10 Possibilities: Badges for Progressive Credentialing in Academic Programs

What is progressive credentialing? It is pretty much what it sounds like. Instead of just getting one massive credential at the end of an extended degree program, this is about issuing smaller credentials along the way. Each credential represents acquisition of new knowledge or skill, building up to that final degree or completion of an overall program. How much this help improve upon the current educational system? Here are ten possibilities.

1. More Immediate Job Opportunities

You go to college, graduate from college, and use the diploma/credential to see if it will open some doors for employment. At least that is how some people think about it. Yet, that is not what happens for most college students. As I’ve referenced elsewhere, 85% of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree don’t follow this recipe. They are post-traditional learners who are already in the workforce, or they are looking for employment before or during pursuit of a college degree. As such, the current academic credentialing system is less helpful. What we need instead is a system that gives out credentials as people make progress in a program. The moment someone demonstrates a new skill or new knowledge, a credential in the form of a digital badge is issued, and the person can update a résumé with the new credential and a new skill.

2. Documented Skills for Potential Promotions or a Chance to Work on a New Project

Similarly, even if someone already has a job, what if we could build a system where that person can share evidence of new knowledge and skills gained to the boss. Perhaps this could be enough for the boss to trust that person with a new project, or it might even be enough to give that person a chance at a promotion in the business.

3. Help Employers in Areas Where There are Employment Shortages

From the employer side, what about jobs where there is a shortage of qualified employees. In some cases, perhaps that is because there is a minimum degree requirement. Instead, what if the employer could increase the type of work that an employee could do once that person demonstrates a new skill as shown by a progressive credentialing system. This is sometimes done with medical interns, allowing them to earn credentials to take on more tasks as they demonstrate competence. In fact, this might even lead employers to consider hiring people without the previously required bachelor’s degree under the condition that the employee earn progressive credentials in a college degree program, eventually culminating in the full degree. This model might even decrease the unemployment rate in specific contexts while giving employers the needed skilled workforce.

4. It Helps to Address Motivation

By using progressive credentials, each new visual symbol becomes a milestone. It breaks mastery or competency into manageable sizes. This provides short and quick wins as one progresses toward a larger and more cumulative credential. These progressive credentials become a sort of progress bar. Each new credential becomes evidence that the learner has what it takes to finish the entire program.

5. It Helps the Learner See and Understand the Big Picture

By providing small and discrete progressive credentials, it can become easier for a learner to understand how knowledge and skills build up to broader levels of competence. Detailing the learning with these micro-credentials may be an effective way for the learner to see how parts of a course or program lead to the entire degree. These can show how everything fits together. This can be enhanced if the progressive credentialing system uses a series of small competency-based badges to lead to a larger badge. Those larger badges lead to yet another level of competence or the entire degree.

6. It Allows Drop Outs to Walk Away With More Than Debt

Yes, our goal is for people to complete a degree, but we know that life doesn’t always play out that way. In such instances, a progressive credentialing system still leaves the drop out with an updated resume, with a set of credentials that did not exist before. This might just be enough to gain new employment and pay off debt that was incurred from the college coursework.

7. It Allows for Individualized Programming

If a college degree program were divided into a progressive credentialing system, it would create new opportunities for personalized or individualized learning plans. Suppose a person arrived with knowledge or skill equal to one of the micro-credentials. Why not let them test out of that credential, earn it, and move on? This could speed up a person’s study or allow that person to focus on those areas that truly need to be mastered instead of “jumping through the hoops” with aspects of the learning that person doesn’t need.

8. It Creates New Opportunities for Nano-Degrees

The Udacity nano-degree experiment involves mastery a set of skills that lead to something like a 1-year certificate, but it also connects directly to the needs of a given employer. Several nano-degrees could potentially lead up to a traditional bachelor’s or master’s degree.

