In this blog, Holly Zanville talks with Jim Daniels and David Leaser about the ways Credential As You Go (www.credentialasyougo.com) is catalyzing redesign and integration of credentialing systems across states, higher education, and third-party providers, including employers, to recognize all learners for what they know and can do. Holly is a renowned expert in the field of education policy and workforce development. She is a Research Professor and Co-Director of the Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy at George Washington University. Previously she served as a strategy director at Lumina Foundation, and is a leader for Credential As You Go.
Throughout her career, Holly has worked to promote effective policies and practices that improve the quality and relevance of education and training programs. She is a leading voice in the movement to expand and improve the use of credentials, particularly those that are aligned with industry needs and can serve as reliable indicators of individuals’ knowledge and skills.
We’re lucky to have Holly Zanville from Credential As you Go with us today. I think we met, we met years ago when I was working on the badge program at IBM and, Holly,I think you were the strategy director at Lumina Foundation. And now you’re a researcher and a leader at George Washington University and also a leader for a new movement called “Credential As You Go.” Let’s talk about how you got interested in digital badges in the first place and how it led to “Credential As You Go.”
Thank you so much. I’m so glad to join you today and how I got interest in this was really back when I was at a foundation and I was working on a small portfolio on the future of learning and work and we weren’t sure what the future direction was going to be for learning and work. So one of my charges was to meet people, read up and provide advice to the foundation. We found quickly that many things were happening in the credentialing world. It was no longer — and should no longer be — just about degrees academic degrees, and that there was a wide array of new credentials and many more were coming on. How was that going to fit into anunderstandable coherent system for the nation? And this is not just a U. S. problem. It’s international. But my remarks are primarily about U.S. issues, so we talked a lot with individuals about where would be our space where could we make a difference?
“My sense is, we are in the middle of a major transformation.”
One of the things we did was fund a grant to SUNY and asked them to explore the feasibility of an incremental credentialing system. something that would be in addition to or different from the degree-centric system the U. S. has been founded around for nearly two hundred years. We wanted to recognize valuable learning at the post-secondary level learning — not only that occurs in the academic world — but learning that occurs in the work world and many other places in which people acquire valuable learning knowledge and skills. I was the program officer back then for the Phase One planning grant that came out of New York. When I was ready to leave Lumina Foundation, I wanted to work in this space because my sense is, we are in the middle of a major transformation.
We’re not the first to get here many others were working in this space and in fact, I think that there have been for a number of years many innovation gardens around the country in which people have been exploring the developing badge world: Micro-credentials, micro-pathways, new types of licensing, the way industry certifications work and the ways these different kinds of credentials should ought to blend together. We needed to get these into some sort of a coherent national understandable system, which we don’t have, and so what I did when I went to George Washington University was to take on the role of co leading with Empire State Suny College and with Corporation for Skilled Workforce.
Federal and Corporate Funding to research
This is new initiative, which we’re calling “Credential As You Go” and it literally means what those four words say: Credential learning as it occurs whether it’s in the work world whether it’s in academic institutions or a combination of recognizing the growing number of third-party organizations that have stepped up to provide credentials, particularly in the badging world, which you are so familiar with, in fact, well, since you actually led a lot of it. So here here we are in the middle of a federally funded grant from the U. S. Department of Education out of the Institute for Educational Sciences to look at the transformation of the credentialing world. They want to know if we all make changes in credentialing, will it make a difference? First, is it feasible? Can state systems make this change. What’s it going to take to do that? Will it make a difference for learners?. What are the outcomes? What are the learner outcomes as a result of incremental credentialing?
So, the federal grant we received is really about researching, but in order to research, we have to have individuals and states and institutions that are trying this out. So what we’re doing is rapid prototyping in three states. We are collecting data from those three states and researching the outcomes. We’re in the middle of all this. We’re also trying to undertake a campaign to raise awareness of the credentialing world and why we need something like this approach and there’s several other factors are nine major steps in this. It’s a big undertaking for us to explore changing the system. I’ll add is that in the last summer we received an additional grant from Walmart, which is enabling us to expand the size and the scope of those that are involved. We now have 28 institutions including a couple industry certification bodies and a couple more state systems,
In my work, I have used the Lumina Foundation Connected Credentials Framework pretty heavily and still do to this day. You mentioned Walmart.
