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.

 

 

 

 

A New Breed of College Degree

“We’ve always done it that way.” Universities are rich with traditions and history, but it would be a mistake to think that what we see and experience in the Universities of the last 50 years mimic what came before them. Yes, perhaps certain teaching practices and structures have persisted. However, the curriculum has been in flux, adjusting to the broader changes in society.

Look at the history of higher education and it is a history of change. The first Universities in the world were in Morocco, Egypt and what is now Iran. Those were founded between 800 and 1100 AD.  The first Western Universities emerged near the end of the 11th century: the University of Bologna, the University of Paris and the University of Oxford. In the earliest Universities, areas of study were not nearly as extensive. Theology, medicine and law were among the dominant areas of study in these early years, and the modern concept of academic disciplines did not come along until the 1800s. They spread around much of the globe by the end of that century. Essentially, these disciplines emerged with the scientific revolution, with different disciplines eventually representing distinct methods and approaches to seeking and understanding “truth.” For example, we saw a shift from “natural historians” to physicists, biologists, and chemists. Early in the 20th century, we saw the growth of new disciplines in the social sciences, resulting in programs like psychology and sociology. It is not until the mid to late 1900s that we see saw rapid growth of modern programs like nursing, business, and a host of specializations in areas like gender and ethnic studies. As such, the modern idea of a University offering hundreds of majors is indeed a modern idea. Many of the largest disciplines in colleges today have a relatively short history.

It is no surprise to see yet another expansion of University degrees. The scientific revolution brought forth distinct majors in the hard and soft sciences. The industrial revolution brought about a myriad of professional and career track majors. Now, in the 21st century, we see another collection of degrees emerging in response to the broader trends in society. This time we see interdisciplinary programs addressing the nature of life in an increasingly digital world. Consider that none of the following degrees existed thirty years ago, some less than ten years.

  1. MA in Telecommunications with an emphasis in Digital Storytelling – Ball State University
  2. MA in New Literacies and Global Learning – North Carolina State
  3. PhD in Media Psychology – Fielding Graduate University
  4. MS in Game Design – Full Sail University
  5. Master of Internet Communications – Curtin University
  6. MA in Social Media – Birmingham City University
  7. MS in Digital Marketing – Sacred Heart University
  8. MA in Digital Humanities – King’s College London
  9. MFA in Digital Arts and New Media at the University of California Santa Cruz
  10. MS in CyberSecurity – University of Maryland University College
  11. MBA with a specialization in E-Business at Eastern Michigan University
  12. Master of Distance Education at University of Maryland University College
  13. MA in Digital Journalism at National University
  14. MS in Digital Forensics at the University of Central Florida
  15. Doctor of Ministry in Leadership in Emerging Culture at George Fox University

New degrees are emerging in response to the digital age. There are degrees ranging from education to business, criminal justice to psychology, literacy to theology, journalism to communication. Some look at such programs with concern that Universities are over-specializing, but this seems to be representative of a century-old trend in higher education. As new areas of need and interest emerge in society, higher education responds with new majors, degrees and specializations. Even as new fields emerge, some of those fields converge to create new, interdisciplinary areas. This is the case in an area like educational technology, which has roots in library science and audio visual studies, educational psychology, and even military training.

There is something different about some of these newer degrees. While some are still quite broad (like Internet studies or digital arts), others are very specialized. The scientific revolution produced physicists and biologists, those developed into distinct fields with unique methodologies. Many of these new majors are not fields as much as they represent distinct skill sets and competencies, or the ability to apply the core aspects of a field or area of study in a new or distinct context. These are also areas that seem to be far more fluid and fast-moving, leaving one to wonder whether University degrees are the most responsive and effective ways to prepare people in these areas.

While some Universities are creating such specializations with the hope of reaching and recruiting new students, it is uncertain whether these hyper-specialized degrees give the breadth necessary in a constantly changing digital world. It is no coincidence that the 15 degrees listed above are graduate degrees. Scan the workplace for people with these degrees and you are likely to see a massive number of them working outside the specialization represented in the degrees. Graduates of these programs who are working in the specialities are often working alongside peers with comparable ability, but who do not have such speciality degrees. As such, these are not gate-keeper degrees. While one might opt to pursue such a degree as a means of preparation, there are equally accepted alternatives, even simply demonstrating that you are competent to do the job. A person with 3-5 years experience as a successful marketer who has done so in digital spaces will probably beat out the recent graduate of a digital marketing degree who hasn’t actually done it. The degree doesn’t have greater value than comparable experience in the marketplace. This is different from past eras of new degree growth.

This leaves space for innovation and micro-disruptions. While I do not expect to see higher education institutions moving away from adding more such degrees in the near future, I expect these specific areas to be prime candidates for the trends toward nano-degrees, certificate programs, and more granular training programs recognized by digital badges and other such credentials.

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.