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How Digital Credentials Can Advance Student Mobility and Success


Posted May 17, 2019 by Rahul Choudaha - Executive Vice President, Global Engagement and Research - Studyportals

The impact of today’s megatrends—long-term, transformational processes with broad reach and influence—is driving a reconstruction of the higher education sector. The changing nature of work and widening skills gap, as a couple of megatrend examples, are instilling a sense of urgency among many business schools to assess their portfolio of academic offerings and curriculum. One such call for adaptation and assessment is emerging in the form of digital credentialing. What are the drivers and implications of digital credentialing? How can business schools prepare for a shifting landscape of credentialing and its relevance to workplace skills?

Growing Demand and Potential

A recent report from the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) defines a credential as “a testament to a student’s competence, capability, skill, or ability to do something relevant to the workplace that is issued by a higher education institution.” It further defines a digital credential as “a credential issued by a higher education institution, in digital form, which implies that it is portable, useful, transferable, and easily understood. Digital credentials can be curated, annotated, and distributed over digital networks under the earner’s control.”

However, credentialing does not belong solely to higher education institutions when it comes to communicating a student’s competence for the workplace. Alternative providers, such as those of coding boot camps and MOOCs, are offering microcredentials, certifications, and badges to indicate learning outcomes. This is where institutions have an opportunity to adopt a digital-first mindset by offering students and employers “a record of meaningful and transformative out-of-class experiences, conveniently packaged in a portable and accessible medium,” as described by the U.S.-based National Association of Colleges and Employers.

At its core, digital credentialing is an outcome of at least two major trends. First, credentials are becoming shorter and unbundled, with higher expectations of learners for gaining job-relevant skill sets. For example, the rise of the specialized, one-year master’s degree was the first wave of a shift toward shorter credentials. More recently, the proliferation of non-degree certificates and microcredentials has further signaled changing attitudes and expectations around the more succinct, targeted credentials.

Second, technological innovation and adoption of online learning models are transforming the expectations and engagement options for learners. For instance, the proliferation of MOOCs helped learners experience and become comfortable with an online modality. Likewise, it is relatively easier for an online program provider to award a digital credential than it is for a traditional, campus-based program.

Consider the case of Wharton Online, the digital learning platform of The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania, which offers Wharton’s business courses to more than 150,000 online learners. In addition to issuing digital credentials in the form of badges for every online course a student completes, the school can now also issue certified continuing education units (CEUs) to learners as part of certificate programs.

In addition, microcredentials are becoming a useful pathway for admission into degree programs. At the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, non-degree students who complete microcredential programs with certain grades can apply to the Professional MBA without having to take the GMAT or GRE. Likewise, students can apply edX MicroMasters® credits toward a portion of the degree from partner universities, resulting in an accelerated program.

Achieving Portability and Comparability

A report from MIT on its future forecasted one in which education will be unbundled and degrees will be disaggregated into smaller units, and where the credentialing entity may be different from the institution offering the course. This future scenario recognizes the importance of not only microcredentialing but also the opportunity of an increasingly complex web of partnerships between teaching and awarding institutions.

As digital credentials gain global traction and grow in variety, it is highly likely that the complexity may also create some confusion among students and employers. As a recent UNESCO report indicates the current lack of an efficient national or global system that contains comprehensive information on credentials and their associated learning outcomes for a breadth of stakeholders to access, understand, and use for decision-making. As a result, there is an increasing need to develop such a structure that can enable comparability of digital credentials and help users determine the recognition and utility of the credentials for wide use within educational and employment sectors.

A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences highlights the increasing diversity of alternative credentials, which “can last from a few months to several years, can take place within or outside traditional academic institutions, and can deliver training via in-person instruction, online-instruction, hands-on work, or a mixture of modalities.” It notes the importance of ensuring that the digital credentials do not create further confusion among learners and employers; that they must provide pathways to validate informal learning; and that they link with academic coursework and degree pathways already in place. The report concludes by underscoring the need for integration among the increasing modularization of higher education.

In order to achieve an optimum potential of portability of digital credentials with a comprehensive set of information about credentials, application of technology frameworks like blockchain are promising. According to an upcoming brief by AACSB’s Digital Transformation Affinity Group, “If someone were to take a multitude of online courses, the credentials could be logged onto a blockchain, demonstrating the diversity of their learning profile. This would combine multiple forms of education into a single registry, including degree earned, various badges, and other educational outcomes.”

As the roles and uses of digital credentials emerge from different parts of the world, it is increasingly important for different institutions to connect and create a seamless network where they can exchange credentials, enhance the transparency of information, and accelerate student mobility. In the U.S., Credential Engine is aiming to create credential transparency by building a marketplace that will provide data on various dimensions of credentials openly available to the public. At the global level, the Groningen Declaration Network convenes stakeholders to deliberate on emerging challenges and promising practices for leveraging technology and data for digital credentialing.

Digital credentials are integral for transforming the future of higher education generally, and business schools specifically. Greater transparency and portability of an expanded set of information about credential earners has immense potential for enhancing student mobility and career success. Bold and concerted efforts are required to not only create a robust system of digital credentials but also to communicate value proposition for its adoption.
Rahul Choudaha Rahul Choudaha is global higher education strategist and analyst and executive vice president of global engagement and research at Studyportals. Follow him on Twitter @DrEducationBlog.

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