9. It Allows for Easier Revision and Updates to Curricula

I’ve written elsewhere about competency-based badges as curricular building blocks, and this would work well in a progressive credentialing system. Especially in more applied fields, there are new skill sets and there is new knowledge that becomes valuable over time in a given domain. By having the program broken into distinct competency-based badges in a progressive credentialing system, it becomes easier to see where updates and revisions need to take place. Updates are often just a matter of revising one or two competency-based badges or adding a couple more layers/levels of competency-based badges.

Consider how this also helps with analyzing learning progressions. Most educators recognize the importance of scaffolded learning. Some skills are better mastered after other skills are learned. Breaking up a program into a progressive credentialing system allows one to explore and experiment with such scaffolding. While one option would be to establish a set and required sequence of micro-credentials, another option would be to leave some flexibility, but to analyze the results from students. Over time, this data could drive important advising or revisions to the curricula (like suggesting that certain credentials be pursued and earned before others. This would not be based on hunches, but real data about past learner success).

10. It keeps everyone focused on progress.

Each new credential is a step in the right direction. As noted in some of the previous points, this provides understanding and potential motivation for some learners, but it also keeps the instructors/advisors/facilitators focused on student progress.

Progressive credentialing is a largely unfamiliar term among most, but as noted in these ten points, it has some promise to help learners, instructors, learning organizations and current/future employers. This requires significant groundwork in many contexts, but given the building of an adequate trust network and a carefully planned system, it has promise to offer interesting improvements to many current systems leading to an academic credential.

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.

15 Organizations That Model & Inspire Educational Innovation

We live in exciting times. There is unprecedented educational experimentation and exploration. Even more exciting, people and organizations are exploring new and creative ways to address important social problems and challenges by rethinking how we go about education in an increasingly connected world.

There are hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing good and important work in education. While there are plenty of organizations in the education sector that continue to be driven by the yearning for as much market share as possible or for what seems like the primary goal of self-preservation, there are plenty of others that have clear and compelling visions, that embrace their responsibility and calling to promote social good through work in education, and that are helping us explore and imagine new and promising possibilities for education in a connected world. While far from an exhaustive list, here are fifteen such organizations, ranging from private to public, non-profit to for-profit, education providers to facilitators of educational movements. If you want a glimpse into some of the more promising things happening in education today, take a look at what these organizations are doing. In fact, if you want to be part of  some of the most promising movements in education, find a way to get involved with one or more of these groups. 

1. Digital Promise – The mission of this organization is to, “Improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.” This mission has led them into any number of initiatives: efforts to bridge the skills gap for adult learners, the league of innovative schools (a coalition of K-12 schools working together to address important challenges through a blend of educational research and learning technologies), and their new micro-credential / digital badge project focused upon reimagining ongoing professional development for educators.

2. Jobs for the Future – This is one of the more exciting organizations to me right now. They are “working to expand the college, career, and life prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states.” This includes projects like Credentials that Work (“aligning career training with employer demand”), efforts to increase college readiness, as well as impressive work around early college designs (“reinventing high schools for post-secondary success”). 

3. Badge Alliance – Started this year (2014), this alliance of key organizations like the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation, “is a network of organizations and people working together to build and support an open badging ecosystem, with a focus on shared values including openness, learner agency and innovation.” They are leading the way and providing important connections among those who are interested in exploring the possibilities of micro-credentials for everything from out-of-school learning to increasing job opportunities for veterans, creating citywide networks of learning around digital badges, or even a growing number of K-12 and higher education institutions experimenting the role of these new credentials. This is a new group and much of the work is just getting started, but I am already seeing some exciting developments from the early working groups organized by the Badge Alliance. 

4. Western Governor’s University – WGU has been around for over 15 years, and it currently serves over 40,000 students throughout the United Sates with quality competency-based online degrees. There are parts to their model that I would like to tweak (like leaving more room for self-directed learning within a competency-based model), but what they have done has created a model for others. They have been groundbreakers in the developing world of competency-based education, challenging the odd historic practice of measuring student progress by seat time instead of what students know and can do.

