6 Factors Impacting Micro-credential Adoption

Will we see an increase in micro-credential adoption? Micro-credentials and open badges continue to gain attention as experiments persist, expand and even move from pilot to full implementation. Yet, a broader adoption of these newer credentials requires progress on many fronts. I see six factors (among many others) as playing a significant role right now. While there are certainly other important factors, these represent common elements that impact the extent to which almost any new technologies reach widespread adoption.

Technology Maturity / Gestation

Badges as we know them have gained traction as a result of the initial and developing open badge infrastructure. Technologies for creating, issuing, displaying and tracking badges continue to develop as well. While there are several leading companies/organizations with regard to these and other developments, the ongoing maturation of these associated technologies prepare badges for more widespread adoption.

User Experience

Most people remain unclear about how to use these newer credentials. How do you build and issue them? If you receive one, what do you do with it? The user experience will need to be significant but simple to gain traction.

Infrastructure

Credentials fit as part of a larger ecosystem. Credentials must be documented, issued, tracked, shared, displayed, and more. While early efforts with badges take much of this into account, we have an expansive and existing infrastructure for formal credentials like diplomas. For example, existing student information systems for traditional K-12 and higher education institutions and the associated systems for transcripts are a fundamental part of modern credentials. Current and future initiatives focused upon accommodating badges in those systems will expand their reach.

At the same time, some are concerned that such a development will reduce open badges from being a potentially disruptive innovation to a simple sustaining innovation. Badges have the potential power for democratizing credentials, but building systems where they reside within otherwise authoritarian technologies like student information systems might reduce their impact in other areas.

Some argue that the greatest potential for badges is empowering more people and groups with the ability to issue valued credentials. It is not yet clear whether efforts to integrate badges into existing systems will reduce the disruption or amplify it. Regardless, there is little question that such an effort will speed adoption, especially amid organizations committed to competency-based education.

Regulation

Right now there is a federal financial aid program in the United States that is associated with some certificates as well as diploma from accredited schools (on the higher education level). Many regulations are placed on organizations that participate in the federal financial aid program. Persistent restraints through the Department of Education and federal regulations combined with various accrediting agencies (national, regional, and program/profession/discipline-specific) have the power to minimize the spread and impact of badges. At the same time, there is the possibility that these restrictions will speed the growth of micro-credentials and digital badges through people and organizations that function outside the reach of those regulatory agencies.

Impact on Organization’s Strategic Goals

To what extent can micro-credentials and digital badges find a valued role within existing formal learning organizations? To what extent do they risk diminishing an organization’s ability to reach strategic goals? Historically, formal learning organizations, even those deeply committed to student learning, have been tempted to lobby for that which protects the institution’s viability, growth, and influence. The extent to which these new credentials are seen as doing that will likely impact their adoption.

Allow me to give an example from a setting that is less known to many readers, the role of seminary education among various Christian denominations. Denominations ordain future ministers in a myriad of ways. It is possible to become an ordained minister in one denomination without earning a diploma of any sort. They must simply show that they are indeed ready, called and/or qualified. In other denominations, they have seen fit to require anything ranging from a formal associate’s degree to a three or four-year master of divinity degree.

Even when faced with a critical shortage of ministers in some denominations, there is modest to extreme resistance to exploring alternate routes to becoming a minister. When those routes are adopted, they are sometimes perceived as having a lesser or secondary status. In the end, it is about maintaining the viability of formal learning organizations than the overall well-being of the denomination. They would rather have fewer church workers and fewer people gaining spiritual care through local congregations than to compromise their existing system.

Yet, with micro-credentials and open badges, the traditional issuers of valued credentials are not the only organizations involved. There are new education companies, community organizations, companies hiring people based upon their credentials, and government agencies. Each of these continue to grapple with whether or how new forms of credentials will amplify their goals and interests. Their deliberation will impact the extent to which new forms of credentials reach widespread adoption.

This need not be adoption across organizations. As we see with early experiments, as long as a credential has adequate value within a organization or organizations in a given industry, newer credentials can gain traction and broader acceptance.

