As Colin Mathews, President of the technology company Merit, remarked in an excellent little article in Inside Higher Ed a few weeks ago, credentials are a language. One with limited vocabulary, sure, but a language nonetheless. Specifically, it is a form of communication from educational institutions to (primarily) the labour market to convey information about their possessors. There has been a lot of talk in the last couple of years, however, to the effect that the current vocabulary of credentials is inadequate and that change is needed to promote better labour market outcomes for both firms and graduates. What to make of this?
The complaints about credentials basically come in two categories. The first has to do with what I call the “chunking” of credentials. At the moment, we essentially have two sets of building blocks: “Credits” (or “courses”) and degrees. One is very short, the other often quite long. Why not something in-between, which indicates mastery over a body of material which might be of interest to employers but is less than a full degree? These shorter, more focused credentials like Coursera’s “specializations”, or Udacity’s “nanodegrees” are meant to supply labour market skills more quickly than traditional degrees.
Then there is the issue of how to interpret the information conferred by a credential. A bachelor’s degree mainly tells an employer that the bearer has to stick-to-it-iveness to complete a four-year project (commitment means a lot to employers). If the employer has hired graduates from a particular university or program before, then they might have a sense of an individual’s technical capabilities, too. But beyond that, it’s blank. A transcript might tell an employer what courses a student has taken, but unless the employer is going to take an inordinate amount of time to scrutinize the curriculum, that doesn’t really help them understand what they’ve been exposed to. Marks help in the sense that an employer can get a sense of what a student has achieved at school, but increasingly, employers are finding that this is irrelevant. What matters in many fields are the “soft skills” or “fuzzy skills”: on these nearly all credentials are silent.
Enter the idea of “badges”, digital or otherwise. A solution half-inspired by competency-based education principles and half by Girl Guides/Boy Scouts. The idea here is to give learners certificates based on particular skills they have demonstrated just as the Guides and Scouts do. The problems with this are manifold. First of all, unless a particular skill can be demonstrated through standardized testing, certifying skills is actually a fairly time-consuming and therefore costly activity. This is why many of the emerging badging systems actually measure achievements and activities rather than skills (one badging system recently profiled in Inside Higher Education, for instance, hands out badges for attending certain types of meetings. Your typical employer could not care less).
But even if you buy the Guide/Scout analogy, badges quickly run into the same problem as transcripts. Say you have a knot-tying badge. Unless an employer is intimately familiar with the Guide/Scout curriculum, s/he will have no actual idea what the knot badge actually signifies in terms of practical skills. Can they do Zeppelin Bends? Constrictor Knots? Do they understand ambient isotopy? Or can they just do a slip knot? And badges for soft skills are still pretty sketchy, so that part of the equation is still a blank.
All these moves towards what might be termed “microcredentials” are well-meaning. Degrees are a pretty blunt and opaque way to express achievement and ability; it would be better if we could find ways of making these more transparent. But the problem here is that all these solutions are being tested largely without talking to employers. Badges, or whatever new microcredential solution we are talking about here, are all new languages. Employers understand the language of degrees. They do not understand the language of badges and see little benefit in learning new languages which seem to bring little additional benefit. For most, the old language of degrees is good enough – for now. And so the spread of badges and various types of skill-based certification is so far pretty limited.
But it’s early days yet. My guess is we’re in the first stages of what will likely be a 20- to 30-year shift in credentialing. As Sean Gallagher notes in his excellent new book The Future of University Credentials, the general trend is going to be towards demanding that individuals be able to demonstrate mastery of particular skills and competencies. Partly, that can be done through changes to assessment and reporting within existing degree systems; but it may also come through the regularization of certain new credentials, some of which may be issued by existing institutions and others from new providers. I don’t think the final form of these credentials are going to look anything like the current fashion of badges; they are frankly too clumsy to be up to much. But the push in this direction is too strong to ignore. Expect a lot of very interesting experimentation in this field over the next few years.