Arizona State University – What Michael Crow has promoted during his time as President of ASU is nothing short of impressive: casting a vision for an entrepreneurial state University, building a high-quality online program through ASU Online, creating “trandsciplinary schools”, efforts to increase access and opportunity to higher education, corporate partnerships like the recent ASU / Starbucks program, and nurturing a startup culture. ASU is, without question, one of the most innovative higher education institutions in the world.

5. P2PU – Their tag line reads, “learning by everyone for everyone about almost anything. completely free.” P2PU is a brilliant social experiment in open education, leveraging the power of life and learning in a connected world, and peer-to-peer learning. Their MOOCs and other open courses are not just replications of authoritarian educational institutions and frameworks put into an online format. They have re-envisioned and redefined the word “University” with an unswerving commitment to openness and peeragogy.

6. Udacity – This one gets mixed reviews in the media (as to almost all innovative organizations), but Udacity is helping us to rethink credentials and education leading to employable skills through their new nano-degrees and courses designed around project-based learning. Unlike other online learning provides, both Udacity and P2PU are making their work about more than just digitizing old school courses and programs. They are giving us new and promising models. In fact, Udacity’s most recent is potentially a direct challenge to traditional Universities that dismiss workforce development as beneath them (which, by the way, is just what happens to companies and organizations that are just about to experience a disruptive innovation).

7. EdSurge – This is my single favorite news source for educational innovation and educational technology. If you have not done so, sign up for their newsletter today. From their website, “EdSurge is an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” It is more than a news and resource center. Leaders at EdSurge are pulling up their sleeves and helping to build important networks, communities, gatherings, and even helping to recognize and highlight high-impact people and organizations through their Digital innovation and learning awards. Organizations like EdSurge help build bridges and networks among educational innovators that help great ideas spread, and help people find their place in this exciting world of educational entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Maker Faire – The Maker Faire movement is helping to elevate a culture of creation in a world of consumption. They are doing it one maker faire at a time: providing a forum for makers to share their amazing creations, giving people a glimpse and invitation into the maker world, and promoting a vision for learning by doing and creating.

9. Thomas Fordham Institute – Here is their stated mission, “The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Even if I do not agree with all the commentary, I find this to be one of the more researched and enlightening sources of information about current and emerging research focused on educational innovation. They are leading voices in places like Ohio around a vision of ample choices for diverse students; whether it be charters, magnet schools, school choice programs, blended and online learning options, and dual credit. 

10. Khan Academy – If you haven’t check it out lately, take a few minutes. Their mission is, to change, “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” It is an instigator for a world-wide conversation about the flipped classroom (although there are certainly many other major voices). Along the way, they have grow into some fascinating work that ventures into mastery-based learning, personalized learning, self-directed learning, adaptive learning, and learning analytics. As such, Khan Academy is a great example of a how an education startup can help people imagine new ways of going about teaching and learning, even impacting traditional schooling environments from the outside…but then seeing it find its way into many of those very traditional schools.

11. North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens – I remember talking to one of the founders about three or four years ago on the phone, just learning more about the work they do. They are not a school. Instead, students sign up with the state as a homeschooler, but they come to this place of self-directed learning, get coaching and guidance as needed, and take responsibility for their own learning. Check out their site and videos for a better understanding of their work. Since my initial conversation several years ago, they have gained national attention and become a model for other self-directed centers around the United States. As such, they have essentially created a new model of schooling, neither traditional homeschooling or a teacher-led traditional school. They are an example of

12. Kidnected World – “kids create social good by doing what they love to do” – I learned about this group at the 2014 ISTE conference, more specifically as part of the the startup pitchfest (Have I mentioned that I am addicted to education startup pitches…what I consider the poetry slams of the education startup world?). This nonprofit exists to provide the tools that kids need to change the world. The goal is to connect kids to one another and provide them with tools to be agents of change by using their imagination and playing with others (what they already do well). That is where their “wonderment” comes in. It is a community. Kids enter, pick a path, participate in a challenge, see other kids joining in, the “wonder meter” rises, and they see the impact of a social good project. This is one of many exciting efforts to blend education and having a social impact. Is it more effective to tell kids about the good they can do once they finish twelve or sixteen years of formal school, or to actually provide them with the tools and means to impact the world right now? Organizations like Kidnected World are showing us the wisdom and possibility of the latter.

