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Digital Credentials Make Convenience Possible, But Not Without Reliability

The EvoLLLution | Digital Credentials Make Convenience Possible, But Not Without Reliability
A widespread move toward digital credentials has the capacity to minimize bureaucratic inconveniences while improving portability of every type of learning recognition, but there are some major bumps in the road that must be smoothed out first.

Digital credentials have been gaining steam as the next big change in the credentialing space. After all, they overcome a number of the challenges people face with the traditional transcript and paper credential format. However, there are a number of obstacles to avoid in this space as well. In this interview, Rick Torres reflects on the capacity for digital credentials to shake up both the for-credit and non-credit credentialing space and shares his thoughts on some of the major roadblocks standing in the way of its wider adoption.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the difference between a digital badge and a digital credential?

Rick Torres (RT): There’s a lot of confusion right now in our space around digital badges and digital credentials. People tend to use the terms “badges” and “credentials” interchangeably.

People tend to look at badges like merit badges—they tend to signal a gamification of learning different skill sets. This could become the norm down the road, but we’re not there now. I consider a digital credential any traditional, transferrable or stackable education outcome or workforce certification. I’m distinguishing that from a badge, which for the purposes of this conversation I’m going to refer to as gamification awards, or recognition of non-transferable education outcomes.

A badge has no transferability to other organizations—it’s only valuable in its specific context and to its specific provider. A digital credential is a digital representation of a traditional, transferable, verifiable credential. For example, a company might give an employee a writing badge because that employee writes the way that company wants them to. However, a university could award a student a digital credential for writing that shows that a student has mastered the art of writing. The school stands behind that claim and is saying, “Yes, this counts and its transferable.” There is a course, grade and credit articulation that backs that up the claim that the person can write from an accredited university, and an employer or anyone else could go back to the university to learn more about why the individual was awarded that credential.

For the purposes of this conversation, any traditional degree that’s out there—a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, a master’s degree, a Ph.D., workforce certifications, certificates issued by schools—all of those can evolve from a sheepskin diploma to a digital artifact. That digital artifact is what I’m calling a digital credential.

Evo: What Is the value of a digital credential over a traditional “sheepskin” credential?

RT: To really dig into this added value, we need to first discuss the fragmentation of learning. Traditional degrees and the traditional outcomes that are awarded for learning are going through a massive transformation, and those transformations can be broken into a few areas. One of the main drivers for this change, beyond the cost of a traditional postsecondary education, is the fact that students now have the ability to get an education from an increasing number of valid and accredited sources. In the United States alone, students can pursue learning from numerous schools across numerous states. So, how do you begin to codify the learning that’s happening?

That’s being broken into smaller components as well in both the traditional and non-traditional education spheres. The Clearinghouse is involved with the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) on its Interstate Passport project. That passport is an educational credential that represents a body of learning that other institutions have agreed to accept and allow the student to continue their learning from where they left off without having to dig into the specific courses, grades, credits or anything else from the student’s past. It facilitates lifelong learning and supports transfer. This is another form of a non-traditional, alternative credential being backed and accepted by institutions. This is a form of a digital credential. The passport is a digital artifact that represents educational learning, but is different from a traditional degree. When the passport-holding student transfers to another school, all the receiving school has to do is validate the student’s digital credential with the Clearinghouse and, because we are a trusted source for these credentials, it allows the student to seamlessly transfer and continue on with their education.

Here is where we begin to start seeing people breaking down traditional degrees into smaller learning units that potentially are stackable in their achievement towards a traditional credential. When it comes to developing true stackability, either you have to send a bunch of paper somewhere to confirm a student’s past accomplishments, or you could simply have digital credentials, which are accurate representations of what students accomplished, if it is backed by the awarding institution with a trusted and acknowledged validating interface. It significantly reduces bureaucratic backlog and improves the seamlessness of students’ education pathways.

So, to answer to your question about value, I would approach it in two ways. First, for people who are earning these credentials, what are they looking for? They want immediacy, they want reliable validation of what they’ve done, they don’t want to have to have the paper stamped and sent someplace. They want a digital version of their credential that’s authentic, reliable, transferable and understood to be authentic. The requestor is really important here as well, and what are they looking for? They want to quickly and easily validate incoming students’ credentials. They care that students are presenting them accurate, reliable credentials that are spoof-proof in a timely manner.

This is all about convenience. I was in a healthcare company before I came to higher education and it was really interesting to watch hospitals go through the process of credentialing physicians, nurses and physician assistants. There was so much paperwork generated and processed. In some cases, the physician physically had to go to the state capitol and present their diploma. This was just 10 years ago. Creating a reliable system where these types of artifacts can be validated and presented benefits the entire credentialing ecosystem. The hospital can check the credentials of their physicians faster, which means they can put them on the floor to serve their patients faster. The physician can focus on patient care rather than losing time standing in line waiting to present their diploma. There’s a whole ecosystem of benefits that can happen here. There’s a lot that can be gained from a world that has digital credential basics.

