6 Factors Impacting Micro-credential Adoption

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.

User Experience

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.

Infrastructure

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.

Regulation

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.

Symbolic Meaning

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.

4 Reasons Why Credits & Credentials are Killing College

“Killing” is too strong of a word, but credits and credentials are not, nor have they have ever been, the greatest value of a higher education. That  comes from the community, mentors, and time to invest in serious and prolonged study. You don’t need credits or credentials for that to happen.

I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of credentials for several years, and while I remain an advocate for emerging credentials like digital badges, the exploration of this topic is also leading me to have a growing concern that a focus on credentials and credits is blinding us to the more important topic of learning. The more college becomes about earning credentials and credits, the more it risks losing a focus upon learning, study and hard work, rich experiences, deep intellectual engagement, the power of a learning community, exploration, and experimentation. Even as more people write about, think about, and even choose alternatives to traditional higher education, there seems to be a a heightened emphasis upon the college degree and diploma.

Here are four reasons why credentials and credits are holding colleges back.

1. People are mistaking credits and credentials with actual learning. 

Imagine that you need to take someone to the emergency room. Just as you are nearing the ER, you see a large sign pointing to the ER. So, you pull over, lean the person against the sign, and breath a sign of relief. Yes, that is an absurd narrative because we all know there is a huge difference between the essence of something and a sign or a symbol for that thing. The same thing is true when it comes to learning, credits and credentials.

Some schools think that the value of their offering resides mainly with their credential. Consider the news about the University of Illinois offering a MOOC pathway toward an MBA. You can actually go through the course experiences for little to no money, but if you want to get the degree, you need to pay about $20,000. In other words, the University of Illinois suggests that the primary offering worthy of payment is not the education itself, but the credential that you get if you hand over the $20,000. And how much extra did it cost them to issue that diploma? Was that really a $20,000 transaction?

Perhaps they don’t realize how wonderfully they’ve set themselves up for a brilliant disruption. They are helping accelerate not only the democratization of higher education, but also the demonetization (both of which I support in various forms). Consider the implications if there really is no difference between two people’s learning and accomplishments other than the fact that one paid $20,000 and got a diploma, and the other didn’t pay the money or get the piece of paper. They both learned the same amount. The public is smart enough to follow this to its logical conclusion.

At the same time, we have some advocates of competency-based education championing this new model because it can decrease the cost of a degree and speed the time to completion. Those are admirable in many instances. Yet, the real power behind CBE is an education that leads to true (and real-world tested) competency. It doesn’t have to do with the credential.

2. Organizations outside of formal education, free from credentials and regionally accredited credentials, have more freedom to innovative.

In other words, the regulations tied to being a credit and credential issuing organization prevent many higher education organizations from keeping up with some of the most democratizing (and sometimes demonetizing) innovations in higher education. Yes, I am referring to organizations like Udemy, Lynda.com, and General Assembly. I’m also thinking of brilliant but simple innovations like Experience Institute, an organization focused upon providing people with a series of rich apprenticeship experiences as “core courses” in program that is completely separate from college credits or credentials. Where is the value? It is in the experiences and expertise nurtured amid these apprenticeships. They also introduce people to the power of a much more self-directed learning experience.

As much as some regional accreditors shout that they are pro-innovation, they continue to come up with new regulations that put regionally accredited institutions at a huge disadvantage in this increasingly connected world. As an example, look at the confusion and struggle between the US Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies as they try to create policies and regulations around developments like competency-based education, blended learning, adaptive learning, self-directed learning and experiential education. They consistently make up policies based upon constructs that are sometimes decades old. Without realizing it, their regulations sometimes restrict best and promising practices more than amplify or ensure them.

3. People are beginning to have a Wizard of Oz discovery that there is nothing inherently magical about regionally accredited higher education institutions. They are not full of wizards with secret skills and knowledge only accessible through those institutions.

Give me 10-20 really gifted teacher/facilitators/experts in various areas, put them in a space with a group of willing learners, add the necessary fund and resources, and you can have just as impactful of a learning experience as what happens for many in the pursuit of their college degrees. In other words, there is nothing magical about the formal credentials of the instructors, whether it is a regionally accredited institution, or whether they issue credentials and credentials. You can design alternate learning communities with comparable or better results and for less money. Much of the startup world knows this and I have no doubt that future startups will amplify this point in powerful and disruptive ways.

