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Lesson Learned for Digital Badges and Credentialing from a 2021 Season’s Greeting Card

As key stakeholders around the education space demand an evolved education ecosystem, approaches to credentialing and program design will need to adapt.
As key stakeholders around the education space demand an evolved education ecosystem, approaches to credentialing and program design will need to adapt.

The recent Season’s Greeting card from the International Council on Badges and Credentials (ICoBC) was noteworthy. It highlighted significant  momentum around digital badges and credentialing in 2021. The message carried an important lesson learned for all of us: The rapidly changing world of credentialing, especially credentialing beyond traditional college degrees, is a global phenomenon.

I learned about the ICoBC last year when I joined two of its work groups. The ICoBC promotes global exchange, collaboration and development for the recognition of informal, non-formal and formal learning with digital badges and credentials in four areas:  1) positing a systemic, holistic view of digital badges and credentials for individuals, organizations and societies; 2) promoting an inclusive network of stakeholders based on the principle of diversity; 3) raising understanding of global developments in the field of digital badges and credentials and local adaptation through examples; and 4) supporting innovative projects.

Several stakeholder groups in many nations have vested interests in this work, such as:  

  • Accredited education providers (vocational schools, colleges, universities, adult learning centers) called to un-bundle degree and certification programs to ensure permeable access for learners based on badges and credentials—to better serve labor market needs and develop new business models.
  • Larger corporations and organizations that must ensure upskilling and reskilling of their workforce, anticipating future skills and verifying their development, running dynamic impact analyses of learning programs and providing incentives such as recognizing internal badges awarded by external partners.
  • Associations working to add value to their credentials by linking them to government standards, making skills identifiable within their network, verifying skills among their members and transforming innovation into curricula.
  • Governments using information to gain insights into labor markets; close regional skill gaps by partnering with education providers and other governments; and leverage migration more effectively by adding recognition layers of prior learning and verification in keeping with internationally aligned standards, processes and technology.

The ICoBC is currently focused on projects in three areas: 1) designing badges and credentials (curriculum, testing, verification); 2) deploying badges and credentials (internal marketing, practices); and 3) taxonomies and matching with official certification schemes. Examples of work in 2021 included:

ICoBC’s 2021 look-back noted the “vast potential of digital credentials such as stackability (micro-credentials), formal recognition of non-formal or even informal learning, human and machine readability, etc., in bodies of work such as the Rich Skill Descriptor (RSD) Standard of the Open Skills Network; increasing adoption of the Verifiable Credentials Data Model of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); and Microsoft facilitating the issuing of such credentials via Azure AD, based on the W3C standard. Armin Hopp, ICoBC’s Executive Committee President, especially underscored the importance of trust in bringing digital badges and broader credentialing into the mainstream. He observed that “the wide adoption of digital badges and credentials is less a technology question and more dependent on the appropriate usage and value proposition.”

Trust was an issue highlighted at ICoBC’s November 30th 2021 Symposium, Digital Credentials: From Theory to Reality. The kickoff keynote called for putting the “receiver, not the issuer, at the center of the conversation: if the receiver trusts all of the rings in the value chain (identity verification, outcome validation, securisation of the credential, claiming options, demand from employer(s), recognition from the community, education, and governmental organizations), the adoption will flourish.”

This issue–developments in technology versus trust—is central to building an infrastructure in which digital badges and other credentials (in addition to degrees) become mainline (institutionalized) among nations. Coincidentally, issues of trust are a critical component of the U.S. initiative to transform the dated degree-centric system into a Credential As You Go, incremental credentialing system. In such a system, valuable learning would be established at key milestones within the postsecondary education system to recognize meaningful learning that occurs over a lifetime through six identified learning pathways/strategies in the Incremental Credential Framework

As we prototype and assess the outcomes of a credential-as-you-go approach in three U.S. states (Colorado, New York, North Carolina), we will continue to learn from the four working groups of the ICoBC:  21 Century Skills;  Rolling out in Larger Organizations;  Workforce Development; and Scaling Badge Framework. The ICoBC’s work groups composed of members from many nations including the U.S., will enable us the opportunity to learn from one another in our shared and rapidly changing learn-and-work ecosystems.

I can’t wait to see 2022’s Season’s Greeting card, which will summarize the progress of this coming year. Given the rapid drivers of change, we are likely to witness another round of noteworthy developments in our global hotbeds of innovation.

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