The Future of Education Credentials: 5 Potential Influencers

What is the future of education credentials? Is the diploma worth the cost of college tuition? Why are certificates programs increasing in enrollment? Are nano-degrees the new associate’s degree or new pathway to career transitions? What, if any, role does the digital badge play as a form of recognizing learning? Are we experiencing “credential creep” and how might it be increasing or decreasing access and opportunity for people? Is the bachelor’s degree the new high school diploma? These are some of the many questions that people are posing, exploring and debating as we talk about modern education and credentials.

Education will always be about more than credentials, but many developments, innovations and experiments have the credential as an important aspect. Education is important independent of credentials, but credentials play a role in symbolizing, recognizing, and displaying educational experiences and achievements, new knowledge and skills acquired, and milestones.

What are the entities and developments that will influence the future of educational credentials? There are certainly dozens of key influences, but following are five that seem to be emerging as especially strong levers for credentialing innovation. Each of the five represent current conversations, existing innovations, or emerging ones. I offer them as ideas for more conversation and consideration.

Credential Review, Translation and Representation Services

With a growing collection of diplomas, certificates, badges, nano-degrees, and micro-credentials; how will people in the world understand their diverse and complex meanings? For better or worse, this question creates opportunities for new and emerging business ventures along with external regulatory agencies. We have many existing models from which we can explore this development.

If we look at continuing education processes in various health professions, we can find a myriad of examples. In some health professions there is a central professional organization that must review and approve any continuing education that counts toward maintaining one’s ability to continue to practice in a given health profession. Some provide the credentialing. Others just approve the training and the credential (if there is one) is issued by the provider of the training.  Still others provide a translation or transcription service that allows you to gather training from multiple sources, put it all together on a single transcript, and then submit it to another agency to verify that you meet the criteria for maintaining licensure.

These examples give us a glimpse into what we may expand beyond continuing education in the health professions. How else will employers keep track or make sense of the variety of credentials? They just want to know if the person is qualified and can do the job well. This may, in time, create a new set of startups as well as a new set of roles for units in Universities, professional organizations and other existing education organizations.

Credential Standards Organizations

As I’ve talked to different people working on open badges, non-credit boot camps and the growing space of education providers not directly tied to regionally accredited Universities, there is continued conversation about one or more entities developing or existing entities volunteering to take on the responsibility to help create standards for credentials and/or determine their validity, authenticity, or quality. Some suspect that this will be existing accrediting agencies. Other private sector partners also seem interested in helping with this. Still others argue that it could reside with existing education institutions.

The Rise of Portfolios and the Marriage with Analytics

A common critique of both micro-credentials and portfolios is that they offer too much information. What employer would sift through all that information to find the right candidate for a job? Yet, a portfolio is a way to provide a rich description of who you are, your experiences, your knowledge and skills, and more. Instead of just thinking about traditional portfolios used in learning organizations, consider the idea of LinkedIn as a sort of portfolio, a place where you can share and display as many artifacts and links as you like to represent to describe yourself. Add to that the growing means by which people can mine the rich data in such “portfolios” and you have ways for employers and others to quickly identify people on the basis of a small or large set of criteria. This development leaves room for badges, traditional credentials, narrative descriptions, testimonials, peer ratings and more. It is as easy to review as a résumé and as LinkedIn grows or other similar services emerge, we will see a shift in how people go about connecting (including employers and future employees). Other organizations like Degreed.com are contributing to this development as well.

The Rise of the Non-Higher Education Credentialing Organization

This almost seems like old news by now. There are more providers of training and educational opportunities than ever before, and new ones are starting up every week. Some offer credentials. Others just focus on knowledge transfer, coaching, or offering other forms of learning experiences. Yet, there is a trend toward them offering ways to recognize the learning and accomplishment, which means more and different types of credentials. Combine this with the previous developments and we begin to see how this future learning ecosystem may well develop.

The Marriage of Institutions of Higher Education & Education Companies

Where does all of this leave higher education institutions? We already see higher education institutions partnering with these other new education providers. The IHEs have the history and reputation, and these companies have the in-demand education and people to provide quality programming…at least in many applied and professional areas. As such, we see Universities offering credit and progress toward credentials based on the learning done through the offerings of a non higher education organization. These organizations are often willing to pursue a revenue share because it adds credibility to their training, provides a new pool of learners, or allows them to offer credentials that they could not do otherwise. The IHEs get revenue, benefit from the expertise of these agencies, and get to dabble in a new education space. Look for such partnership to grow rapidly in 2016 and 2017 as government regulations shift to empower this, even making financial aid available to learners through such partnership programming.

The more that I study the landscape, the more convinced I am that each of these these be five powerful influencers in the ongoing evolution of credentials.