4. We are on the verge of a self-directed learning revolution.

Browse my blog and you’ll find plenty of predictions. At one point or another, I’ve argued that digital badges, open education, and competency-based education are each going to change education as we know it. I stand by those. However, the greatest disruption to institutions that believe credits and credentials are their prime offering is an increasingly informed population. We’ve experienced the democratization of much knowledge and information over the past decades. Now some of the greatest innovations are coming around finding ways to help people help themselves by tapping into all the knowledge and people in a connected world. This is the brilliance behind Sugata Mitra’s work on self-organized learning environments and the school in the cloud, not to mention the world of social media. I contend that this is also why we are seeing such an increase in the number of K-12 schools experimenting with more self-directed learning contexts. Self-directed learning is the differentiating literacy of the late 21st cent 22nd centuries. Put increasingly self-directed learners together and you get a powerful grassroots community of learners. The learning happening in such communities is already equaling or surpassing what happens in some credit-based programs leading to regionally accredited credentials. Once these eduhackers figure out how to truly democratize the credential or establish and equally valued alternative, they will be a true force in the modern educational landscape.

Credits and credentials are widely recognized and trusted, and there is something to be said for trust. Yet, if we allow ourselves to notice the different strands of innovation today, and if we follow them into the future; it is not difficult to see that traditional notions of these two conventions are a potential deterrent to a wise, competent, and confident populace.  Any organization that makes credits and credentials their primary sources of nourishment will eventually find itself struggling for survival.

Will #OpenBadges Remain Open? That is up to us.

Reviewing a critique presented by Dr. Michael Olneck at the pre-conference event on Open Badges at the Learning Analytics 2015 Conference, I was reminded of a 2012 quote from Tim O’Reilly, something that haunts me because I know it to be true with technology after technology over the past 200 years. Before I share the quote, I’ll set it up with a short introduction.

There is democratizing technology and authoritarian technology. I’ve written about that in the past. However, there is more than one way to approach this. You can look at the technology itself, its inherent features and how they are likely to lead one toward more authoritarian or democratizing structures. That, for example, is present in debates about gun control. Some argue that guns, by their nature, are designed to shoot things, including people. As such, people might push for more regulation and control around them, resulting in a more authoritarian ecosystem within which guns reside. Others look at the social landscape and argue that there are plenty of examples where guns are present, but violence with guns is low or absent. They are not necessarily looking at the affordances and limitations of the technology directly, but they are instead examining how it developed in a give context. As a result of their approach, they may argue for maintaining a larger democratizing ecosystem for the technology of guns. In reality, both of these factors are constantly at work with the assimilation of a technology in a new context. There are inherent affordances and limitations to the technology that make some things possible and other things more likely. At the same time, there are complex individual and societal forces that impact how it develops, especially the power structures that develop alongside a given technology.

As such, what happens if we shift the conversation, not looking at the technology, but examining the technologists themselves and the organizations that offer or benefit from the technologies? With this question in mind, consider the previously mentioned quote from Tim O’Reilly.

So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in. – http://www.wired.com/2012/12/mf-tim-oreilly-qa/2/

As we commoditize technologies, there is a competitive lever that starts to shape the ecosystem around that technology. As there become winners in the marketplace, companies that maintain control over a technology’s development and implementation begin to shape it in ways that amplify the company’s control and benefits. In the extreme, this is what we get with a monopoly, but there are less radical examples as well. Consider that there are largely two dominant operating systems in the computer ecosystem today. In the same article cited above, O’ Reilly stated,

We saw this happen with Microsoft. It started out with a big vision: How do we get a PC on every desk and in every home? It was profoundly democratizing. But when Microsoft got on top, it slowly started choking off the pathways to success for everybody else. It stopped creating more value than it captured.

Is or was Microsoft a monopoly? That has certainly been debated in and out of the courtroom. It started with a grand democratization of access to computers and eventually the Internet. Over time, it turned into two main companies controlling the system used on those devices. There remain democratizing affordances of these devices and the associated connectivity, but now people are largely compelled to comply with the standards and interface established by a couple of key players.

In his introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about two possible futures. One grew out of Orwell’s 1984, where we become oppressed due to our fears. The other came from Huxley’s Brave New World, a future where we are oppressed by our pleasures. Either can lead to similar ends, more authoritarian control with the promise of some other value: safety, pleasure, efficiency, etc.

How do we resist such a future on a smaller level as we see the development of new and potentially disruptive concepts like micro-credentials? O’ Reilly continues by arguing for ecosystems of innovation where participants “create more value than [they] capture.” He explained,

Everybody wants to foster entrepreneurship, but we have to think about the preconditions for entrepreneurship. You grow great crops in great soil. And the soil is the commons. Increasingly, we have monopolistic companies that try to take as much as they can for themselves. And we have a patent and copyright regime that makes sure that nothing goes back into the commons unless by an extraordinary act of generosity. This is not fertile soil for innovation.

