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The Evolution of Digital Credentials

Microcredentials and other digital credentials are here to stay, so higher institutions must dive in and start experimenting to figure out how to best extract their value.

Digital credentials are front of mind for higher ed leaders looking to be on top of industry demands. But with the increasing popularity of credentials, it’s easy for things to diminish in quality. In this interview, Jacob Askeroth discusses how digital credentials have evolved in recent years, the challenges to developing and scaling them and what makes a high-quality credentials.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have you seen digital credentials evolve over in recent years?

Jacob Askeroth (JA): I wasn’t introduced to the idea of digital badges or credentials until 2015, when I was doing my doctoral research. It was hard to tell what impact they would have on education and industry because it was such a nascent area. Fast-forward to 2023, there’s more recognition and acknowledgment of alternative and digital credentials as a viable means to verify a person’s qualifications, as institutions, employers and learners understand this more and more.

We have seen a significant increase over the last several years in the number of digital credentials, and there’s a much more concentrated effort dedicated to aligning credentials with specific skills. Employers seem to recognize and appreciate the value of a credential or badge when it represents meaningful and understandable skills. That idea and concept is becoming more mainstream in higher ed and specific industries, but the more we align them to industry needs, the better we can serve learner and community needs. Right now, we’re looking at how to build the right structure to make digital credentials more portable from one system to the next and therefore easier to ingest and understand.

Evo: What are the characteristics of a high-quality microcredential or digital badge?

JA: There is a lot of conversation happening right now on this subject, and we’re beginning to look at implementing greater levels of standardization across industries and education, so the value of a microcredential or badge is clearly understood everywhere. We must be intentional in designing and developing digital credentials, so they align with skills, and we need to clearly communicate them. Additionally, all digital credentials should be following the most recent versions of these data standards such as OpenBadges and CLR standards. When this standardization occurs, it creates a common language for digital credential consumers and makes them more valuable in the end.

I believe that the even a badge’s visual design is worth considering. In our fast-paced and digital world, images really matter, and they can quickly communicate a message. So, ensuring digital credentials such as badges align with the credential issuer’s brand is critical, and it allows someone viewing the credential to know who issued it, what it is for and can encourage learners to share on social platforms because they are proud of their accomplishments.

Evo: What are some common obstacles to developing, launching and scaling digital credentials and badges?

JA: Often the biggest hurdle is learners’ general lack of awareness of digital credentials, what their value is and what people can do with them. Educating current and potential learners should be a priority, and it obviously takes time and resources. For example, a learner may satisfy all the requirements to earn a badge without knowing it, then receive an email notification about it. So, they might be skeptical or simply uneducated about what the badge is or what they can do with it such as sharing it.

Related to that obstacle can be building awareness of and appreciation for digital credentials among internal groups within an organization to garner enough support to get things started or to scale the development and issuance of digital credentials. In my experience, fostering such support requires communication, presentations and transparency as to what digital credential initiatives are hoping to accomplish and what positive impact is expected from them. Overall, simply educating people on the value of these credentials will be critical in getting support.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles?

JA: To successfully build internal support, you have to communicate as much as possible to get in front of people. We’ve done a lot of internal advocating and striving to be transparent, and we are starting to see our organizational culture embrace digital credentials as a result, which makes enhancing and scaling initiatives easier.

On the learner side of things, we’ve received feedback that learners didn’t know what a badge was when they got the email saying they’d earned one. So, now when we see a student not interacting with a badge issued for something like a microcredential, we reach out with a follow-up email and let them know the badge is real, that it came from the university and tell them what they can do with it.

Evo: What impact do digital credentials and badges have on the learner and their institution?

JA: There’s a lot of low=hanging fruit benefits for the learner. The digital badge gives them a way to show their achievements to peers and employers. The value to the institution is that it provides an additional way to engage learners as gives them potential additional milestones along their learning journey. Those additional milestones can make the daunting task of pursuing a degree less of a giant mountain to climb. Issuing digital credentials also provides an additional mechanism to market the institution, as learners share their badge with employers and on social platforms.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about digital credentials or your presentation at 1EdTech?

JA: There’s a lot of confusion around digital credentials, and it can feel like a lot to tackle. The presentation dives into the possible initiatives to get started and scale. It can be daunting, so it’s great to come together at places like 1EdTech to get some clarity. And a major premise of the presentation is to not overthink things and to just start doing something with digital credentials. We have tried out several different approaches, and we have seen pretty good outcomes.

Obviously, we recognize the need to be thoughtful and strategic—and you have to operate within the parameters you’re in—but you might be surprised how easy it can be to start small and grow from there. As we have tried various strategies, such as our email campaigns, we’ve seen an impact on students getting microcredentials that we didn’t think they would have pursued otherwise. My hope is that people walk away from the presentation understanding that it’s not as scary as they think. There are many ways to approach microcredentials, and individual institutions may need to find their own groove, but just getting going on it and learning as you go can be an effective way to see results.

Jacob Askeroth will be presenting on this topic at the Digital Credentials Summit in March.