Digital credentials will render university transcripts increasingly obsolete and irrelevant. While degree attainment will continue to be important to employers, transcript entries of grades in courses are even now unreferenced in the job application process. Digital credentialing offers advantages in the recording and dissemination of detailed learning achievement. Increasingly, employers rely on tangible evidence of competence rather than individual college courses completed, as evidenced by the growth of employer-administered assessments of skills and abilities. Decreasing transcript relevance is only one aspect of the reshaping power of digital credentials. These credentials represent a confluence of trends in the evolution of higher education, including advances in technology, the role of social media, increased learning choices, hiring practices, and new pedagogy.
The Basic Information of Digital Credentials
Digital credentials signify and provide important information about what the credential earner is competent to do and which institution or organization is verifying the competency. Most credentials incorporate an icon that names the competency and the issuing institution, such as this Faculty Development badge from the Colorado Community College system in Course and Curriculum Mastery.
When this icon is clicked from within a digital portfolio or website, detailed information is displayed, as illustrated below.
- A general description of the competency and what it entails:“This badge validates that the faculty member has designed/developed a complete course which shows how the instructor intends to approach/assess student learning outcomes while recognizing that change happens and allowing for incorporation of real time events. Course and curriculum mapping are based on national standards of best practice, research findings, and instructional design principles including the backward design process.”
- A list of the learning outcomes, such as this excerpted description:
- “Design a course so that competency outcomes drive curriculum objectives
- Create competencies, learning objectives and measurable learning outcomes
- Develop instruction around stated objectives
- Design evaluations where learning is measured according to how well the learner performs in relation to competencies, objectives”
- Description of the evidence that was used to assess mastery of the competency:
- “Course planning document which clearly defines: learning goals, course content, learning activities, assessments that align with the learning outcomes.
- Learning tools selected for the course align with the course and module objective or competencies by effectively supporting the course materials”
- Reference to the credential issuer’s website for more information including, perhaps, how to enroll in the program.
How Digital Credentials Are Issued, Used, and Managed
The digital nature of credentials facilitates the distribution and use of learning or competency attainment. In contrast to the cumbersome process for delivering certified and confidential traditional transcripts to selected target audiences (such as graduate schools), a digital credential is provided on a web platform. There, learners can view and manage their own credentials, which can quickly and easily be placed on digitally mediated locations: personal websites and social media sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn. No further action is required by the issuing institution, and there is no payment for distribution. Thus, the barriers for distribution are very low.
Digital credential distribution systems are also useful for the issuing institution. It can retain permanent records of the credentials it issues, view and manage credentials through the web platform, manage lists of credential holders and contact groups, and track how often credentials have been seen and shared. This data can provide powerful marketing information.
Digital Credentialing and Change in Higher Education
Sean Gallagher’s book The Future of University Credentials is a must-read for those interested in the subject of digital credentials. In the book, Gallagher describes the evolution and factors that are pointing toward the future of the digital credentialing movement. What follows is a selective listing and explanation of the changes in education and learning that parallel, support, or are interconnected with digital credentials, borrowing from Gallagher (with his permission).
Shorter, Relevant Learning Projects, Modularity, and “Stacking.” Students in continuing and professional education programs are demanding shorter, more relevant, and clearly defined learning projects, often those that would logically be referenced on a resume. This is a long-term trend that started with the institution of certificate programs—shorter, non-degree curriculum devoted to focused and specific learning outcomes, such as professional designations including paralegals, project managers, and personal financial planners. Now, certificate programs are broken into even shorter learning experiences—for example, a five-week course versus a 10-week course. Within these shorter educational programs, specific skills are identified as valuable for learning assessment and acknowledgement. This movement toward shorter learning projects might be called “modularity,” in which larger courses are broken down into modules. This trend has significant implications for the way learning experiences are structured, allowing for modules to be “stacked,” one upon the other, leading to the larger competencies of the more fully articulated curriculum.
For instance, Madison College offers a digital credential, Dietary Manager Certification.
To achieve this certification, students must complete five learning projects, each of which has its own digital credential, including General Nutrition, Food Service Management 1 and 2, Going Green in Food Service, and Medical Nutritional Therapy. Digital credentials facilitate and support this shortened, modular, stacking process by providing the attestation of learning at more granular levels, such as in the completion of discrete projects like those in the Dietary Manager Certification.