This is easier said than done. Open Badges are open and that feeds the commons. However, maintaining a commons requires commitments from those in the commons. It seems to me that as badges expand, there are a growing number of emergent and maturing business models that will either feed this openness and spirit of innovation or will seek to control it for market share and financial gain. Business models obviously need to include consideration about such things, but for this openness to continue, ROI has to be about more than financial, especially in the education sector. It is an interesting challenge to navigate because we likely need scalable and robust solution to grow the badge ecosystem, but we also need the leads of those scalable solutions to commit to a spirit of openness and cooperation as much as competition. One thing seems clear to me at this point in the development. There will be winners and losers, and the losers may not even recognize when or what they have lost until later.

This does not mean that I lack hope about the open badge and micro-credential movement. I see great promise, possibility and opportunity. Yet, these are not certain, and the future of the ecosystem as I hope to shape it depends upon a growing core of influencers who are genuinely committed to and uncompromising about the value of the commons.

The Values-Laden Nature of Open Badges

Valued Laden Badges - OpenFollowing is a rough draft reflection about the values-laden nature of digital badges. These are tentative and early-stage thoughts, but I publish them here to provoke more conversation.  What are the affordances and limitations of badges? What values will be amplified by their use and what values with be muffled or silenced by them? How will the inherent values embedded in the design of OBI influence how they are applied in the world? These are the questions that continue to occupy my thinking about the open badge movement. While this article does not address all the questions above, it does introduce the concept of values-laden technology and includes musings about how certain values embedded in the design of open badges are shaping the application, adoption and innovation around digital badges.

I ask for your patience as I set up such a reflection with background knowledge about the broad concept of values-laden technologies. My first readings about educational technology were not by evangelists, advocates, and champions of technological innovation. I started studying technology by reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and later Technopololy, The End of Education, Conscientious Objectors, and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. From Postman, I went to authors like Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Marshal McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and Daniel Boorstin; those names often associated with media ecology. In other words, my ideas about educational and technology initially grew out of cultural criticism, philosophy, sociology, cultural history, communications theory, and the history of ideas. Such authors left me with a keen sensitivity to what Postman referred to as the values-laden nature of technology.

Is technology neutral or values-laden? Most advocates of educational technology today seem to work from an assumption that technology is neutral. That is what you often hear and read from so many educational technologists who say things like, “________ is not good or bad. It depends upon how you use it.” I reject that idea. Of course, how one opts to use a technology matters, leading one toward more or less ethical directions, greater or lesser social good. Yet, that isn’t the entire story. How we tend to use a technology is largely influenced by the design of that technology. A simple example is a hammer. Hammers are designed, in general, to hit things. That is why, regardless of the intent of the user, most people will end up using hammers to hit things. You don’t use a hammer to wash something because washing is not an affordance of a hammer. This is a simple example, and things become far more complex when we are talking about something like a computer or the Internet. That is because there are so many affordances built into their design. They function like a collection of technologies, each with their own affordances and limitations. In fact, with complex technologies, the designer can’t possibly anticipate all the potential affordances (things made possible by it) and limitations (things that its design discourages or restricts). Even if we do have an in-depth understanding of the affordances and limitations of a technology in a given context, changing the context may reveal other affordances that were dormant until awakened by new aspects of a different context.

As scholars examine historical and contemporary technologies, they sometimes talk about democratizing technologies. Those are technologies that increase access and opportunity or that are broadly accessible. For example, the mass-produced book, a technology made possible by another technology, the printing press, is democratizing in the sense that it made written knowledge more readily accessible to the masses. At the same time, creation of the mass-produced book gave immense power and influence to those who could afford to buy or build a printing press. So, even as there was a democratization of the mass-produced book, it also set the stage for powerful and influential companies in the publishing industry. In fact, it made the publishing industry both a possibility and reality.

The concept of democratizing technologies is one of those ideas that grows in complexity the more you study it. Yet, there are some general observations most can recognize. Take, for example, technologies that generate energy. Nuclear plants are more authoritarian by nature, while windmills are more democratizing. The former has attributes that make it more dangerous and expensive, resulting in regulations and policies to protect the public from inappropriate uses. The windmill has fewer policies because less is at stake. As such, the windmill is democratizing, allowing a large number of people access to power as well as the technology to generate it, while nuclear plants are authoritarian. This concept is further and more adequately explained in Lewis Mumford’s Authoritarian and Democratizing Technics.

What about digital badges, especially open badges? Are they democratizing or authoritarian? Which values are amplified by their use? Which ones are muffled or silenced? I’ve been exploring badges for some time, and I continue to struggle with answering these questions. While the Open Badge Infrastructure is a relatively simple technology, I continue to question my understanding of the values amplified or muffled by it. As such, I’ve recently spent more time comparing the open badge system as a credentialing technology to that of more traditional academic credentials, especially diplomas and certificates.

Democratizing or Authoritarian?