13. The Learning Revolution Project – Developed by Steve Hargadon, the Learning Revolution Project includes opportunities to learn about and from leaders and innovators across the field of education. The project has an impressive list of partners ranging from higher education institutions to professional organizations and companies in the education sector. This project includes opportunities to learn from and network through various communities, a growing number of free online conferences (with a refreshing spirit of openness), tour events with a special theme, as well as the beloved ISTE unplugged event hosted before the official start of the ISTE conference each year. Education is a field that thrives on openness, sharing, and networking; and The Learning Revolution Project is a champion and model for all three.

14. Alternative Education Resource Organization – The stated goal of AERO is to, “advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.” As such, this is a single organization where you can learn about everything from Waldorf education to Sudbury schools, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, educational co-ops to unschooling. Even if you don’t embrace any of these models or visions, it is an organization that provides a collection of alternative voices to the dominance of talk about testing and national standards that seem to drive so many other contemporary K-12 efforts. This is an organization to follow if you want to learn from diverse models and perspectives.

15. Duolingo – At first glance, this is just a company if a fun and user-friendly app for learning a new language. Look closer and you see a company serious about figuring out how to best help people learn a new language, promsing work around the gamification of learning, and a willingness to also step into the realm of credentialing and certification of learning. It is probably this last part that ensured a spot on my list of fifteen, as they are providing a distruptive innovation in the world if English language certification for students seeking to study in the United States. They are offering a free (soon to be $20) test that is comparable ot TOEFL! This is a trend to watch, education companies that don’t just stop at offering educational opportunities, but are also willing to establish new forms of certification and credentialing that challenge traditional systems.

Micro-credentials & Alternate Routes to Skilled Employment

If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. That is how it works at the movie theater and it is a reality for many seeking skilled employment. Whether you stole it, bought it, earned it, or it was offered to you as a gift; you need to have it in your possession if you want to get through the door. That ticket is often a formal credential like a college degree. Yet, there are simultaneous developments coming together to give us a glimpse of another way. Self-blended learning, connected learning, the unbundling of formal education and micro-credentials are starting to combine in a way that we might soon see an alternative to the diploma, what we can think of as the bitcoins of the credentialing world (look for another article playing with that comparison in the near future).

Defining Blended Learning

In Classifying K-12 Blended Learning,” Heather Staker and Michael Horn define blended learning as, “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” and “at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

There are several important observations in this definition. First, note that it is defined as a “formal education program.” As such, they are choosing a definition for blended learning that does not include the rapidly expanding world of informal, self-directed learning, and what I often refer to as self-blended learning (This is in contrast Staker and Horn’s reference to a type of self-blended learning that is still largely teacher-directed.). By noting that part of the learning takes place online and part takes place “at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home,” this seems to rule out homeschooling and unschooling, despite the fact that many in such settings consistently embrace and leverage the rest of the this definition of blended learning (a blend of face-to-face and online; and increased learner control over time, place, pace, and path). At the same time, the definition is broad enough to leave ample room for emerging and alternate learning contexts. For example, there is no explicit mention of a teacher in this definition. While a teacher may fill the role of shaping the “formal education program”, “instruction”, partial “control”, and supervision; the definition would also fit in a context where many people (or resources) played one or more of these roles.

One of the more fascinating parts of this definition compared to other definitions of blended learning is the part about increased student control over time, place, pace and pathway. It is certainly possible to create instruction that blends online and face-to-face but does not give learners more control over time, place, pace and/or path. As a result, this is not only a descriptive definition, but one that promotes a certain approach to the blending of face-to-face and online.

Self Blended Learning

Looking at the essay from Staker and Horn, one can see reference to self-blended learning. However, there are at least two working definitions for this term. In fact, compare the visual representation of the four types of blended learning in the previously mentioned article with the similar image here. You will notice that “self-blended” is replaced with “a-la-carte”, which is used to refer to a situation where learners choose a combination of face-to-face courses and online course to make up their overall formal schooling experience.