Symbolic Meaning

What does it mean to be a college graduate and earn a diploma? There is status associated with it. The college experience and credential each has cultural meaning. Even in instances where a college degree is not needed to achieve one’s personal goals, people are still often encouraged to finish college. College graduation has been equated with part of the American Dream, hence the focus upon getting more people through college to address access, opportunity and equity. Competence is not the cultural priority in many segments of society (although it most certainly is in others). Does it matter more that you are a competent teacher or that you are a credentialed one? What about for doctors, lawyers, nurses, network engineers, computer scientists, geologists, plumbers, electricians, general contractors, actors, authors, professional athletes, park rangers, and sales managers?

Many people are confused by such questions because the symbolic meaning is so strong, or they have failed to consider that competence and a traditional credential are separable. Reflecting on this small selection of professions shows that there are diverse answers related to competence versus credential questions. We might argue that these are not or need not be separate. Can’t you be competent and credentialed? Yes, but which credential will we require, or will we allow for multiple credentials as acceptable in a given profession?

The symbolic meaning associated with traditional credentials is strong. Yet, only 6-7% of of adults in the world have a college degree. This means that over 90% of the world may well be prime candidates for new credentials and that they may well be more open to alternate forms of credentials.

Technology adoption is determined by many inter-related factors. It is not as simple as walking through this list of six items, addressing them, and watching the adoption take place. This is why many of the most promising and potentially beneficial technologies do not gain widespread adoption.

Reflections on Badge the World: A Great Start to #SXSWedu

My first day at SXSWedu did not disappoint. I arrived a bit late, but it was rich with a half-dozen thought-provoking conversations and a couple of excellent presentations. For me, the highlight came from a panel discussion entitled, Badge the World. The panel consisted of Kate Coleman (Deakin University), Tim Riches (DigitalMe), Mark Riches (Makewav.es), and Serge Ravet (ADPIOS / Badge Europe). Each took a 5-10 minutes to tell their story of badges, but what was most exciting to me is that they didn’t just talk about the “what” of badges. They also talked about the “why.”

This panel consistently represented what I consider to be the best and most promising of the badge world. We learned about Kate’s exciting work with Universities in Australia. We gained a glimpse into Tim’s work with DigitalMe, building a badge ecosystem in the UK, and people were pointed to a helpful canvas or template for designing badges. Mark talked about yet another badge ecosystem that already includes thousands of schools. Serge, among other things, left the group with some powerful and thought-provoking statements and ways of thinking about the affordances of badges in the modern education space.

The more time you spend learning about badges, the more you learn that there are different, evening competing “whys” at work amid open badges. Some champion badges as motivational tools. Others look at them as an opportunity for scalable, standardized and interchangeable curricular units. What this group represented was a deeply human and relational vision of badges.

They started the session with a fun, simple and insightful activity. People were instructed to move to one side of the room if they were “badge ninjas” or people who have significant experience with open badges in the real world. The other side of the room represented those who were novices, new and at least interested enough to show up for a session like this. Scattered in between were people somewhere on the spectrum between these two.

Across the panelists, there was this thread about how badges can empower learners to be active, engaged and taking ownership in their learning. Time and Mark Riches talked about how students are becoming interested in discovering learning opportunities for themselves amid their badge projects. There was reference to how badges are a wonderful way to recognize learning that is not part of the curriculum, as a way to acknowledge good and valued learning that might otherwise be largely ignored in formal learning contexts. There was the inspiring story of Lewis Philips, a student and media producer who shared his knowledge with classmates and was nominated teacher of the year. Notice that each of these focused less on the technology of the badge and more on the affordances of badges as a means of amplifying student, voice, choice, and empowerment.
Amid the session, I Tweeted a few choice meaning statements that, to me, summarize the spirit of the panel.

This was a Tweet inspired by statements from multiple members of the panel, all of whom displayed a refreshing appreciation for the philosophical foundations that can inform a democratizing view of badges. Serge Ravet explained that many educational technologies appear to be about control. This is certainly true given the fact that testing and associated technologies are now a billion dollar industry. While open badges can be twisted into something that is about control, Serge pointed out that this was not the original spirit of the open badge movement. It was instead about equality and empowerment of the learner. I know that this is not the only viewpoint among badge issuers and designers, and this is likely to be a “badge battleground” as I’ve called them in the past. This is a battle between visions of badges as democratizing technologies and a vision of badges as authoritarian technologies.