The 60-year Curriculum. Regional accrediting agencies are increasingly requiring that universities evaluate their programs on the basis of defined student outcomes—for example, what happens to students after they graduate? This obligation to provide more comprehensive evaluation has increased pressure on universities to provide learning that is relevant to life after graduation. Already, many degree programs intentionally provide real-life experiences in the form of projects and case studies that require skills and knowledge needed after graduation. For some universities, degree education is linked to continuing education, sometimes through formal articulation between the two modes. A natural consequence of these changes will be the pulling apart of the formal degree experience into learning modules that can be certified by digital credentials separately from the course record (i.e., the grade on the transcript).
Social Media. The recent purchase of Lynda.com by LinkedIn points the way for the future of credential distribution and publishing. Those who successfully complete a course on Lynda.com can have that learning accomplishment posted immediately to their LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn and Facebook also are making it easy for people to post learning from other sources to their profiles, a process made convenient and effective through digital credentials. To re-emphasize a point made earlier, no universities currently have the infrastructure capable of posting degree-related learning to these new media utilities. Social media becomes a logical repository for digital credentials because of the ease of posting credentials to these sites, where control of the dissemination of learning accomplishments is in the hands of the individual learner, unmediated by an institution or its requirements.
Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have accelerated the movement toward digital credentials. As MOOCs seek to be more useful and meaningful to students, the notion of learning attestation arising from completing a MOOC has become central to their survival. While efforts to attach academic (degree-level) credit to MOOCs gains publicity, Coursera, EdX, and others are gaining income and credibility from the certificates of completion they issue for a fee. These certificates are a form of digital credential and are issued in the hundreds of thousands.
Competency-based Educational (CBE) Assessment. The recent interest in competency-based assessment of learning also supports the digital credentialing movement. The separation of assessment from course content is an ideal environment for digital credentialing. Employers demand demonstration of competency from their employees—someone is either competent in a skill or not, irrespective of how the person learned or acquired the skill. Gradations in learning, as designated by a letter grade in a course, don’t mean much from an employer’s perspective. What, for example, does a “C” in Java Programming mean? With a digital credential at hand, an employer can be assured that the competency is fully acquired as described in detail by the credential issuer.
Data-based Hiring Practices. Employers are beginning to use new techniques in hiring and assessing employees such as analysis of data (including “big data”) to make employment decisions. At the most basic level, employers assess the success of students from particular universities and direct their recruiting efforts to those universities that yield the most competent employees. In the future, employers will be able to analyze thousands of potential applicants as digital credentials become tied to specific job skills and are listed on online resumes and web-based profiles. In time, employers will be able to judge the quality of the badges being issued by particular organizations. Digital credentials will become the building blocks for both applicants and employers as the marketplace for skills becomes more sophisticated.
Digital Credential Registries and Standards
As digital credentialing develops, the desire to provide some form of registry, standardization, and quality assurance increases. The Lumina Foundation has been most active in this effort over the past four years and has devoted over $35 million in grants designed to create new credentialing systems, including a $2.25 million grant to George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, Workcred (an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute), and Southern Illinois University Center for Workforce Development. The Credential Transparency Initiative (CIT) has engaged over 40 participants ranging from universities to professional associations. Participants are able to enter information into the registry about their credentials according to a standardized set of protocols (called the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL). According to Credential Engine, the nonprofit organization that grew out of the CIT charged with improving transparency in the credentialing marketplace, four advisory boards provide expertise and advice about the quality of credentials and the processes that support them. However, the CIT specifically has not charged itself with setting or enforcing standards of quality among its members. And herein lies the issue—a registry without a quality filter becomes no more than a list of programs. Theoretically, any organization can list anything they want in the registry, so its value to consumers of programs, individuals, and employers is not very high except perhaps as a market shopping list.
The setting of quality standards is the heavy lifting of any movement. Certainly, efforts of a similar kind have failed in the past. For instance, many years ago, the Continuing Education Unit (CEU) was developed through the strenuous efforts of a number of professional continuing educators led by Grover Andrews, formerly with the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The CEU gained widespread acceptance primarily because it had one simple standard: one CEU equals ten hours of instruction, and no CEU can be given for less than one hour of instruction. While CEUs are commonly recorded by institutions, there are no standards required of participants other than that they are in attendance at the learning event. The International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) has undertaken the role of a register and standard setter and claims enrollment of 575 “authorized” providers. However, many major universities are not members of this organization and offer CEUs anyway.
Given the impossibility of setting quality standards for digital credentials, their credibility in the marketplace will be judged by the overall reputation of the provider. Universities have an edge in this regard because their reputations are established and depend on the quality of the credentials that they issue. For example, the University of California at Irvine offers a Java Programming Certificate that benefits from the University’s reputation and likely carries more weight with employers than certificates offered by lesser-known organizations. Registries may prove to be tangential to the digital credentialing effort since organizational reputation will trump any third-party efforts to screen providers. However, this is not to say that the CIT will not play some role in advancing the digital credential movement. The development of the CTDL is an example of de facto standard setting in the form of regularizing how credentials are described.