There is a different working definition for self-blended learning that I favor, one that seems more directly connected to the words “self” and “blended.” For more detail, see my articles on Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-Blended Learning and 5 Example of Self-blended Learning. Here and elsewhere I define self-blended learning as the combination of self-directed learning and blended learning. As such, self-blended learning is where a learner takes the initiative to blend face-to-face and online experiences to enhance learning in a traditional course, or to design an altogether new learning experience that is self-organized.

With this second definition in mind, self-blended learning encompasses the power of personal learning networks and the massive growth of formal and informal self-directed learning through online communities, social media, open courses, educational apps, and other aspects of a networked world.

Self-Directed Learning Limitations

With the growth of this movement toward self-blended and self-directed learning in the digital world, there is a growing clash between the people with increased knowledge and skill developed through self-blending that is often un-credentialed, and those who study in formal learning organizations and conclude with a credentials like a certification or diploma. Given that many skilled jobs list formal credentials as requirements for unemployment, we are beginning to see a growing number of people who likely have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to thrive in a given job, but they are excluded from consideration because they lack the credential. At the same time, due to the fact that these traditional credentials are often not trustworthy evidence of one’s qualifications for a given job, some credentialed but unqualified people make it further in the application process than the highly qualified but un-credentialed. This is not a new phenomena, as many scholars from the 1970s have rich insights into the stratification of society through education credentials (For a brilliant read on the subject, see Randall Collins’s 1979 book, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. I plan to write more about this and related texts in the near future). What is different today is that the Internet has rapidly opened and democratized learning resources, communities, and opportunities; but frequently without formal credentials. Credentials remain the least open and democratized part of contemporary education, even as we see many other aspects of education beginning to unbundle.

We certainly have ample examples of self-taught and self-directed people without formal credentials who found their way into significant positions, ones that are often limited to people with formal credentials. Many of them did so in new, emerging and less regulated jobs (startups, programming and other computer-related work, social media, sales and marketing, etc.). However, there are also a few like Joi Ito, who serves as Director of the MIT Media Lab. While not having a college degree, his record of accomplishments was significant enough for people to make an exception. Joi is clearly brilliant, but there are likely hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who are equally qualified for various jobs, but they lack the credential and are never considered for them. Consider a local sales job that requires a minimum of a college degree, but a self-taught person lives blocks away and may well be far more skilled at sales than any nearby college applicants.

The Credentialed or the Competent? 

Many point to schooling as the remedy to social ills and issues, as a rescue from poverty, unemployment and incarceration, but part of that is generated by how we value credentials more than competence. Is it getting the credential that keeps one out of jail and poverty, or is it something else that society just happens to attach to a degree? When people talk about the importance of getting an education, is it really focused on getting educated, acquiring important knowledge and skills? Or is it instead about earning a credential that serves as a ticket into more exclusive aspects of society? Is it the knowledge and skill that opens the door or the credential?

While school is one way to gain new knowledge and skill, it is not the only way. Yet, much of society is set up as if the credential itself was critical. Why, for example, don’t more job postings simply list the required competencies for consideration, regardless of one’s credentials? Is it because many in society have come to trust that the credential truly does further qualify one person over another? Or is there something else going on under the surface of our collective consciousness? Why do we trust the abstraction of a credential over more concrete measures of competence for many employment purposes?

The Role of Micro-Credentials and Competency-based Education

Over the last few years, we’ve seen growing interest and development in both alternate credentials and competency-based education. Much competency-based education is still closely tied to traditional schooling and credentialing structures, but this movement has begun to help us recognize the weakness or limitations in many of our models. Competency-based education (CBE) challenges us to question the validity of forcing the marriage of learner progress or accomplishment with required seat time in a class, the number of days or hours in a school building, or the number of credits earned. Instead, competency-based education focuses on outcomes. The concept of CBE leaves room to recognize the significance of part of the earlier definition of blended learning, that of giving learner at least some control over time (how long it takes), pace (when to go quickly and when to go slowly), place and learning pathway (how to achieve a given learning goal or demonstrate a given competency). At its essence, CBE is agnostic to the length and how of learning as long as one demonstrates the competency at the end. Of course, all formal CBE programs that I’ve reviewed so far do place some restrictions on learner control of these four features.

