Published on 2019/04/19
The EvoLLLution | Digital Credentials and ePortfolios Clarifying Pathways to the Labor Market
Today’s employer is looking to hire students based on evidence of skills, rather than degree or course codes on a transcript. By shifting towards digital, evidence-based credentialing, postsecondary institutions can stay relevant in a skills-based job market.

In today’s job market, signaling one’s readiness for a job goes beyond traditional transcripts, as they provide little evidence (or even information!) to the employer about the student’s skillset or accomplishments. In response, colleges and universities are on the hunt for new ways to showcase their students’ in-demand skills and competencies. In this interview, Michael Simmons discusses the rise of evidence-based learning and reflects on the capacity for digital credentials and ePortfolios to serve as alternative tools to capture and communicate valuable skills.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the challenges students currently face in trying to translate a postsecondary experience into a well-paying career?

Michael Simmons (MS): The first challenge is helping students understand that learning in courses is connected to marketable skills. It is most difficult at the general education course level because the connection is not usually evident even though it usually exists and is often articulated by faculty. In the student’s major courses, they usually see a direct connection between career and the topics for the class. In my opinion, this is a root cause of the completion problem many institutions are facing. Students find it difficult to see the relevance of general courses that are not clearly and directly related to their career, and thus when they encounter obstacles, the connection that can motivate them toward career goals is difficult for them to see. I believe this lack of clear connection to careers is a major cause of the drop and withdrawal issues which usually happen in the general education curriculum rather than the major courses.

If a student doesn’t know what well-paying career they will seek, it is hard to translate their academic experience. A robust career services operation can help students with career exploration. However, the burden is on the student to seek those services and that’s not happening nearly as much as it should. Most institutions are struggling to make career services work seamlessly with academic curriculum. It is also common that students wait until late in their college career to address these questions. Too often, the full-scale career exploration doesn’t happen until the last year of school. How, then, do students contextualize all the knowledge and skills relative to their career exploration which happens so late in the academic degree? The results of a late, rushed and uninformed career decision are rarely positive.

Evo: How can ePortfolios and digital credentials help learners overcome these obstacles? 

MS: The ePortfolio is a tool to collect, connect and showcase evidence. Many ePortfolios contain examples, not evidence. Examples are good, but evidence via assessment that result in credentials are even better! Simply put, credentialing is verifying. Someone other than the student has verified the evidence.

So how do ePortfolios and digital credentials help learners? They serve multiple purposes, but the two most important purposes are directly related to the idea of signaling to students and to employers.

The most important way the ePortfolios and digital credentials help is with the signals that are sent to students. The ability to articulate one’s own experiences and skills in a meaningful narrative that leads toward career and marketable skills evidence is absolutely the most important signal that an ePortfolio or digital credential sends to the student. Creating and curating the narrative, or earning a credential, are great ways to signal students about their own skills.

ePortfolios and digital credentials are also used to signal student skills to prospective employers. The evidence from ePortfolios and digital credentials is a useful supplement to a student’s own narrative. There is clear value added when credentials are evidence-based, and they have some form of assessment. If someone other than the student (faculty) is verifying these credentials it is very helpful in supporting the student’s narrative in the eyes of the employer. Credentials and ePortfolios provide evidence to supplement and supports the story a student must be able to tell about themselves.

There is an open question that needs to be addressed: Do employers really care about ePortfolios and credentials? It’s been our experience that about half do and half do not. As a result, it is more important for institutions to ensure that students understand and articulate their own marketable skills in a way that a basic transcript or diploma never does. In some cases, it is more beneficial for us to help students articulate their skills than it is to spend time chasing specific employer approvals of digital credentials.

This may be a controversial position to take, but so far, we’re not seeing evidence that the previous generation of credentials are sufficient. However, it is clear that employers desperately want the students to show evidence of skills, and that they expect institutions to facilitate that process. Credentials and ePortfolios serve that purpose. Going forward, it will be important to build machine-readable credentials based on interoperable standards. Any digital credential should move through the increasingly common AI-based employment screening systems in a way that doesn’t shortcut the demonstration of skills, the presentation of evidence and the assurance of assessment.

Evo: From the institutional perspective, what are some of the key benefits to offering ePortfolios and digital credentialing? 

MS: ePortfolios and digital credentials can provide a basis for institutional effectiveness, accreditation, funding and retention. Evidence of learning is essential for institutions. Just as signaling is important to the student and the employer, ePortfolios and digital credentials are important to the institution because they signal to both internal and external stakeholders that the institution has evidence of curricular outcomes and marketable skills.

Consider career-based marketable skills as learning outcomes expressed in different ways. Specialized curricular learning outcomes that help a student in their specific discipline and career are commonplace. For example, think of the biology student learning how to work in a lab with a group of students to dissect a frog. The student learns about biology, anatomy, dissection and so forth. But that same student is also gaining general marketable skills because to dissect the frog they have worked collaboratively, thus experiencing and demonstrating the general marketable skill of teamwork.

It’s important that the institution and external stakeholders clearly see the evidence of learning and career-based marketable skills.

Evo: What are the major costs associated with creating and maintaining a robust, digitally enhanced credentialing environment for learners? 

MS:Technology implementation and maintenance are the obvious costs. Buying or building a credentialing environment will almost always require some type of technology investment. The market is increasingly full of ed tech vendors selling digital credentialing environments. Implementing such systems is also a cost to be considered.

There is an often-ignored cost for assessment. The time and energy that faculty and staff invest into assessment of skills is not typically considered when creating and maintaining a quality credentialing environment. The entire concept of verifying and credentialing is based on the need for qualified faculty and staff to assess student skills based on evidence. They can only do so when they are properly supported and incentivized. We often forget this part of the equation and as a result, the investment in systems and infrastructure fails because it is not used.

In summary, it’s important to identify marketable skills in the context of curricular and co-curricular activities. It’s also hard to do. That’s where ePortfolios and digital credentials can help. A credential is simply the certified recognition of the attainment of a skill—whether that’s curricular knowledge or broad-based marketable skills. The cost associated with assessing skills has as much to do with people as it does with technology. Buying a technology or system is not enough to achieve these goals.

Skills must be signaled and translated. That’s the work. An institution must take their share of that responsibility in enabling, encouraging and, in some cases, requiring students to do so. But in the end, there remains the question of student responsibility in this process. Motivating students and empowering them to signal requires strong institutional will. There are a few examples around the country where this is happening, including my own institution, the University of North Texas through our Career Connect program.

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Key Takeaways

  • Students are finding it challenging to translate academic experience into marketable skills, resulting in college withdrawals, mounting debt and under- or unemployment.
  • Digital credentials and ePortfolios allow students to reflect on their experiences and skills and better frame them in the context of a potential career, both over the course of their educational engagement and upon completion.
  • Alternative and innovative credentials also communicate marketable skills and provide evidence of learning to employers, institutions and external stakeholders.