Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Stackable Portable Digital Credentials

I've been participating in work groups from several key organizations that are developing standards for digital credentials. The following brief summarizes what's happening in the credentials space, particularly with stackable and digital credentials.

Stackable Portable Digital Credentials in Education and Industry

There is a growing interest in “stackable credentials” as a solution to problems faced by students, higher education institutions, workforce training programs, schools, and employers.  A report by the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success at CLASP defines credentials to include “degrees; diplomas; credit-bearing, noncredit, and work readiness certificates; badges; professional/ industry certifications; apprenticeships; and licenses—all of which in different ways testify to people’s skills, knowledge, and abilities.”

The U.S. Department of Labor defines a credential as stackablewhen it is part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time and move an individual along a career pathway or up a career ladder.” The same concept might apply to a pre-career sequence of educational achievements such as credentials that qualify a secondary student to enter higher education.

An example “stackable” credential is a job-specific certificate earned in the short-term while counting toward the longer-term goal of a degree. Stackable credentials provide value to both the student and potential employers by showing short-term value  (what can a person can do now) and as a milestone toward a larger educational achievement. This is especially valuable for people who enter the workforce while continuing to pursue a degree. The Department of Labor recommends that higher education and workforce training providers “modularize curricula into smaller portions, or chunks, enhancing the ability of individuals to earn interim credentials and combine part-time study with full-time employment and/or supporting a family.”

Many organizations including the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Education, community colleges, four-year colleges, workforce training programs, and industry groups are investigating how stackable credentials might address problems such as:

·      students giving up before completing high school and college,
·      the overwhelming cost of an all-or-nothing college credential,
·      unemployment persists while employers have trouble filling positions, and
·      training programs having trouble keeping up with changing needs in the global and local economies.

Stackable credentials also include certifications and licenses earned after receiving a degree. For example, medical professionals with multiple specialties may be more likely to be hired because they can fill more than one role (e.g. phlebotomist and EKG technician). Digital Promise is developing a micro-credential system that provides teachers with the opportunity to gain recognition for skills they master throughout their careers.

Portable credentials are credentials that are accepted across institutions, and across domains. One issue of portability has to do with a common understanding of the student competencies that the credential represents. When a student receives a baccalaureate degree in accounting, potential employers expect that the credential means the student has certain skills that qualify her for an entry level position in the accounting field. If the student is earning a credential with the intent of using it to qualify for a job then the competency model used by the issuing institution should be industry recognized.  If a K-12 student is earning a high school diploma with the intent of going on to college, the diploma should be acceptable evidence for the postsecondary institution to know that the student is college ready.

Another issue of portability is the acceptance of the credential in another jurisdiction, for example, if an associate degree or certificate earned at a community college in one state is accepted at a 4-year institution in another state as credit towards a bachelor’s degree.

Digital Credentials

Digital credentials are verifiable electronic records of a person’s achievements or qualifications. Digital credentials take different forms depending on how they are used. Technical implementations include electronic transcripts, digital certificates, and digital badges. For portability, the digital credentials must use widely adopted technical standards for interoperability between issuing and consuming data systems.

Technical Standards for Stackable Credentials

Government agencies, industry groups, standards bodies and education providers are developing approaches to the data collection and use related to stackable credentials. For example:
  • The Badge Alliance and related Open Badges Initiative have developed an open standard and free software for digital badges (an image file with embedded metadata representing a personal achievement) that links back to the issuer, criteria and verifying evidence.
  • The Common Education Data Standards (CEDS) include standard vocabulary for data used to recognize student achievements linked to evidence.
  • Credential Transparency Initiative is creating a credential registry that will allow users to see what various credentials — from college degrees to industry certifications and micro-credentials — represented in terms of competencies, transfer value, assessment rigor, and third-party endorsement.
  • IMS Global is working with college registrars on an extended electronic transcript standard that would include record of competencies and non-course activities.
  • PESC has formed an Academic Credentialing & Experiential Learning Task Force to build on its previous eTranscript standard
  • W3C Credentials Workgroup plans to publish a standard for encoding personal credentials in a way that can be authenticated and verified using technology similar to bitcoin and technologies addressing personal identity and privacy.

Some of the implementation challenges that these organizations are wrestling with include:
·      Should a persons digital credentials from multiple institutions be kept in a “locker” or “backpack” under the stewardship of a third party hosting organization, held privately by the recipient, or exist in a distributed network?
·      What technology should be use to certify the validity of a credential and protect against counterfeit credentials?
·      What method and data standards should be used to standardize the information about what a credential represents?
·      How to digitally link the identity of a person to a credential they have received?

Key terms related to this topic include:

career pathway – a series of achievements and that qualify a person for a career
career latter – a path of achievements that allow a person to move into increasingly more advanced jobs within a single industry or career path
career lattice – a connected sequence of achievements that allow a person to move up in a career pathway or over to a new career using transferable qualifications
digital credential – a verifiable electronic record of a person’s achievement or qualification
portable credential – credentials that are accepted across institutions and/or domains
stackable credential – part of a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time
micro-credential – a credential that recognized mastery of a single competency