credentials earned into our student information systems, for example.
  • It will be critical to ensure that positive asset framing is part of our definitions and included in the documents we develop—not just the definition of terms but the concepts and context too as we use language.

Travers noted that understanding our end goal, defining it well and keeping it top of my mind are critical components. Then the other pieces can fall into place. We must be very conscious as we begin to reach the end goal to ensure all stakeholder voices are heard and really understand the power of language. Determining what is included and what is not is critical to meaningful communication. During the Summit, various folks said, “We’re not always going to have the language quite right because it’s being invented, so we need to contextualize it. We have to ask what kind of lines we are drawing in the sand through the language we use. We must make sure the end goal is to connect all of people’s learning and credential it to signal what they know and can do. This means thinking about the different ways to credentials.”

An important part of the challenges ahead too is the question of assessing learning. Our approach will be critical because, though we assess what we value, as soon as we ascribe value to something, we have defined it in a certain way that does have power over something else. These are things we need to pay attention to—the power dynamics in language.

Summary of Key Issues

Codifying language

  • There is a lack of understanding and transparency in the language we are using. Resources like the document of definitions prepared for the Summit and others will be helpful in this context.
  • There is tension between those driving for a codified definition vs. those who recognize that in our dynamic learn-and-work ecosystem, codified terms are unlikely. We should acknowledge the imprecision in our language while recognizing the growing need for clear communication among the many stakeholders; and in communications, we must identify how we are using terms, concepts and the context with the goal of transparency and capacity for translation.

Defining language fairly and effectively through diverse voices

  • There is a lack of inclusion of all needed voices contributing to the language of credentialing.
  • Positive asset framing is needed in designing credentials as well as in communications (in presentations and documents).
  • Language and its definitions have power and implications for an inclusive, fair credentialing system. What we call things and how terms are used impact equity, inclusion and fairness.

Impacts of transparency on particular stakeholder groups

  • There are unique impacts caused by confusion and lack of transparency in our language use for particular stakeholder groups.
  • Employers are especially impacted by language, as job candidates arrive with resumes, transcripts and/or digital tools that are not transparent to employers.
  • Learners are impacted by the confusion in the credentialing language, the different terms used and even what we mean by the word learner itself; e.g., learners are treated as though they are not students and students as though they are not learners, but we know adults can be both.

Role of policy in shaping language use

  • Policy-setting plays a major role in defining terms, concepts and context at both the federal and state levels. State statute and legislative budget notes, for example, can set the language used to provide resources and permissions for public higher education institutions regarding the types of credentials they may offer. Once language is set in policy, interpretation by state and campus higher education leaders follows. One of the implications is recognizing policy as a driver of change for state and campus implementation of incremental credentialing.

Growing reliance on technology to capture and verify language use

  • Common language needs to be spelled out for those who have not thought about technology’s relationship to credentialing.
  • There is a lack of machine-readable language, which—if used—could open doors to greater transparency, data interoperability and a more common vernacular.
  • Technology advances and tools are a major part of linguistic issues. Faculty will need to define and code incremental credentials along with degree and certificate information in campus information systems, so inclusive digital records can be developed. This data can then be used to build Learning and Employment Records (LERS), e-wallets and other self-sovereignty tools students seek to verify their learning.

The impact of value on definitions

  • In the credentialing arena, what learning we assess as valuable shapes our language. As soon as we ascribe value to something, we have defined it in a certain way and given it power over something else. For example, when we assess badges and add them to learner records, the terms and concepts around badging become important to the credentialing language. More terms enter our vernacular as more groups value them. Assessment and verification of learning are important to shaping the language of credentialing.

The rich discussion in the three areas of focus at CAYG’s first summit is testament to the confusion over the use of language. CAYG will sponsor additional summits on these issues and encourage feedback to improve the Definitions and Use of Key Terms and Concepts in Incremental Credentialing (Working Draft: March 8, 2022) document at the CAYG website.

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