In some of my past writings about badges, I’ve touted them as adding a democratizing effect to credentials. Traditional academic diplomas are authoritarian in the sense that there is careful regulation and accreditation attached to them. Anyone can print and issue diplomas, but their perceived value is closely attached to the credibility of the issuing organization. When it comes to digital badges in academic settings, the same can be argued. The credibility of the badge issuer is an important factor. However, badge advocates point out that open badges have design features that allow for other possible ways to establish credibility and perceived value. The link to criteria needed to earn the badge along with endorsements and direct evidence of a recipient’s accomplishments, for example, provides more detail on what a person did to earn the credential. This requires a growing understanding of how such credentials function, but allows for a far more nuanced and complex credential than a flat diploma. It is this increased transparency and relative complexity that provides opportunity for a democratizing effect of badges. In other words, the open badge design has affordances that do not exist in the simple design of traditional academic certificates and diplomas.

Consider the examples provided earlier about the democratization of the book. The book was democratizing while the printing press was largely out of reach to the masses. A democratizing technology was generated through a more authoritarian one. The mass-produced book did not have an affordance of being easily replicated by the average person. What about open badges? Open badges can be seen as a democratized printing presses for the world of credentialing. The values embedded in the design of open badges democratize the issuing of credentials with features that are absent in traditional credentials. Many wisely point out the fact that being able to issue credentials does not guarantee widespread adoption. That requires building trust networks. However, regardless of whether trust networks exist, the value for democratized issuing of credentials is embedded into the very design of open badges. Open badges are biased toward democratized issuing of badges, and that bias will likely drive exploration, innovation and application of credential issuing that is less dependent upon the credibility of the issuer. Note that I am not disregarding the credibility of the issuer. As long as issuing is a  feature of badges, there will also be a value for taking into consideration badge issuers. Regardless, the Open Badge Infrastructure includes features that amplify the value of more widespread credential issuing, including more ways to elevate perceived value and meaning in a credential. This is part of why they are open badges.

The Birth of a New Industry

Interestingly, the Open Badge Infrastructure was built to accommodate third-party customizations, making it possible for others to add more closed and controlled (but needed and/or requested) features that are not inherent in OBI itself. This is an OBI attribute that promotes the value of sharing, use, reuse, repurposing, innovation, and enhancement. It it also a value of openness, but one that ironically leaves room for organizations to capitalize upon the design of open badges while establishing features that can’t be easily provided by other issuers. This allows for the establishment of a modern equivalent to the printing press in the world of credentialing, a more authoritarian system for issuing and displaying badges, while still promoting some of the other open features of badges, like users owning the credential. In the process, however, we see the control of the credentialing technology likely shifting from academic institutions to outside corporate entities that have the expertise and resources to provide enhanced credentialing features.

We see the development of a new industry, the micro-credentialing industry, one that services academic institutions but also fosters uses of credentials that extend far beyond those institutions. While the printing press might have primarily served to mass distribute publications of the church, the academy, and the government; it did not take long for them to use the technology to create demand around different publications as well. The embedded values and affordances of open badges may have a similar result for credentials. Where academic institutions largely maintained a monopoly on the issuing of valued credentials, OBI makes it possible issuing organizations/companies to service academic institutions, other individuals and organizations interested in offering credentials, and to be stand-alone issuers of credentials. In the short-term, it is easiest to parter with academic institutions that already have public trust around their credentials, but the embedded values of open badges will likely challenge the notion that academic institutions are the only trustworthy source of credentials tied to new learning, skill acquisition and intellectual accomplishments.

Apart from open badges, there are already hundreds of organizations that are not traditional academic institutions but they provide valued credentials: prestigious awards, fellowships, and titles granted upon completion of specialized training from corporate entities (Google Certified Educators, Apple Distinguished Educators, etc.). These pre-existing examples show the possibility of future credentialing being spread to a larger base of organizations than just traditional schools, colleges, and Universities. In other words, open badges, by nature, promote the democratization of issuing credentials.

Open badges are values-laden, with openness being among one of the more obvious values. Even though it is obvious, the implications of amplifying this value in the world of credentialing are difficult to predict. Empirical studies on current and emerging uses of badges provide helpful insights, but those insights become less clear or certain as contexts change, and we are in an era of unprecedented educational change. Given that open badges are already beginning to result in the development of a new industry, we can expect to see this industry playing a new and potentially important role in the broader education sector, a role that is potentially as significant as the textbook industry was to P-20 American education or the Learning Management System industry in blended and online learning. The difference is that textbooks and LMSs rely upon academic institutions, but there is the likelihood that credentialing will not soley be for academic institutions. With the amplified value of openness in credentialing, we may be seeing the emergence of an entirely new ecosystem of credentialing organizations. This is far from certain, but the features of OBI lends themselves toward such a future.