Add this essential aspect of competency-based education to one potential use of open badges. A badge is a digital symbol plus associated meta-data that can be issued and received as a result of some skill or achievement. Consider the possibility of establishing online collections of competency-based badges or micro-credentials that parallel the knowledge and skill acquired as one progresses toward getting a traditional credential or diploma.

Imagine that these badges have clearly stated criteria and a careful review process, one that ensures competence of the learner as well or better than what is done in traditional schooling. What would it look like to establish collections of these badges in the open, allowing people to suggest or provide both free and fee-based resources to help one reach the necessary competence to earn a given badge. Such a model has the possibility of creating a credentialing system that could potentially give an alternate route to skilled employment for the growing number of self-directed learners, especially those who do not elect to go through the sometimes bureaucratic hoops of a more traditional degree program.

This would challenge traditional schooling, but it would not replace it. What it would do is decrease the credential as the primary and culminating benefit of school. Instead, to justify the expense, a school would need to place even more attention on helping learners become increasingly competent and confident (and the social and extracurricular aspect of schools would maintain value among many). Of course, most schools would continue to issue traditional diplomas, but what if these micro-credentials gained enough social trust and recognition that they genuinely were accepted along with a college degree or separate from one? Some would still go to college. Others might piece together their own self-directed route to the same or a comparable credential.

Many opportunities would be made possible for such a model. It would create even more opportunities for new education startups and open source communities. And it would give learners even more choice and access to personalized and customized pathways to desired professional and life goals. One could freely blended learning resources from multiple schools, organizations, on the job training, online communities, life experiences and personal study to help gain the competencies desired or required for one or more career aspirations. It would even allow for easier retooling and retraining as a person aspires to move from one career track to another.

There is a massive “what if” in what I am writing. I am casting a potential vision for what could be more than what will be. Yet, the possibility for such a model exists now, and we are already seeing small version of it with the development of Udacity’s nanodegrees, people exploring open badges for employment, systems that promote and offer badges as a form of high-stakes credentialing, and companies like DuoLingo challenging trusted credentials like TOEFL by providing their own free or very low-cost (as in $20) certification program. Badges are gaining more traction for professional development purposes, as supplements to formal schooling, and in community education efforts. Yet, each of these efforts are increasing awareness and acceptance of badges. I am beginning to see increased promise for this proposed vision as I continue to watch more badge efforts develop, as public awareness continues to grow, and as people begin to recognize the possibilities for badges as a tool for further democratizing education. This may help to create a more open and authentic route to skilled employment, just as it appears to be speeding the unbundling of the education system.

This alternate form of credentials is not needed by everyone who chooses a less conventional educational route. See my article on Uncollege for another possibility. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is yet another option, where people learn to manage their online identity and build connections around their work and interests. These connections might even lead to jobs for which they do not even need to directly apply. The self-employed, freelance, and entrepreneurial options are often less restricted by the required entry tickets of traditional credentials. For other forms of skilled employment, the lack a formal credential is a barrier. Without that socially trusted abstract representation of one’s ability, options are limited. It is for these self-directed learners that micro-credentialing seems to offer new possibilities and increased opportunity.

There is a dark side to this. There is the possibility that micro-credentials will amplify or at least perpetuate the already significant problem of credentialism in contemporary society (look for a couple of posts on this topic as well). That is why the “open” part of the open badge movement is so significant. What I am writing here has both a realist and idealist side to it. The realist in me recognizes that credentialism is deeply rooted in much of contemporary society. However, I also see that is excludes when it does not need to do so. Concern about this issue is what drives the idealist in me, the part that resonates with the open education movement, and that sees the possibility of blending open education with a credential mindset that can open employment opportunities by further democratizing credentials, and challenge what some refer to as the current monopolization of skilled employment. That is my hope for micro-credentials.