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Common Language Crucial to Future of Alternative Credentials

The EvoLLLution | Common Language Crucial to Future of Alternative Credentials
Though alternative credentials have burst onto the scene as a way to better illustrate and understand the accomplishments of students, the rising numbers of alternative credentials could make this advantage short-lived unless a common language is established.

Many supporters of alternative credentials becoming more mainstream in the higher education space point to the incomprehensibility of degrees and transcripts as a problem that needs to be solved. Digital credentials, badges and certificates, they argue, are more clear in what they represent. But as more of these alternative credentials hit the market, something needs to be done to ensure this remains the case. In this interview, Nancy Salzman shares her thoughts on how a common language around alternative credentials could play a central role in cementing their long-term viability.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why have badges and other alternative credentials become so popular in recent years?

Nancy Salzman (NS): It’s important to back up for a moment to say that alternative credentials are not a new concept. This concept may not have existed digitally, but Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been using it for years. In the professional development space, certifying organizations like Microsoft have been using alternative credentials—which are also in their case called industry-recognized certifications—for years.

We all recognize the idea of badges and alternative credentials. What’s new is how higher education is incorporating these concepts into their programming. It’s become so popular primarily because employers—and both prospective and current employees—are realizing that in today’s knowledge-driven economy, the “required” knowledge changes very quickly. Professionals need to keep stacking continuing education on top of degrees and other diplomas in order to show that they’ve stayed current and relevant on the latest trends and knowledge. In effect, employees want to show they know how to do what employers need in order to keep moving forward.

Badges and alternative credentials that represent small chunks of mastered knowledge align with that concept of ongoing learning and meet the needs of today’s labor market.

Evo: Were higher education institutions in a position where they had to start offering more accessibility to alternative credential programs in response to market demand forces?

NS: Accessibility is a great adjective to describe this, and to describe how we need to continue to evolve in this space. We need to start thinking about accessibility in terms of time to demonstration of mastery and expense for demonstration of mastery. After all, once a student displays that mastery, they earn a credential that indicates they understand that body of knowledge and have the skills and abilities to apply it.

So, in short, yes: the growing numbers of alternative credentials are in part about accessibility, and in part helping individuals demonstrate what they need to stay relevant in the workforce and to react to what employers are looking for.

Evo: What are the most significant obstacles to postsecondary alternative credentials becoming even more popular and widespread than they are now?

NS: One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of common currency, though we’re working towards that.

If you go back and look at degrees from one institution to another, there’s very little that connects similar credentials. A bachelor’s of business administration means something different at different institutions. As a result, prospective students, employers and other stakeholders don’t really know what someone has mastered as a result of obtaining a BBA from university A compared to universities B and C where you could also earn a BBA. They know that something has been mastered and they have the general idea that it’s in the business administration realm, but they don’t really know the knowledge, skills or abilities (KSAs) behind that.

If we’re not careful, the same thing is going to happen with alternative credentials. What we want to make sure of is that all the stakeholders understand what’s behind the achievement of a particular alternative credential.

Some of the other obstacles are things like the funding that might be available for an alternative credential versus a degree. Will there be Title IV funding available? Will veterans be able to tap into their GI benefits for something less than a degree? Will tuition assistance be available for students? There needs to be thought around whether tuition subsidies will become more acceptable for these programs as a result of what employers need and are looking for. Having funding sources for these are important.

Moreover, more thought needs to go into how these alternative credentials could or should be bundled into reporting. Graduation rates are so important to universities, and we report on those regularly, but that only tracks degree completion. It’s really important to us at Brandman University to see our students obtaining the KSAs that they need to be successful. Those may come from a degree or maybe they come from a credential representing a bundle of courses or competencies that do not equate to a degree.

Evo: If ambiguity is so accepted and commonplace with traditional credentials, why is it dangerous for the viability of alternative credentials?

NS: Ambiguity is not acceptable for traditional credentials. A better understanding across the board of the KSAs behind any kind of credential would be immensely valuable.

Now, with the move towards digital comprehensive student records, we’re providing an opportunity for an employer to get behind the name of any credential, be it a degree, a badge, a certification or anything else, in order to really understand what went into that achievement.

Evo: Do you foresee a future where alternative credentials become part of the performance-based funding conversation?

NS: I do see a future where alternative credentials are considered part of the institutional success metrics. In fact, the needle is already moving that way in some of the community college systems, where they are now reporting on things less than an associate degree.

As transfer rates become more important and certificates within community colleges are reported on, we will all recognize that there’s real validity in these achievements. Certificates, certifications and other achievements will become more important and reporting structures will be built around them.

Evo: What are some of the long term benefits of establishing a common language for alternative credentials?

NS: One of the biggest benefits of the common language is to create a common understanding among all stakeholders of what’s embodied within each alternative credential.

Someday, these alternative credentials won’t be called alternative anymore. Students will leave universities, community colleges and other learning spaces with badges and other types of credentials that both the employers and students will understand in terms of the skills that the student has demonstrated and mastered.

Evo: What’s it going to take to make this common language a nationwide reality?

NS: There’s some great work being done today to create a nationwide common language for alternative credentials.

One example is the Lumina Foundation’s Credential Transparency Initiative, which has stakeholders from across the industry working together to develop common frameworks and ways to catalogue and search credentials. Lumina’s Comprehensive Student Record project is also going to move the needle forward even though that’s not just about alternative credentials.

There are numerous schools working on projects that will give employers and other stakeholders, other universities, students and prospective students an ability to dig into credentials and degrees to understand what each achievement actually means.

It’s critical that we continue to build out the collective efforts and bring in the different stakeholders to work on this together and find common frameworks for how we understand credentials and build them into larger constellations and clusters. These programs need to be commonly understood and recognized as third-party validated.

Evo: One of the unique elements of the United States’ higher education infrastructure is its incredible diversity, with numerous institutions serving huge numbers of different learners in different ways. How would a common language impact the uniqueness of different institutions?

NS: I don’t think a common language would minimize institutional uniqueness at all. In fact, I would never advocate washing out that uniqueness. It’s important to maintain those different areas of expertise and focus in the postsecondary space. It takes all different types of students, all different types of learning styles and all different types of needs in order to keep our world moving forward. One size does not fit all.

A university that’s really focused on service would probably have badges and other credentials that are focused on the achievements their students attain through service. The research university could have unique credentials to recognize for achievements in their research endeavors. But we can still use the same frameworks to organize these credentials and build out our constellations.

One of the things that we’ve been advocating for is to use O*NET Online and other Department of Labour standard information sources as part of the data we use to build our badging constellations. Those are frameworks understood across the board and are verified by third-party organizations. They will work no matter whether an institution is focusing on service or research or applied technology. You can go back to those same third-party verified frameworks that set out critical KSAs and define them across all arenas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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