The key for all of this, though, is the requesters need to accept the digital rendition of the credentials. The issuer can say it’s real, but the person requesting the verification needs to be willing to accept it. That is going to be a learned behaviour in some instances, but I think technology is a great enabler to make it happen.

Evo: What are some of the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of the true portability and stackability of digital credentials?

RT: There are several challenges standing in the way of collaboration between industry and education. There’s an international component to this that’s worth discussing first. You’ve got all these credentials awarded by colleges and universities across the world. I was at at the Groningen Declaration network meeting in South Africa a few months ago where we had folks from UNESCO talking about a plan they had to establish global credential portability by 2030. There’s a whole effort underway exploring how to set up frameworks around which digital credentials can move in a secure, private and trusted manner. One thing UNESCO brought up, that no one is paying a lot of attention to, is the comparability of these digital credentials. There needs to be an easier way to validate and understand different digital credentials. If I get an associate’s degree or a certificate in the United States, what is that comparable to in France? With increased portability comes great opportunity to increase global mobility, but there need to be standards to establish global comparability, to understand what these different digital credentials mean.

The digital credential, with its potential to have a robust technical environment beneath it, allows for comparability to occur. Right now, in the US, you can earn an associate’s degree and, thanks to articulation agreements between community colleges and universities, students can theoretically transfer all their community college credits toward a bachelor’s degree. But someone who earned that same associate’s degree in China would get zero credit hours transferred toward a four-year degree in the US. And it’s a similar story for American students looking to transfer their credits towards a four-year degree elsewhere in the world.

Now think about other types of digital credentials, like workforce certifications. If you’re platinum certified or gold certified by a major global company, that has a standard definition globally. Everybody understands what that means—someone can get their gold or platinum Microsoft certification in Japan and it’s good in the US or anywhere else on earth. If you are a metalworker with the highest level of expertise certified in the US, other American employers will know what that means, but metalworkers in Canada might not. Comparability is a huge roadblock. We can break the education down into smaller components and then wrap it in a digital certification or a digital certificate, but then trying to port that to other places of the world creates a problem.

The other issue is tied to the fact that requestors are looking for accuracy, immediacy and reliability. The reliability piece is particularly important there. We need trusted exchange ecosystems to establish the reliability of digital credentials, but right now it’s the Wild West out there. How do we begin to establish reliable ecosystems for digital credentials? Everyone’s excited about blockchain right now, which is a database where digital credentials can be stored and accessed. But not every institution will be able to—or maybe willing to—create the nodes necessary to deposit credentials in a blockchain environment. Additionally, there is work going on also to understand the concept of revocability or expiry of credentials in a blockchain environment. This is an important dimension to make sure that credential issuers maintain control over the validity of their credentials. This means there will be multiple credential validation ecosystems out there, which creates the possibility of confusion for both learners and requestors. It also means a lot needs to be worked out around standardization. This is a huge area of opportunity, however, and we’re all trying to learn more about it. We’re all trying to understand how secure is it and what the adoption curve is going to be. Security in particular is a big question from folks that would be awarding and maintaining these digital credentials. So the significant question that must be asked is, to anyone that is awarding credentials today—be they a school, a workforce entity, a professional association, a union that offers certifications—are you willing to establish a blockchain node technologically and put your information in there, or are you going to say no?

There’s an education process and an adoption process that needs to happen, and this could take a while because people really have to trust the system. But, more than that, they have to be able to participate, which is going to be a big potential obstacle and also means that we’re going to have multiple ways of validating credentials. Eventually we may have one or several reliable platforms for credential validation but right now a lot of folks are trying to figure that out.

Evo: Looking 10 years into the future, how prevalent do you think digital credentials are likely to be?

RT: In ten years, digital credentials are going to be easy to produce, easy to create and many people are going to have them. The question is going to be how well they will be adopted by folks that currently go through other means to validate the authenticity of a claimed certificate, certification, degree or outcome.

The issue will not be on the production side when it comes to digital credentials, the issue is going to be more on the adoption side—whether folks see enough benefit in the disruption of credentialing to accept digital credentials. That’s going to tie into their assessment of how accurate digital credentials will be and how reliable—non-spoofable—they are. Every school has some kind of representation of the credential they give their students, and the whole idea behind credentials is that a learner should be able to send that to any third party who can validate its authenticity. However, people can falsify just about anything. What prevents someone from creating a similar type of artifact that looks very close to the original? Even in the digital credential space, what’s stopping someone from setting up a system that, instead of pinging the trusted server, pings some fraudulent server? The requestor doesn’t know who they are pinging when their request comes back confirm an authenticated credential. The potential—and reality—of credential fraud is impossible to ignore.

So the question is, how do you stop this from happening? As digital credentials become more of a currency, they become more valuable to spoof—those things are directly correlated. How do you educate the requestor on the back-end to identify what’s real and what’s not?

These are some of the areas that I think about, in the application. How do you prevent the spoofing? That’s the critical question that needs to be answered to gain adoption in a broader sense.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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