Published on 2020/02/14

The EvoLLLution | Introducing Digital Credentials to Universities
Digital credentials present universities a unique opportunity to meet the needs of their learners and employer partners simultaneously, but they have to take the leap.

As younger generations adapt to a digital world, universities are falling behind in meeting their expectations. Paper is giving way to digital and employers are looking for ways to save time when looking for potential hires. Continuing education divisions want to find the best ways to help their students succeed in getting a job, but will it work institution-wide? In this interview, J. Kim McNutt discusses the benefits of digital credentialing in the non-credit space, and shares his thoughts on how digital badging can be expanded out of CE into the main campus.

The EvoLLLution (Evo):  Why do digital credentials create so much confusion and concern for university main campuses?

J. Kim McNutt (JKM): First, it’s important to talk about digital credentials themselves. Micro-credentials, digital credentials, badges, and alternative credentials already exist. I didn’t want to create a new credential, but I wanted to turn our credential into vessels of information. I wanted to be able to take a completed course, and then hand a student a paper certificate once they completed it. Then I could provide that information digitally.

We’ve created badges and credentials for OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) and other non-credit awards, which can be sent directly to employers and shared on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. When someone clicks on the badge, the metadata opens up and showcases learning outcomes.

The early confusion around these credentials was people assuming they were completely new credentials that were digital. That’s not the case. We’re simply taking existing non-credit courses and programs, and conveying their learning outcomes digitally. This way the student can leverage it as currency. It’s like the coin of the realm. When an employer looks at a resume, they can see each badge in depth to understand what skills the student brings to the table.

Evo: Why is there more space to experiment with new modalities and credentials in the non-credit space?

JKM: It circles back to challenges universities face with non-credit courses in general. They view these as “training” or somehow “lesser than” traditional offerings. I wanted enough evidence to show my academic partners and leaders that digital credentials offer a great alternative to provide information.

Luckily, I have can pilot these projects without having to go through curriculum committees. My main motivation was to move quickly with this pilot. Experimenting without the bureaucracy that would encompass the academic side of the house. In a year’s time, I was able to move quickly in that space, and now I have this evidence that I can present to my academic peers. The goal is to eventually issue digital transcripts and badging for credit-bearing coursework.

Evo: Why is it in the best interest of the university to offer digital credentials to learners?

JKM: Digital credentials offer universities the opportunity to stay ahead. As younger generations are growing up in a digital world, universities aren’t adapting. They need to keep pace with learners’ expectations.  Today’s learners want information electronically, and they want to share their achievements or send them to potential employers digitally. As more students receive digital transcripts in high school, they’ll expect the same at university.  It’s becoming more practical for universities to provide students information in a way they’re used to.

Evo: How will digital credentialing influence the credential ecosystem across the university?

JKM: Every month I get a dashboard of how many digital certificates and credentials we issue. Since I started this project a year ago, across my non-credit programs we average at about an 80 per cent claim rate. When we issue a digital credential, the student still receives their paper certificate, but they’re also notified about the digital badge or credential that shows they completed the course. By giving them the free digital badge, I was able to collect data and see the claim rate. The share rate—the percentage of students who claim their digital credential and then share them on social media—fluctuates between  60 and 66 per cent.

At some point I want to monetize the paper credential because there’s more labor involved in that. We’re moving toward a norm where every student in the College of Extended and International Education will receive the free badge upon completion of a non-credit course. If they also want the ornate parchment paper certificate, suitable for framing, it’s going to cost a small amount (maybe $15). We’re not there yet, but we’re building the case to monetize the paper certificate.

We also need to remain engaged with employers to see if they find value. For example, if a resume has a digital credential, will they understand it? That’s the next step.

Evo: How are employers responding to this shift towards digital credentialing and how can institutions help?

JKM: As Baby Boomers reach retirement, younger generations are filling those jobs. These employees receive and share information digitally. And for the employer value, there’s benefits in going digital. Resumes, for example, are more efficient through digital mechanisms. An employer can quickly go through a person’s educational background to see if they’re a good candidate. That’s how we’re going to get employer buy-in with the more information that we can provide.

It’s about helping that employee partner do their job faster, better, cheaper. That’s what everybody wants in an industry. Increase your profits, increase the bottom line. Providing employers with key information might allow them to backfill critical positions quickly. Maybe, as digital credentials become more common, AI can be leveraged for the front-end scanning of these badges. Web crawlers can then peruse that data, mine it and then highlight the top candidates for the hiring manager. We can get to a point where employers can automate the search for high-quality candidates based on digital credentials.

Evo: What have been some of the early impacts since offering digital credentials?

JKM: Immediately, it was the acceptance by the recipient. When we first started, it took a while for students to catch on because the student has a part to play in the process too. We don’t just issue the digital credential, we alert them and let them know a free digital badge is available. It was slow going at first, so we asked instructors to tell the students about the digital badge and encourage them to claim it. Once instructors got on board, we started to get more traction.

I do expect pushback on charging for the paper certificate. People will say, “Wait a minute, I took the class, I paid for it, why do I have to pay extra for the paper certificate?” That’s the next challenge in getting people to move towards the digital credential.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the shift towards digital credentialing and the role that continuing ed leaders can play in making it a reality?

JKM: I love the fact that it’s like the Wild West. I believe we’re going to see it more as students and early career employees come to expect digital credentials that are transportable across their entire career. The three-step career cycle (education, work, retirement) doesn’t exist anymore. It’s lifelong learning, and the best way to convey that is through these electronic comprehensive learning records. Students can build a resume of everything they’ve learned and share it more easily.

And as I said, this will not be new certificates or replace existing university degrees. It’s supplemental education.  As we get more buy-in and develop the language of digital badging and credentials, those of us in continuing education have to choose our words carefully and make sure that we’re all speaking the same language.

It’s a very exciting time to be in self-supporting and continuing education units. We’re continuing to help employers and perhaps more importantly, helping students have better careers and better lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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