Credentials, Trust Networks & the Future of Badges

While serving on a series of panel discussions about micro-credentials for a number of Australian Universities, the topic of trust networks was brought up several times by Sheryl Grant, Director of Social Networking for HASTAC and author of the recently published What Counts as Learning. In her text, Grant makes frequent reference to the importance of building a trust network as part of a badge design (p. 8, 10, 17, 18, 29). The panel discussion, Grant’s comments in the text, as well as other excellent resources like Carla Casilli’s essay on Mozilla Open Badges: Building Trust Networks, Creating Value prompted me to spend more thought and time on the subject. As a result, following is one of what is likely to be a series of posts about trust and credentials.

A friend recently told me about her son coming home with a school progress report full of A’s…and then one F in math. The parent was horrified. “What did you do wrong?” It turns out that the child did nothing. It was an error from the gradebook software. Another friend was listening and quickly shared a similar experience. Why do people have such reactions? It is because they want their children to succeed in school and the letters on the report card signify that they may not be doing well. Of course, a traditional report card or progress report with nothing more than letter grades does not tell us much. Yet, parents generally accept that an F is bad and an A is excellent. What they don’t realize is that there is no standard meaning fro an A or F across schools in the United States, and that there are dozens of factors that might shape the grade of a student (participation, timeliness of submissions, performance of quizzes, etc.). Quite often, the criteria for earning an A, B, or C are built in such a way that the letter grade is not necessarily a straightforward sign of how the student is doing in math, science, or English. It also stands for how well the student is complying with the specific rules, expectations and standards of a given teacher. As such, the letter had largely shared meaning in the public while the actual meaning can be quite varied.

None of this matters to most parents (or students and teachers, for that matter). The letter grade is a trusted symbol. Family members from around the country may gather and talk about the grades of their kids in school. It usually doesn’t matter that an A in one school and class does not mean the same as an A at another school and class. An A is an A. This is because people generally trust and accept the system. They also trust and accept the value of documents like progress reports and report cards.

This trust system builds from there. Progress reports build up to report cards. Report card data is transferred to official school transcripts. Transcripts are reviewed to issue diplomas. Diplomas at one level of schooling very often become prerequisites for entry into the next level of schooling. Finally, one or more of these diplomas become required credentials for entry into the workforce. There are jobs that only accept applicants with a high school diploma or higher, a bachelor’s or higher, etc. People trust that these credentials verify some level of knowledge and/or skill that is desired for a specific job. Does everyone with a high school diploma have a similar knowledge or skill set? Regardless of the answer, most of society accepts it as having value. It is a trusted credential, and it serves as a way to narrow down the applicant pool with little thought or effort from the employer. It is not, however, a guarantee that one will get or keep the job. The diploma gets them in the door to the interview, but at some point, they must demonstrate an ability to do the job at a standard that is satisfying to the employer. This illustrates the trust network built around common credentials like high school and college diplomas.

No Universal Trust Network around Diplomas

This trust is not uniform, even amid the generally strong trust network in the United States around high school diplomas and college degrees. There are jobs that one is unlikely to get without a credential from a certain caliber of college. Unless one has a diploma from an elite higher education institution, regardless of one’s real performance at a lesser known school, some employers will rarely seriously consider such an application. Lauren Rivera’s research on Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion: Elite Employers’ Use of Educational Credentials indicates as much. Similarly, religious organizations sometimes give precedence to graduates of schools with a similar religious affiliation, noting that a credential from such an establishment is a sign of potential mission fit and aligning with the institutional core values. While this is changing, a 2006 article in the New York Times referenced several surveys indicating that some employers attribute more value (and trust) to diplomas earned from face-to-face compared to online schools. In other words, there are multiple trust networks around diplomas, each of which have different standards.

Trust Networks Around Credentials in Professions

We also have some professions where entry includes both a specific degree from a school within the trust network along with a license or some sort of other credential. The health care industry is a prime example. Medical doctors, dentists, occupational and physical therapists, and others similar professions require not only a diploma from programs that have a special accreditation. There is often an extra exam and/or other application process to become licensed to practice. And while this varies from one medical profession to another, there are requirements to keep up one’s license. In other words, unlike a college diploma, there is a renewal process for maintaining the license or similar credential. These have expiration dates and, without renewal, regardless of the letters behind one’s name, the license is the ultimate credential necessary to practice in many health care professions.

Healthcare is a useful example of credentials and trust networks because of the high regard placed upon the credentials from multiple stakeholders. Doctors and other medical professionals value them and routinely display their multiple credentials and endorsements on their office walls. Patients and other office employees reverently refer to those professionals with terminal degrees as doctor. And these credentials hold high status in almost all of society. In other words, there is a rather strong and expansive trust network around the dual credential of a medical degree and a medical license (which has somewhat varying requirements by state).

Continuing Education and Professional Licensure

There are extensive requirements for earning the initial credential in health care professions. Yet, to maintain the license, the standards are far more modest (As an example, see this list of requirements for jobs that have requirements for license renewal in the state of Wisconsin.). In fact, most that I reviewed use an old continuing education unit as part of the requirement. As I review these continuing education requirements, I learned that many of the states provide a renewed license upon receipt of a fee and some evidence of completed continuing education units. What is interesting is that the units are not usually earned by demonstrating the maintenance of one’s knowledge and skill, or by demonstrating the acquisition of new knowledge and skill. Instead, many (but not all) of them are earned and documented by the number of hours assigned to a continuing education activity that is approved by one or more entities with the power to certify CE provider training. Depending upon the medical profession, one might get CEs for anything from self-verifying completion of a learning activity, attending a conference or sitting through a training event, attending webinars, or going through an online or face-to-face training and completing a requires quiz or assessment. Regardless, in all the examples that I’ve seen so far, the level of rigor related to renewing a credential in many of these fields of minimal, the authentication and verifying processes have limited security checks, and there is a significant trust factor built into the renewal process. This matters very little because there is such a strong trust network built around the initial credentials, so there seems to be little pressure (although I am not fully informed about the trends and developments in health care continuing education) to raise the standards for credential renewal in a way that more rigorously ensures ongoing competence.

