Measuring the Value of Digital Credentials (Part One): The Shared Benefits of MicrocredentialingJonathan Lehrich | Associate Director of Strategy and Projects in the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, Harvard University
With their increased granularity, transparency and portability, digital credentials are quickly supplanting the paper certificate as a means of non-degree skills verification in leading-edge continuing and professional education units. They enable a greater understanding of academic accomplishment and provide academic leaders with a means of unbundling degree requirements; however, as Jonathan Lehrich notes, their use on a broader institutional level is slow in the making.
In the first of this two-part interview, Lehrich discusses the growing value of digital credentials to employers, educational institutions and job-seekers alike, and explains what it’s going to take for them to be better recognized by traditional academic departments and faculties.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How much value do executive education students and employers place on traditional degrees as opposed to non-credit credentials and student outcomes?
Jonathan Lehrich (JL): The value of a degree or credential lies as much in how you talk about it, as it does in anything intrinsic. It depends on how the holder presents the achievement on their resume, their LinkedIn profile, and in professional contexts.
Let me give you an example. Some employers will see a three-day course in digital strategy on an applicant’s resume and say, “Great! You’ve learned all about digital strategy.” Others will say, “Three days? How much can you possibly know?”
Similarly, job-seekers will advertise their executive or non-degree education in different ways. Recently, I was looking at the LinkedIn profiles of people who earned a badge in one of our courses. Some presented the badge under “Accomplishments” while others presented it in the “Education” section of their profile. I’m not suggesting that anyone is being duplicitous, but there is variance in how people value the currency of executive education.
Evo: Is there anything that an institution can do to help clarify the level of rigor that a credential has, or clarify where in the overall credential taxonomy a particular piece of education should fit?
JL: There is, but it can cut both ways. What does a rigorous, self-respecting institution do now? They give out diplomas and they give out certificates. They don’t try to indicate that the one is the other: a transcript will not include grades from a non-degree certificate. If an employer is verifying an applicant’s educational credentials from a centralized institution like Boston University (BU), they can call a registrar who records all degree and non-degree achievements, but distinguishes the one from the other. By contrast, decentralized universities often assume that people know the difference between, say, a Harvard degree, a Harvard continuing education degree, and a Harvard non-degree course.
I don’t know of any employers who feel deceived by these sorts of distinctions, but I think there are some who believe that any kind of management education is comparable, which isn’t always the case. Is McDonald’s the same as any other burger joint? Does it compare to going to a steak house? On that level, yes, institutions could probably do more to distinguish between degree and non-degree achievements.
Evo: How can digital credentials help executive education providers adapt to the changing demands of modern working professionals and the labor market?
JL: Earlier this year, I was discussing digital badging with the Provost’s Office at BU, and the question we were asking was, “What do these badges mean, and what do they signal that might confuse people?” In non-degree executive education, we give people a paper certificate and say, “This is a certificate of achievement. It is a piece of paper: you can put it on your resume or your LinkedIn profile, but it is not a degree.” That’s what we’ve been doing for years. The digital badge is exactly equivalent to that paper certificate—and indeed, anybody who receives the one can also receive the other—but the difference between them is twofold. First, the digital badge is more readily shareable. Second, it makes the underlying requirements that someone had to achieve in order to earn it more transparent.
Say I took a course in digital strategy at Boston University. That’s fantastic. The paper certificate I receive says that I came to the course, and it’s signed by the professor. The digital badge has that information too, but it also gives a description of the course: how long it was, what students had to do in terms of pre- and post-work, what they did during the class, and whether there was any grading. All of that is written into the description. All one has to do is double-click the badge, and that information is readily visible. As a form of credential, then, a digital badge is arguably more transparent than the paper certificate, which doesn’t make clear what the work actually entailed.
From an employee’s point of view, a digital badge is a way of recognizing work that they did in a way that doesn’t require you to call the university registrar between Monday and Friday, nine-to-five. From the employer’s point of view, they can get a better understanding of what a person’s skills and abilities are. It goes beyond the high-level information that they would receive from a paper certificate, diploma or a degree.
Evo: From the student’s perspective, a badge gives them the capacity to more clearly describe their competencies to potential employers. Does that change the game in terms of whether a non-credit credential has more value in the labor market than a traditional certificate?
JL: I think badges clarify value. They don’t necessarily increase or decrease value. They just make it more readily communicable.
Badges also makes the credential more readily verifiable, which is important. I could claim that I have a degree from Oxford, and it will take a while for somebody to figure out that I don’t. But a badge can readily be tracked to its source. So, I could take a course in anything from anywhere, but my ability to prove that it happened, and that it has value, is now much clearer.
