Eight Challenges for the Future of Education, Credentials and Recognition

The 2016 EPIC conference just ended last week, and I walked away with:

  • forty pages of notes,
  • new friends and colleagues,
  • and swirling thoughts about the role and possibility of open recognition systems.

I might even have a new book project coming out of this experience, but I’ll share more about that later.

It was an honor to be one of the early keynotes for the event. I was given the topic of “the future of education,” so I worked from that to come up with the title, “Exploring Futures of Credentials & Education: A Case for Missional Innovation.” Drawing from some of my work on innovation in education, I juxtaposed a series of sometimes competing concepts for our consideration.

When I write and talk about the future, I don’t do it as the sort of futurist who claims to be able to predict what will happen with certainty. Instead, I look at past trends, highlight potential futures, and give those of us in the present opportunity to consider how each of us will contribute to creating one of those futures.

What is clear to me is what Blaschke and Hase wrote in 2016, that “We are in an age of knowledge and skill emancipation” (p. 25). The Internet and way in which it helped us imagine the possibly for life and learning in a connected age, frees and extends knowledge, learning, skill acquisition and much more. This doesn’t make existing learning organizations obsolete, but it does challenge their claim to have a “corner on the education market.”

Instead, and as I’ve written about before, we are at a time in which there are multiple roads that one might travel on a learning journey. There is still the stable degree drive, completing a series of courses and requirements at a formal school, leaving with a valued credential, and hopefully some learning as well. Yet, there is also continuing education court, a road that is widening as more organizations and groups are creating free, inexpensive, open or alternative ways of learning (as evidenced by the popular example of the emerging coding bootcamps, MOOCs, open education resources, and more). Along with that, thanks to the digital world, we have self-directed street. The person with competence and confidence to learn independently has ample resources to do so. Now we are also seeing greater interest in and effort to connect these three roads, allowing one’s learning journey to shift from one road to the next. Yet, we’ve not historically had ways to recognize the learning that happens across these three streets. Our recognition and credentials remain stuck to one of the streets in most case. All of this begins to change as we embrace the power and possibility of open badges and, more broadly, strategies for open recognition.

And so, in such a context, we have some decisions to make. There are tensions that we are wise to consider, eight of which I shared in my keynote, and I will briefly revisit here. I don’t contend that one must win or defeat the other. Sometimes, even often, the tension is good. Paradox and tension is something to be understood, not always something to be eradicated. Of course, as you will see in my forthcoming comments, I do see wisdom in giving greater emphasis to one over the other in a given time and context.

Pathways Versus Gateways

Gateways are about checks, balances, control, accountability, and quality. They are part of what formal learning organizations promise to the public. If a University issues a medical degree to a person who is completely unqualified to practice medicine, then that credential and the issuing entity will eventually lose the trust of the public. It will cease to benefit anyone. This is the perspective that defends the importance of gateways in the modern education ecosystem. At the same time, gateways are not always just about this public trust. Sometimes policies, rules, and systems become gateways that limit or restrict people who are indeed qualified. We create rules that restrict and inhibit. We even take pride in this, noting that we are weeding out the unqualified. Yet, there is no question that there are usually multiple pathways to learning something or achieving mastery in a given domain. The question is whether we are willing to help create a modern learning ecosystem where we can recognize learning from multiple pathways, maintaining a commitment to a public trust without unnecessarily restricting the aspiring learner.

Protecting Corporate, Educational and Government Control Versus Protecting Public Interest and Individual Rights

Ideally, corporations, educational institutions and government agencies are protecting the public interest and individual rights. Yet, we would be naive to assume that this is always the case. In fact, the nature of organizational operations is that they sometimes go against such ends unintentionally. Or, there are personal and organizational interests that compete with other interests for people outside of those organizations. It is no surprise that these formal organizations and the people within them will often have self-preservation as one among other priorities.

Yet, some of the potential challenges and opportunities of this age, especially when it comes to open learning and open recognition, will clash with the interest of these organizations and institutions. If corporate interest dominates, there is a good chance that the next generation of open badges will be about securing financial benefits for these corporate stakeholders. If educational institution’s interest dominate, then there is a good chance that these institutions will be set up and defended as the sole or preferred means by which learning is properly recognized, even though there are countless individuals whose access and opportunity may be diminished by such an effort. If government control dominates, there are likely to be policies that restrict promising innovations in open learning and open recognition, not intentionally, but simply because these entities have narrower priorities and measures by which they are making their decisions. As an example, consider the incredible restrictions to innovation in the modern United States higher education system because of policies intended to protect the government’s massive investment in the financial aid program.

