Will we see an increase in micro-credential adoption? Micro-credentials and open badges continue to gain attention as experiments persist, expand and even move from pilot to full implementation. Yet, a broader adoption of these newer credentials requires progress on many fronts. I see six factors (among many others) as playing a significant role right now. While there are certainly other important factors, these represent common elements that impact the extent to which almost any new technologies reach widespread adoption.
Technology Maturity / Gestation
Badges as we know them have gained traction as a result of the initial and developing open badge infrastructure. Technologies for creating, issuing, displaying and tracking badges continue to develop as well. While there are several leading companies/organizations with regard to these and other developments, the ongoing maturation of these associated technologies prepare badges for more widespread adoption.
Most people remain unclear about how to use these newer credentials. How do you build and issue them? If you receive one, what do you do with it? The user experience will need to be significant but simple to gain traction.
Credentials fit as part of a larger ecosystem. Credentials must be documented, issued, tracked, shared, displayed, and more. While early efforts with badges take much of this into account, we have an expansive and existing infrastructure for formal credentials like diplomas. For example, existing student information systems for traditional K-12 and higher education institutions and the associated systems for transcripts are a fundamental part of modern credentials. Current and future initiatives focused upon accommodating badges in those systems will expand their reach.
At the same time, some are concerned that such a development will reduce open badges from being a potentially disruptive innovation to a simple sustaining innovation. Badges have the potential power for democratizing credentials, but building systems where they reside within otherwise authoritarian technologies like student information systems might reduce their impact in other areas.
Some argue that the greatest potential for badges is empowering more people and groups with the ability to issue valued credentials. It is not yet clear whether efforts to integrate badges into existing systems will reduce the disruption or amplify it. Regardless, there is little question that such an effort will speed adoption, especially amid organizations committed to competency-based education.
Right now there is a federal financial aid program in the United States that is associated with some certificates as well as diploma from accredited schools (on the higher education level). Many regulations are placed on organizations that participate in the federal financial aid program. Persistent restraints through the Department of Education and federal regulations combined with various accrediting agencies (national, regional, and program/profession/discipline-specific) have the power to minimize the spread and impact of badges. At the same time, there is the possibility that these restrictions will speed the growth of micro-credentials and digital badges through people and organizations that function outside the reach of those regulatory agencies.
Impact on Organization’s Strategic Goals
To what extent can micro-credentials and digital badges find a valued role within existing formal learning organizations? To what extent do they risk diminishing an organization’s ability to reach strategic goals? Historically, formal learning organizations, even those deeply committed to student learning, have been tempted to lobby for that which protects the institution’s viability, growth, and influence. The extent to which these new credentials are seen as doing that will likely impact their adoption.
Allow me to give an example from a setting that is less known to many readers, the role of seminary education among various Christian denominations. Denominations ordain future ministers in a myriad of ways. It is possible to become an ordained minister in one denomination without earning a diploma of any sort. They must simply show that they are indeed ready, called and/or qualified. In other denominations, they have seen fit to require anything ranging from a formal associate’s degree to a three or four-year master of divinity degree.
Even when faced with a critical shortage of ministers in some denominations, there is modest to extreme resistance to exploring alternate routes to becoming a minister. When those routes are adopted, they are sometimes perceived as having a lesser or secondary status. In the end, it is about maintaining the viability of formal learning organizations than the overall well-being of the denomination. They would rather have fewer church workers and fewer people gaining spiritual care through local congregations than to compromise their existing system.
Yet, with micro-credentials and open badges, the traditional issuers of valued credentials are not the only organizations involved. There are new education companies, community organizations, companies hiring people based upon their credentials, and government agencies. Each of these continue to grapple with whether or how new forms of credentials will amplify their goals and interests. Their deliberation will impact the extent to which new forms of credentials reach widespread adoption.
This need not be adoption across organizations. As we see with early experiments, as long as a credential has adequate value within a organization or organizations in a given industry, newer credentials can gain traction and broader acceptance.
What does it mean to be a college graduate and earn a diploma? There is status associated with it. The college experience and credential each has cultural meaning. Even in instances where a college degree is not needed to achieve one’s personal goals, people are still often encouraged to finish college. College graduation has been equated with part of the American Dream, hence the focus upon getting more people through college to address access, opportunity and equity. Competence is not the cultural priority in many segments of society (although it most certainly is in others). Does it matter more that you are a competent teacher or that you are a credentialed one? What about for doctors, lawyers, nurses, network engineers, computer scientists, geologists, plumbers, electricians, general contractors, actors, authors, professional athletes, park rangers, and sales managers?
Many people are confused by such questions because the symbolic meaning is so strong, or they have failed to consider that competence and a traditional credential are separable. Reflecting on this small selection of professions shows that there are diverse answers related to competence versus credential questions. We might argue that these are not or need not be separate. Can’t you be competent and credentialed? Yes, but which credential will we require, or will we allow for multiple credentials as acceptable in a given profession?
The symbolic meaning associated with traditional credentials is strong. Yet, only 6-7% of of adults in the world have a college degree. This means that over 90% of the world may well be prime candidates for new credentials and that they may well be more open to alternate forms of credentials.
Technology adoption is determined by many inter-related factors. It is not as simple as walking through this list of six items, addressing them, and watching the adoption take place. This is why many of the most promising and potentially beneficial technologies do not gain widespread adoption.