Evo: As you begin to offer a greater array of digital credentials, do you expect to see interest for more short-term programs increase over the next several years?
JL: Yes. We’re already starting to see an uptick in the courses in which we’re offering digital credentials.
We are also representing more offerings in other formats: not just face-to-face but also self-paced, online, and blended. We’re seeing interest that is driven, at least in part, by the fact that we’re offering microcredentials for those offerings. People are saying, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a full course, but if I’m going to get a badge from Boston University, then it’ll prove to others that I’ve done real work.”
Evo: How can postsecondary institutions blend the demand for digital short-term credentials into the array of their existing offerings?
JL: Because badges can be made more granular, we can offer shorter educational experiences, and identify and credential them appropriately. For example, we offer three-hour modules in our online courses, where students earn a badge for each module they complete. If a student takes enough of those modules, he or she earns a larger credential. That simply would have been too much of a headache to verify and certify by traditional methods.
But let’s broaden the perspective. Let’s say that someone is in a four-year college undergraduate program and they’re working towards completion, but for one reason or another they realize they won’t complete. In any other field, if you were to work for three years at something and then move on, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would be considered short-term work, or you moved onto your next job. In college, though, someone who does three years out of four is a dropout, and all they have to show for their efforts is debt.
Now, imagine a world where a university like BU could certify someone’s achievements—course by course or requirement by requirement—along their way to a degree. At the end of the road, the degree overlays and extends all of the smaller credentials that the student has already achieved, but if they don’t complete, they still have something to show for it.
I am very concerned about the number of people in this country who don’t finish degrees and are left with massive debt and no credentials. I’m not suggesting that we should water down the credential. Rather, I think that people should be able to get well-reasoned, completely transparent, readily verifiable credentials for each stage of their educational journey, so as to make their final achievement that much more impressive.
In some ways, it’s not unlike the gamification approach that we’re now seeing in many fields, where you get badges along the way to a final accomplishment to keep you motivated. That’s important, because it’s a tough slog when you’re a second-semester sophomore. You have years ahead of you before you’ll have anything to show for your efforts, which can be very discouraging. If you had some achievements to mark along the way that could help you get an internship, explain yourself to your parents, or help towards student loans, that would be a big deal. Digital credentials can be a way for universities to say, “We acknowledge what you’ve done so far, and encourage you to do more.”
Evo: What does it take to facilitate the mentality shift that’s required within what are relatively conservative, change-averse institutions to start moving towards this more granular recognition of learning?
JL: On some level, it’s going to come down to general education about what badges and credentials are, both for those within the postsecondary industry and for employers. This will involve a couple of major universities like BU taking a very visible position and saying, “We want to recognize our students on their way to graduation, and not just afterwards.”
Universities will also need to explicitly move towards the notion of providing lifelong learning, as opposed to learning for registered students only. We want to be—and we already are—part of our students’ lives as a trusted advisor. You were here as an undergraduate or a graduate student or even an executive education student, and you keep coming back to us for advice on your career progress, or on your personal development. It’s not that we’re the sole provider of anything, but in a world of extremely noisy educational choices, you can trust us to help guide you forward. Maybe we provide education, or maybe you’re looking for a program you can get somewhere else. We’re comfortable either way. We want to see you learning, we want to see you developing, and we’re going to be proud of you the whole way through.
Evo: In creating that relationship with learners, do institutions need to start looking at allowing a wider array of individuals access to some of the knowledge behind a three- or four-year degree program? What role does unbundling need to play in facilitating this shift towards the lifelong institution?
JL: Currently, Executive Education at BU provides a short-form, targeted bolus of management education for those who don’t have the time, wherewithal, background or resources to complete a full degree. That doesn’t make it a less rigorous substitute; it’s just a different form of learning. Some departments within BU are experimenting with the idea of breaking some courses out of the degree format. For example, let’s say you have to take 24 courses for your MBA. Should people be allowed to take one or two of those courses without actually registering as a degree student yet? That wouldn’t be a bad thing.
I don’t think we want to do anything that suggests the degree itself is less valuable, or that a student can take a little bit here, a little bit there, and 20 years later it all adds up. That’s not as powerful a pedagogical approach. That said, I do think there’s something to the idea of unbundling. Individual courses do have their own inherent educational value, and not just as stepping stones to meet all the requirements of a degree. Perhaps microcredentialing can help people recognize that intrinsic value.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.