A balance, in my view, is not acceptable. This tension should lean toward public interest and individual rights while acknowledging the needs and interest of these organizations. Yet, this calls for a visionary and missional approach to the matter. We must collectively remain committed to the larger view and greater purpose, namely increased access and opportunity.

Competency as Static Versus Competency as Dynamic

When it comes to both credentials and recognition, this is an interesting contrast. When you graduate with a degree, and many perceive that degree as evidence of your competence in a given area, you maintain that degree for life, even if your competence diminishes or disappears altogether. You can put it on a resume. You can use it to open doors of opportunity. Yet, not all credentials or forms of recognition work that way. Some credentials expire or require ongoing verification that you do indeed have the knowledge and skills that you once had.

We are working from a flawed view of learning if we think that competency is something that you earn and own for life as if it were a tangible object. Competency grows and shrinks. It strengthens and weakens. This is an important tension for us to remember as we think about the role of recognition and credentials today.

Summative Credentialing Versus Formative Credentialing

We don’t typically use the terms “formative” and “summative” in reference to credentialing, but I contend that they allow us to look at recognition and credentials in important ways. As I so often say, formative is the check up at the doctor, and summative is the autopsy. The former is about checks and progress while the latter is about a final judgement or assessment. Yet, who is to say that credentials and recognition must always be summative? As with the static versus dynamic contrast, we can also begin to think about what it would look like to create and use forms of recognition and credentials that represent where you are at the moment, but adapting and changing as you grow and develop. Innovations around learning analytics and big data have potential to help us bring such musings into reality.

Credentialism Versus Matchmaking

Credentialsim is credentials at their worst. It is when credentials are used to restrict access and opportunity, intentionally or unintentionally. A credential is required for access to some opportunity in society when, in actuality, it may not be necessary. We are wise to remain vigilant in avoiding this persistent risk with our use of credentials. Yet, and again drawing from the developments around learning analytics and big data, we may be entering a future where credentialism can be reduced as more of a matchmaking understanding can gain traction.

Imagine an online reputation system that includes a collection of credentials and various forms of recognition (including endorsement and artifacts that provide evidence of your accomplishments and expertise). Now imagine systems that can mine that data, mine the data of other people and organizations, and help you connect with those people and organizations that might be a good fit. Such an innovation could transform the way that we think about talent searches and connecting with people and groups. It certainly has its risks and limitations too, but I offer this as a possible future, one that could also increase access and opportunity while diminishing credentialism.

Portfolio as a Collection of Credentials & Artifacts Versus Portfolio as a Dynamic Personal Narrative

When I learn about how learning organizations today are using portfolios, they are quite often attached to standards in a program. Or, they might be used as a place for personal reflection about one’s learning. Yet, there is that other outward facing side of portfolios, using them to show your work to the world and hopefully connecting with people and organizations. Imagine a portfolio system where your lifelong and lifewide learning story is being told and updated persistently. Tied to the matchmaking idea that I just explained, this would establish rich data by which we can do some impressive matchmaking, both technologically and serendipitously.

Standardize or Personalize

I used the well-known cartoon to point out this tension. There is a lineup of animals. There is a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” The question is whether the future of learning and recognition will reflect or challenge that cartoon. Standardization plays an important role in society and certain contexts, but it is not without its limitations. Personalization is the same. Yet, this is where the vision and mission comes into play. What drives the extent to which we go toward one or the other has to do with how we answer the question about what is best for the public interest and individual rights? Our answers will differ, but any promising future of education, credentials, and recognition will remember these tensions.

Learner as Pupil/Patient/Customer Versus Learning as Co-creator

As I explain in my book, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Kathryn Church is an inspiration to me. She was a mental health professional who found herself a patient in a mental health facility. She had the truly unique perspective of looking at the experience through both of these lenses and published an incredible piece of scholarship about it called Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. Her work challenged the clean separation of researcher and subject as she was both.

In a similar way, we are in an era that has growing interest in student voice and student agency as a way of nurturing voice and agency throughout life. We see significant attention to movements like user-centered design and empathetic design, approaches that are rooted in a deep understanding of the users. Alongside both of these, we know that collaboration is an increasingly critical skill in the 21st century landscape. These are finding their way into education as well, challenging us to consider how we might adjust from education as something done to students to education as something that is done with students. This extends from the learning to the credentials, recognition and representation of that learning.

