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The Moral Imperative Driving Digital Credentialing

The EvoLLLution | The Moral Imperative Driving Digital Credentialing
It’s mission-critical for modern colleges and universities to find ways to make digital credentials accessible to their learners.

Professional skills are becoming outdated faster than ever before and traditional education can’t keep up. So, what role must colleges and universities play in helping individuals keep up with the needs of industry? Digital credentialing has become a key player in upskilling employees before their skills become irrelevant. In this interview, Kathleen deLaski discusses the value of digital credentials, the impact they have on society and the challenges facing their broad proliferation.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why have digital credentials captured the imagination of higher education leaders in recent years? 

Kathleen deLaski (KDL): Digital credentials solve a problem for colleges: How to capture and credential smaller or different units of learning than the degree or even a course allow for.

Our story at the Education Design Lab is a case in point. Microcredentialing has become the lab’s most requested area of work, but we sort of stumbled into it six years ago. Colleges were starting to recognize that most learning happens beyond the classroom and George Mason University’s student affairs and provost offices asked us to lead them through a design challenge: “How might we capture informal learning in ways that would be meaningful to employers?”

We identified “21st-Century Skills” as the best competencies to tackle, since employers identified these as the skills they needed most broadly, but complained that colleges were not credentialing them. We ended up piloting the first of many digital badges to explicitly capture the learning and mastery of critical thinking skills beyond the classroom. Part of the theory is that students were learning critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, resilience, empathy, but not with intentionality in ways that students can see it, practice it, or get credit for being good at it. That first badge led to us create eight badges with different universities. Today, 800 colleges and another 150 high school districts have signed up to consider using the competency framework we’ve created or issue badges with us. This fall, we have more than 25 pilots underway around the world.

Evo: Why do you feel colleges and universities have a moral responsibility to offer digital credentialing options?

KDL: The paper resume is not going to be the tool that helps skilled learners get jobs in the digital age. You have to make yourself “discoverable” in the language and platforms that mid- and large-size employers will be using more and more to source their talent pool. And that means having machine-readable search terms on your resume, with verifiable skills. Digital credentials do that, in part because they can translate your skills better to match the employer’s search. So, for example, the lab’s collaboration badge also certifies a student on active listening, strengthening relationships, being solutions-focused, managing diverse perspectives, any one of which might be on a job description instead of or in addition to collaboration, so it increases the learner’s chances of scoring high in an employer search.

As more and more hiring is done through machine-read and competency-based searches, learners who don’t speak this language and don’t have influential social networks (which will always be the best way to get hired) become more and more disadvantaged. It’s a new digital divide and colleges have a responsibility to prepare students to manage through it.

Evo: How can digital credentials support economic and social development efforts?

KDL: Another value of digital credentials is that they can provide the upskilling solution for employers and learning providers to pinpoint changing regional needs for competencies and groupings of competencies. IBM talks about using microcredentials to teach “liquid skills” that are always changing, such as mastery of the latest software development tools.

We need to get to a point with this new ecosystem where groups of employers can signal competency needs in a region so that learning providers can respond quickly with upskilling solutions. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s JDX database project is currently trying to model that work by organizing the language of job descriptions by competencies.

The education offerings may not all be digital. For example, we are working with Goodwill and Palo Alto Community College to offer workplace upskilling for warehouse employees to hot career logistics management roles in San Antonio, with funding from Walmart. But the credentials they earn should be digital, so the employees can be discoverable. These can supplement, or be on-ramps to, degrees.

And for the 70% of college learners who have to work upwards of 15-30 hours per week, these can be credentials for “pathway jobs” to help pay for college. For example, the lab is working with Virginia Western Community College and hospitals in Roanoke, VA to solve for the dearth of middle skill health care workers. Together we have identified jobs that a learner, working on a degree, could qualify for in the short term, with the right certificates and competencies, such as medical tech assistant or phlebotomist. This means significant earnings while working toward a nursing or med tech degree, which helps drive the economic engine of a community with a skills gap problem. We believe this is a role you’ll see community colleges playing more and more in the near future. Win/win!

Evo: What are the biggest roadblocks in the way of the further adoption of digital credentialing options?

KDL: Right now, there are two central roadblocks.

First, evidence on the hiring front. From our learner surveys, we know that digital credentials are helping students feel more engaged, confident and better prepared to talk about their skills. They are helping faculty and workforce learning officers isolate and organize skill building at smaller units of learning. We have proof that digital credentials can get you promoted inside a big company like IBM or Microsoft. But, frankly, we still need data that shows they actually make the difference in getting you hired from the outside. Lumina Foundation has funded us to, in part, build more evidence, with 21st-century skill badges on this front. This is one of the most important skill areas to make more transparent, as companies like HireVue, which provides an AI-driven face-scanning hiring test, are gaining traction to become powerful gateways for corporate hiring.

The second thing we need is branding. By that, I mean with 730,000 discrete types of credentials in the marketplace—a doubling since 2018, driven in part by the digital credentials movement—we need a hierarchy and a language for learners and employers to sort through their meaning and levels of rigor. Currently, we have digital credentials like badges and certificates, which can be displayed digitally. But you might get one badge for attending a conference while others, like ours, are more equivalent to courses with graded assessments. How can consumers and hiring managers see the difference at a glance. We also need an Amazon-like review system where employers and learners can endorse those credentials that have the best outcomes. Our hope is that these systems will remain open source and interoperable.

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