This was another statement from Serge Ravet, also drawing our attention to the reality that badges can be designed as authoritarian technologies, but that we can also use them with a “badges with the people” vision, as represented by this next Tweet.

In another statement from Serge, he explained that a badge is less about a visual display and more about a relationship between an issuer and a recipient. Instead of being teacher-centered or student-centered, what if we instead focused upon the relationship between the two? I couldn’t help but build on this idea in my own mind, considering the concept that every badge represents some sort of connection between two or more people. This is a promising way of looking at conversations about the value of a badge and badges as currency. Perhaps such topics make most sense if we understand badges as being about very specific connections. This relationship has value regardless of how widely it is recognized. Yet, from this perspective, it would seem that the best way to spread perceived value is to invite more people into these relationships. Expand the relationships and the perceived value spreads as well.

It was a great first day at SXSWedu. If this panel is reflective of what we can expect in the upcoming days, we are in for an exciting adventure!

Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World

I’m playing with this idea of multiple pathways to learning and earning associated credentials. So, I wanted to get the following rough ideas out to you as a way to spark discussion and invite help; especially help creating better ways to illustrate the possibilities. I’m particularly interested in how all this relates to the promise and possibility of micro-credentials. As I was driving to work a few months ago, I had this ideo of a map that could represent what I’ve been thinking about with regard multiple pathways to learning. I describe it below and then end with a 5-minute rough visual intended to visually communicate some of these ideas.

I pictured three main road: Continuing Education Court, Self-Directed Street, and Degree Drive.

Continuing Education Court 

This street represents the many accelerated, non-credit, intensive and/or compacted learning experiences available to people today. There are experiences like weekend workshops on writing, how to start a business, managing your finances or anything else. This road also includes learning from the thousands of webinars that are free or fee-based on the web today, covering topics ranging from personal development to compliance issues at work. It also includes stops at other learning events: conferences, retreats, “boot camps”, etc. These are usually just-in-time learning experiences, and I put them in the class of semi-formal learning, as they don’t include all the trappings of a full formal schooling experience. They are usually discrete and disconnected, self-selected based on learner need and interest. Sometimes there are credentials associated with the experiences, but often not. They are a collection of experiences, often provided by multiple organizations; and there is less of an overall formal curriculum across all learning experiences. Instead, the learner opts in and out as she deems useful for her goals and interests.

Self-Directed Street

Like Continuing Education Court, the learner determines the curriculum / path on this street. Activities and learning experiences are largely designed or coordinated by the learner. Sometimes they are independent learning experiences. Other times learners come together to share and learn with or from one another. Learners not only choose what to do, but how much they will do. For example. note that I put MOOC Mountain on Self-Directed Street when it could also go on Continuing Education Court. I did this because of what the research tells us about how learners use MOOCs. Most do not sign up and complete the course as formally planned. They do it their way, on their timeline, and the extent do which they believe it useful or a high priority. Nonetheless, a case could be made that there are MOOC mountains on both roads. Over time and with focus and effort, people can become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled by traveling on Self-Directed Street, but there are few to no credentials to use of evidence of this learning.

Degree Drive

This is the most familiar road when people think about learning. It represents the formal programming of a student in a school (k-12, higher education). It is often course-based and a pre-determined curriculum (decided largely by others). This curriculum determines where learners stop along the way, what they do and how they do it. There can be sights and features that resemble what you see on Continuing Education Court and Self-Directed Street, but the formal structure and directedness is a common hallmark of this road. Also, the stops along the way can be carefully connected, with one stop preparing a person to get the most out of the next. Even as one progresses, there is careful documentation of what travelers completed and how they performed. Traveling on this road culminates in a credential that is intended to give evidence of one’s accomplishments and growing competence in some area of study.

Combining the Three

What happens when we don’t think of these as three disconnected and unrelated learning pathways? What if we see this as representative of a city or region in which one travels on a lifelong learning journey? What possibilities does that create for us? Consider a model where credentials can be provided as people demonstrate competence through any of these stops along the way, whether it is the weekend workshop, the self-guided tour, the self-study stop, or a formal course. This is one of the interesting and exciting possibilities of micro-credentials and digital badges. Their affordances give us a greater ability to imagine such contexts, as evidenced by the cities of learning initiatives.