As I mentioned in my keynote, technology and innovation always brings with it affordances and limitations, benefits and downsides. All of these potential futures of education and recognition are the same. There will always be winners and losers, different ones depending upon the context and technology. Yet, if we are committed to creating a learning and recognition ecosystem that increases access and opportunity, I contend that these are the types of considerations that warrant our time and attention.

What Gives a Badge Value? 7 Answers

What gives a badge value? As ideas about badges continue to turn into the implementation of badges in various organizations, there continues to be an important conversation about what gives a badge value. There are many ways to approach this conversation, but in most of the conversations, people gravitate toward one of seven answers to this question. Of course, these are not independent of one another. It is certainly possible (in most cases probable) that the answer is a mix of each of these, not to mention perspectives that I did not represent here. Nonetheless, I continue to find it valuable to look at these seven as starting points.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Credential

Some people look at badges as “micro” credentials. As such, they think of them as credentials in the same way that people think of diplomas as credentials. People focus on earning the diploma, displaying the diploma, telling others about the fact that you have the diploma, and using the fact that you have the diploma as evidence that you should be given some sort of favor or special consideration in society, a community, or for a job.

As such, badges don’t often fare well from this perspective because badges don’t have comparable value to degrees in most communities. Perhaps this will change in some contexts in the future, but that is far from certain.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Criteria

I spent quite a bit of time in this camp. The value of a badge is found in the criteria for earning the badge. If these criteria are rigorous or align well one an organization’s needs or values, there is a chance that the badge will have at least some interest, if not value, to that organization.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Artifact

I am a strong defender of this perspective. It works from the idea that badges are potentially just a temporary innovation. When you earn a badge for learning, that is often done as a result of providing some evidence of learning. That evidence is often an artifact, not unlike what we see in portfolios. In this case, the badge is not valuable in itself. It is the artifact attached to (even if not literally or technologically) the badge. This moves from symbols of learning or achievement to more direct evidence.

The challenge is that many people and organizations are not going to take the time to review the raw artifacts, especially if there are many artifacts or if they are reviewing a large pool of candidates. More often, they trust credentials or symbols rather than going to the source.

This will eventually chance. The world of big data and analytics will make it possible to represent direct artifacts, organization them, and communicate their value to people in incredible ways in the future. Most of us have not thought about this or imagined how it will work, but I am quite confident that this marriage of micro-credentials, artifacts, and big data will result in new ways to communicate qualifications, and this will change the value proposition of many current learning pathways as well as credentials.

Even now, artifacts have tremendous power in communicating the value that you have to offer to a person, organization or community. It is just that many are not skilled at learning how to represent those artifacts, and attaching them to badges is one short-term to mid-term way to address this problem.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Testimonial

This takes us far into the history of academic credentials. There was a time when Harvard didn’t automatically distribute diplomas to every graduate. You had to go to the President’s office if you wanted one, and he would personally sign it. It was more like a letter of reference, a testimonial to the fact that you are a graduate. Check out platforms like Credly and you will see testimonials as a feature in their badges. When you issue a badge, you can give a mini letter of reference, a personalized note of affirmation or recommendation. This adds a personalized value to the credential that we don’t see attached to many other credentials today.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Learning

The purist might point out that none of these give value to a badge. It is the learning that leads up to issuing the badge that gives it value. Independent of the badge, it is up to the learner to show what he or she has learned. The badge is just a milestone along a larger learning journey and that is where we find the true value. Yet, that has little to do with the badge itself.

What Gives a Badge Value? The Community

This is where we get to the good writing about ideas like trust networks. If a community values a badge, then it has value. This is true whether it is a community of 5 or 5 million. The badge need not transfer value from one community to another, but that is certainly an important consideration as we explore the affordances and limitations of a given badge or badge community.

What gives a badge value?

Ask this question and you are likely to get answers that emphasize one or more of these categories, realizing that there is much crossover and more complexity than represented here. If you are designing a badge system, consider which of these you might build into your design. If you are a learner considering the role of badges for yourself, this is a way to weigh your options. Or, if you are just interested in where badges will take us, this is also a helpful way to think about the potential future of credentials and displaying one’s work and evidence of one’s learning.

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.





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.