The Institutional Pathway towards Digital Credentials
The logical way for institutions to adopt a digital credentialing capability is to buy one. There are many companies that offer software packages that perform the basic function of digital credentials, which are compatible with the many social media sites that are the logical repositories of such credentials. Among these companies are Acclaim (Pearson), Badgr, Credly, Parchment, Basno, and several others. While it might be possible for an institution to create its own digital credentialing function, the effort of maintaining such a system is beyond the capacity of most institutions. Some vendors in this market offer institutions the option of purchasing the software and then running it themselves. The other option is to enter into a service agreement with a vendor that can offer a digital credentialing system for a fee, usually based on the number of badges created or issued.
For many institutions, the logical first step is to evaluate the services offered by vendors and select the appropriate one. The choice should be based not only on the functions offered but also on the financial status of the vendor and its ability to remain competitive in the market. Thus, the number and volume of clients is a strong indicator of staying power. Also, some platforms may be more appropriate for organizations that are not higher education institutions. It is helpful to examine the experience of colleges and universities with the system.
Of course, there are costs associated with digital credentialing beyond the cost of whatever is paid to an outside vendor. Institutions have to consider the cost of integrating digital credentialing systems with current systems, maintaining a separate database of issued credentials, and, of course, the payroll cost associated with creating and issuing the credentials. Even the most efficient process of creating and maintaining credentials requires an institutional commitment in the form of employee time to operate it. Again, the cost drivers of such a service are generally the number of different credentials created and the number of credentials issued.
The Implications of Digital Credentialing
Not only will digital credentialing render traditional university transcripts obsolete, except for the formal use of transcripts in post-graduate applications or verifications of academic records, it will also have significant implications for how learning is structured in the future. The concepts of modularity, stackability, and competency-based education mentioned earlier may help to transform the way we link education and the marketplace.
Modularity. The ability to be more granular in the certification of knowledge will provide organizations the possibility of modularizing learning projects, mainly into shorter projects. For instance, a university course in finance may require that students learn how to calculate the time value of money in a number of applications. The ability to “lift” this particular competency out of a semester-long course and testify to the knowledge gained has value to the student. As courses are designed, especially online courses, attention will be given to the concurrent creation of self-referencing modules that can stand alone for other audiences. The time value of money concept might become a separate learning module that could be offered independent of the course that required it.
Stackability. As smaller learning projects are identified as part of larger projects, the option of combining modules in groupings begins to take shape. For instance, the calculation of the time value of money for home mortgages might be combined with other real estate-related modules to define a larger learning project that could define a credential.
Competency-based Assessment. The “unbundling” of education will take place through the modularity effect described above, as well as by the separation of content from learning assessment. Instead of taking a finance course where the time value of money is taught, someone who has worked as a personal banker for a mortgage company could demonstrate mastery of the time-value of money via an assessment of such prior learning independent of any formal course. Credentials will signify specific areas of defined competency rather than the mastery of large bodies of knowledge. Learning assessment and attestation are the key components of digital credentials, especially those that mean something in the workplace.
Opportunity for Continuing Education. The institutional application of digital credentialing is likely to take place first in divisions of continuing education. CE units will be the most vulnerable to the threats posed by digital credentials, and the students in these units will benefit most from them. However, this vulnerability, if challenged and overcome, might also be turned into a big opportunity, especially internally, within the institution. Although institutions may lag in the adoption of digital credentials, their CE units have the ability to create credentials and are able to serve its matriculated students. This possibility ties in closely with the concept of the 60-year curriculum described above. If real-world skills gained in degree programs can be decanted into digital credentials, students will gain valuable credibility in the marketplace as they seek careers and jobs.
Digital credentialing is part of a complex of factors that are combining to transform higher education. The coming obsolescence of transcripts is both a symbol and a tangible reality of the changes at play, changes caused by demographics, technology, the place in society of higher and continuing education, and even the way we think and learn. Digital credentialing is causing us to look critically at the context for learning in modern society, about how learning is transformed into knowledge, and how that knowledge is certified and attributed to individuals.
Gary W. Matkin is Dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning, and Summer Session at the University of California, Irvine. He has served in that position since 2000. Winner of the UPCEA’s prestigious Nolte Award, Matkin has served in various capacities at UPCEA for over 40 years, including being a board member and chairing the professional education initiative.