Competency-based Micro-Credentials and Digital Badges

Contrast the examples above with the emerging development of micro-credentials and digital badges. As I’ve illustrated elsewhere, leveraging competency-based micro-credentials provides a means of verifying initial or ongoing competence with detail. When it comes to high expectations for competence in a given domain or profession, a competency-based approach that leverages more granular credentials hardly requires a defense, not when compared to credential renewal processes that are often self-reported or measured by clock hours instead of evidence of learning. In addition, as the security and verification processes continue to be enhanced, competency-based badges serve as a robust way to verify continuing education while bypassing less reliable approaches.

However, there is a wignificant limitation. Despite these seeming advantages to leveraging micro-credentials and digital badges, they have yet to develop widespread trust networks. Where diplomas have significant trust networks even in instances where trust may not be warranted, these emerging credentials have very little trust. As such, each new badge provider must build a trust network for the badge to have any perceived value. Given this present reality, the most likely way in which micro-credentials will gain increased acceptance as a valued competency-based credential is through four primary means: profession-specific trust networks, trust networks that rely upon the brand and credibility of a specific badge provider, trust networks that rely upon the certification of certain badge issuers, and/or trust networks that rely upon the shared credibility of a badge issuer and one or more employers.

Profession-Specific Trust Networks

In the instance of different health care industries, there could indeed be rapid and widespread trust networks built around competency-based badges for continuing education. They are unlikely to replace the existing initial credentials, but especially in health care professions that have communities tied to one main professional organization, there is potential for these credential to gain acceptance in a reasonable amount of time. With that said, it is problematic that licensure for many such professions is on a state level in the United States, with each state having different standards. In such instances, a national effort would be necessary, one that manages to gain the adoption and support from at least a collection of initial states. Another option would be to promote the adoption in a country that maintains licensure with a centralized or national entity. This is no small cultural shift within a profession, but there can be strong arguments made for what such a model could do for:

  • increasing public trust in professions where trust is wavering or mixed,
  • helping professions catch up with current best practices in professional development,
  • streamlining the verification of continuing education units,
  • improving patient outcomes through verification of currency in the scientific literacy of a profession, and
  • providing credentials that could serve as marketing tools and differentiators for health-care professionals.

Trust Networks That Reply Upon the Brand and Credibility of a Badge provider

Another option for the establishment of more expansive trust networks around these emerging competency-based micro-credentials is through a respected and trusted organization as a central provider of competency-based badges. This appears to be the plan of Digital Promise, with their implementation of competency-based badges for teacher professional development. Of course, if such a trust network develops, there is concern that it would be at the detriment of other professional development providers in the discipline (including Universities), moving toward monopolistic tendencies. Only time will tell whether such concerns will take on a reality. However, it seems relevant that the presence of previous credentials did not lead to such a monopoly. Yet, one or a few well-respected providers of education through competency-based badges could indeed help expand public profession-specific comfort and trust around such credentials. This could happen, for example, in the field of education around popular educator development programs from Apple, Google, or Discovery education. In essence, the trust and respect of the organization would be transferred to the new credential.

Trust Networks That Reply upon Certification of Badge Issuers

In some ways, this option is a derivation of the previous one. Instead of the trust network being established around the brand of the badge-provider, it would be possible for it to be built upon the trust of central authorizers of badge providers. This might be a state or national government agency, a professional organization, or even a well-respected central corporate partner within a given domain or profession. This allows for more diversified training providers, but leverages the respect of one of these existing entities to communicate that the credential is valuable and trustworthy.

Trust Networks that Rely Upon the Shared Credibility of a Badge Issuer and One or More Employers

This is the model that is being employed by the partnership between Udacity and Salesforce around nano-degrees. One gets the project and competency-based training through Udacity, but it was built in close partnership with a specific (or several) corporate partner, with the explicit goal of preparing people for potential jobs with that employer or similar employers. This is among the fastest ways to build a trust network around an alternate credential, but there are still questions about the transferability of that credential between the single or few corporate partners. So, while it may be among the fastest to build, the extent to which the trust network around the credential can expand remains uncertain. Yet, if the specific corporate partner has adequate respect in an industry, perhaps the trust and credential could be more easily transferable than one might initially expect.

Concluding Thoughts and What About The Criteria?

What about criteria? If you’ve followed my work around badges, I’ve often argued that the trust and credibility of a badge can be built directly into the meta-data. that a person can look at a micro-credential and quickly discover who issued it, what criteria needed to be met to earn the credential, and possibly even see the evidence/artifact/work provided to earn the badge. Isn’t that enough to build trust? While that is my ideal, I’m increasingly convinced that it is not a likely reality, not in the realm of competency-based digital badges. For better or worse, credentials are used as short-hand for competence. We live in a world of brands and trust networks. People do not necessarily place their trust in that which is objectively most trustworthy. As such, badges will need to compete according to many of the existing social norms associated with credentials. Along the way, I still see much hope in progressing toward growing understanding of and value for competency-based assessment and credentialing, but that is unlikely to be the reason that micro-credentials will gain increased trust. Rather, I see more immediate hope and possibility in leveraging the existing social trust within professions or distinct fields.

As always, what I write in this blog represents my developing thoughts amid my reading and research. As such, I especially welcome thoughts, additions, challenges, and questions in the comment area.