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Evolving Our Credentialing Ecosystem for the Future of Work (Part 1)

As more learners look to short-term education, it’s critical for institutions to be on the same page in clarifying the value of a 21 stcentury digital credential. 

We face many challenges in transitioning from our current state of documenting learning achievements to 21st century digital credentials, but two problems stand above the rest. First, credentials that document learning achievements are disconnected from employer requirements. Since employment and career advancement are the primary drivers of education and training enrollments, people aren’t seeing the benefits they expected from their investments of time, effort, and money. The second key problem is lack of ownership. Even if learning activities are aligned with employer requirements, learners don’t have control over their own learning and employment records. Their credentials and employment history are stored in silos that generally don’t help people connect their knowledge, skills, abilities and potential career opportunities.

Our credentialing ecosystem has to evolve, so that we can help people:

•       Find valuable credentials

•       Enroll in relevant education and training programs

•       Achieve competencies and document them in digital credentials 

•       Share those achievements in a common data structure

•       And finally, match skills with jobs, so that folks can find jobs, get better jobs, and continuously learn and advance

To accomplish this, we need to Name, Own, Drive and Build.

We want to impress upon everyone the importance of these four actions. We need to name credentials consistently. We need to own standards within the institution. We need to drive the advocacy discussion. Finally, we need to build a transparent ecosystem designed specifically not for our benefit, not for the benefit of our faculty, but for our learners.

NAME credentials consistently 

Deb Everhart (DE): The number and types of credentials are growing faster than anyone’s ability to make sense of this marketplace. We’re using the term “credential” broadly to refer to a documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard. In this meaning, “credentials” include degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, micro-credentials, and professional/industry certifications as well as documentation of learning achievements in internships, apprenticeships, and various civilian and military training programs. We also use the term competencies broadly to include statements of a person’s knowledge, skills, and/or abilities, including academic learning outcomes and job skills. 

Research from Credential Engine has identified over 738,000 unique credentials offered in the U.S. across postsecondary educational institutions, MOOC and online learning providers, non-academic organizations, certification and licensure bodies, and secondary schools. 

How can anyone understand how to navigate that many diverse credentials? Any and all of these types of credentials from different providers can be valuable to those who earn them. But they can also be dead-ends, misleading, or mismatched. This is a dynamic and constantly changing marketplace where credentials vary in content, quality, and value. There is currently a lack of transparency about what’s inside all of these credentials.

Today, we have unprecedented opportunities to rebuild how our education, training, and employment systems and processes work together to create valuable pathways.

Amrit Ahluwalia (AA): When you think about where we are in terms of credentialing ecosystems and frameworks, contextualize that against the recession. Generally, in a recession, higher education enrollments increase—and these are enrollments in degree programming. But the National Student Clearinghouse showed that there’s a 3% overall decline in higher education enrollment over this academic year. 

So, when we think about why this enrollment spike isn’t happening, it’s because there’s greater interest in non-degree programs. About two in three adults are looking for non-degree programming options. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Is the confusion around credentialing as a result of the pandemic in terms of responses to enrollment decline, or is it an acceleration of something we’ve already been seeing? 

Tracey Taylor O’Reilly (TTOR): We’ve been talking about confusion in naming for a long time in non-degree programming. The University Professional Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) has played a role in helping us here. They have a new document on alternative credentials. Alternative isn’t the ideal word, but it’s clear. It’s anything other than a degree that we give out in post-secondary education. The confusion is accelerating now that we see so much more need and demand due to the pandemic. We’ve heard the word “micro-credential” a lot in the last few years, both inside and outside our institutions. There’s been a lot of drama, hype, and shiny object syndrome–people don’t really know what it is, but everybody’s talking about it, so it must be the big new thing. What I’ve seen recently is just such intense confusion.

We’ve all been in that Zoom meeting in which a colleague’s screen suddenly gets obscured with a furry tail. Big or small, black, white, spotted, or striped–we all know it is a cat. Now imagine if your colleague apologized for the intrusion of their “micro-animal.” You’d laugh at the silly nomenclature because we can all identify a cat. 

Calling a cat a “micro-animal” begs the question: why would you refer to it by a vague made-up term when you can describe it clearly in a language everyone understands?  The same question applies to this made-up term “micro-credential.” Why use it when we can call credentials what they are: certificates, digital badges, etc. 

And, if there are animals that we can’t readily identify, maybe because they have only recently evolved, are we going to name them or just refer to them in generic terms, as we have been doing with credentials? 

Stakeholders within our institutions are confused. But we are also confusing external stakeholders. Canadian community colleges, for example, have started calling programs micro-credentials or RapidSkills, but they use those terms for many different things, from digital badges, to modules, to courses, to certificates. There is no consistency. How are prospective students or employers going to understand these new credentials?

There was a great opportunity for colleges to get together and establish consistency as they created new program types. Instead, they created more confusion. 

AA: We’re competing with the private sector and with organizations like Google—and that’s a scary proposition.  If we can’t define what we do, it’s a framework problem. But we also have competitiveness and market problems. That’s foundational to our ability to continue to succeed. We have to find ways to clearly tie program offerings, define outcomes from those program offerings, and show how they relate back to the labor market, and then provide people the skills to communicate that.

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