What we imagine can be exciting and terrifying. Some worry about what this would mean for formal learning organizations if such an idea were to spread. Others point out that, in this age of democratized information, it may be even more dangerous if the idea does not spread, as it could turn schools into credentialing factories instead of rich, human, and collaborative learning communities…what they are when they are at their best.

Regardless, what I just described is already partly in place. This is not simply some vision of a possible future. This, apart from the credentialing element, is already what happens for many people. It is how we learn in a connected and increasingly digital world. Now we have the opportunity to let this current reality inform our thoughts and planning about 21st and 22nd century credentialing.

Below I’ve included an embarrassingly rough draft visual to help illustrate the idea that I just described. I would love to have partners in this effort, people who can take what I started and create a more robust and aesthetically appealing version of the visual. Please let me know if you are interested, or just create it, share it, and let the conversation spread. Even if there are no takers on that front, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how we might imagine and re-imagine learning and credentialing in a connected world.

Alternative Pathways to Credentials

Badges as Verified Brand Affiliations?

I attended the mid-year graduation ceremony recently at the University where I’m honored to work, teach and serve. At the beginning, the President shared a few opening remarks. He said something about the “credential” or diploma that students would soon receive. “Your degree is not as much a certificate of completion as it is a marching order,” he explained. While I followed along with the rest of the ceremony, this short statement sent me on a two-hour mental journey.

Read my blog long enough, and you’ll see that I often write and reflect about credentials. However, the claim in this statement from the President posed a perspective that is in contrast to many current conversations about academic credentials. In some ways, his statement represented the diploma in a fascinating and different light. I’m sure he also sees the diploma as recognition for accomplishments and evidence of learning over the past years, but in this case, he represented the diploma as a form of marching orders, a sending off. The temporal destination is unknown, but the charge is clear. They are sent off from our University as representatives, ambassadors.  In fact, at my school, Concordia University Wisconsin, we sometimes refer to members of this community as Concordians. We have certain core values that make up what it means to be a Concordian. While we embrace the diverse gifts, talents, abilities and callings of each person; we also seek to nurture a set of common core values and convictions that collectively represent who we are as individuals and a community.

Diplomas really do have this element to them. There is a brand associated with different diplomas. That why many people think of a diploma from Harvard differently than a diploma from the local community college…but this identity starts before getting the diploma. Even being a Harvard dropout or a current student at Harvard starts to open doors for people. If you are someone associated with that brand and learning community, there are benefits. It could also be said that there are likely expectations of one associated with that brand as well.

This got me thinking about open badges in a new way, a new possible application of them. I’ve been thinking about open badges as a way to recognize or make visible some sort of achievement, accomplishment or as a symbol provided when a person demonstrates competence in an area. I still think of them in that way. Yet, what is keeping us from also using them as a way to identify affiliation with the brand of a movement, community, organization, or something else of value? What if we issued badges at the beginning, before there is an actual accomplishment, achievement or demonstrated competence. What if the badge were used to mark one’s start and commitment to a brand?

The fields in OBI already lend themselves toward such an application: description, criteria, issuer, issuing date, expiration date, etc. The expiration date would be a way to check in on a person’s commitment to the brand or community. Does it persist? Do they have new actions or accomplishments that can be recognized or made visible with additional or supplemental badges? Even without expiration dates, it would be easy enough to stamp badges with dates of membership, service or affiliation; allowing them to be yet another way to visually represent the “brands” with which they have been or are currently affiliated. The description or criteria fields could just as easily describe the nature and extent of the affiliation. In the end, such uses could be a way to generate an entirely new form of visual and verifiable resume.

Perhaps there are already cases or user stories of open badges being applied in such a way, but I have not noticed them. As such, this  possibility creates an entirely new(at least to me) set of options for how badges, which are notably visual symbols with meta-data, might serve as an additional way to manage and represent oneself online. Some might argue that this is just as easily done by listing your affiliations on a resume, and perhaps that is just as effective. Yet, one distinction here is that the affiliation and symbol is issued by the organization, adding a level of verification and potentially a measure of credibility and “klout” that exceeds self-reporting.

Have you seen such use of open badges? What possibilities can you imagine? What challenges and opportunities are created by such a use?