We received a specific grant to supplement the federal grant, which is more research-oriented working with the three states, and so Walmart really is literally enabling us to expand Credential As You Go, not providing resources directly to the institutions that are doing this. We probably have ten to eleven playbooks which are underway. We’ve recently put up the first two on how you get into incremental credentialing, what it is and it includes the framework. The third one is going up this next week, which is around policy needed in the states for public institutions of higher education in order to make these kinds of changes. We’re working with the three states that are core in the federal grant around some of the policy components of that. So the third playbook is really on how do you assess the helpfulness of the policy. It’s not just policy at the state level. Of course, there’s federal policy. There’s accreditation policy. There are individual institution policies coming from Board of Regents and others. So there’s a long list and employer policies that also impact the development of incremental credentialing. So we’re trying to provide a type of instruction to those who are working this space to be sure to understand their context as they’re trying to develop shorter term credentials that have high value and that fit within some sort of an understandable coherent system that we all understand. It’s probably isn’t going to work at just one state level. There’s too much mobility. There’s too much connectedness, which is a good thing, but that means we are in a decentralized hybrid system, which is what we have in the U. S. We all have to somehow get on the highway around the same time. Go on the same direction. Share our road maps so that we can really build a system that works for all the cars on the highway.
Building trust for alternative credentials
You started talking about the outcomes and early on when we were developing the IBM program, outcomes was one of the most important things to measure success. Otherwise, why do it? I think a lot of people who are developing badge programs don’t think that way. I know in our master class, one of the most important areas we teach is how to determine the value proposition for what you’re doing? As part of this research you are looking at that, what are the outcomes and the real measure of success? Because what really accelerates adoption is when people can say. “this alternative credential offers the same value to employers as this other one.” A lot of people won’t or don’t. They’ll use the college degree as a proxy because it’s trusted or at least you’re not going to get fired over it. Is that part of this program, to is to build that type of trust?
Definitely about trust and quality and, we’ve identified fourteen research questions. I’m not going to tell you what they all are now they are listed at our website and they, they all fall under those two items that I mentioned a little earlier: Is it feasible to change our system? What does it take to change your verification and transcript in systems and change the data you collect? On the non-credit side, many institutions collect the data manually. It’s not in the typical learning management system and the data systems that campuses have. So we have a lot of a lot of technology systems that have to be replaced.
The second question as you mentioned, David, is really about the outcomes and we’re collecting information from the three states, particularly that we’re working so closely with, on their outcomes:
- How many students are taking the new incremental credentials?
- How are they doing?
- What happens when they completed course?
- Are they able to move successfully to a next course?
- Are they able to get jobs?
- What are the wages?
We’re doing focus groups with employees and students to understand the outcomes of participating in these incremental credentials. Are incremental credentials being stacked so that they can move you more easily toward other meaningful credentials, including degrees? Some employers are not necessarily taking to hire someone with a degree and so we need to understand if the shorter-term credentials will lead to meaningful employment outcomes, help with other kinds of mobility issues and build confidence among the students. Many of the students need to know that college is right for them and they don’t know. So, short-term credentials can help them to test that. So there are a number of outcomes we think are really important. None of us should be standing up and calling for a complete transformation of the U. S. system if we don’t have some data behind us that says this will be a better system, and this will be fair.
None of us should be standing up and calling for a complete transformation of the U. S. system if we don’t have some data behind us that says this will be a better system, and this will be fair.
One of the, one of the statistics I like the most is a big study from the National Student Clearing House, which has 95% of the data on the higher ed side from campuses in the U. S. Every year they put out a study called the “Some College, No Credential” study, and this year they found we had moved from 36 million Americans who have some college, but no credential to 39 million. Actually, the numbers are worse than that because they’re only counting undergraduate level students. They’re not counting the graduate-level students who leave before they complete a master’s degree or before they complete their PhD degree. Some of us believe if you don’t complete the degree, you’re not going to do as well on the job market. It’s a little difficult to explain to some extent. Many students are not proud that they have acquired a certain amount of called credits at the undergraduate graduate level, even if they did not complete a bonafide a degree. So then what?
Some College, No Credential” requires better HR systems
If there was valuable learning, who decides what is valuable learning? I think colleges should be in consultation with employers and others and grant a meaningful credential to that individual so that they can use it. And the employment systems that may be functioning with the assistance of robots might be saying, “Do you have a degree or not?” And if the answer is “not,” you could be thrown out of the entire consideration by that employer. That doesn’t seem fair. We need to change our employment systems to recognize a variety of meaningful credentials, including perhaps badges, and that you completed certain licenses or you completed micro-credentials so individual can be interviewed and considered by an employer for employment. We’re thinking about this a lot: How do we make the case and set up our systems so that they can accommodate this additional range of credentialing that may, or may not, include degrees.
So the things you’re saying translate perfectly into industry as well when you look at someone, and that obviously it’s to propel someone forward, provide a data set so you can understand how they’re doing, are they achieving those outcomes that are really intended to be achieved? So that’s for getting a job. And then when someone has a job, I think a lot of that still applies. Because once you get a job, you want to have a path in front of you to be able to advance, improve your career growth professionally, and that’s where I think the incremental credentialing or having the right level of granularity is needed. And I’ve always looked at it as data. David can vouch for this, because that’s one of the things that I always had a particular interest in is looking at what was being captured through credentialing. In my experience through digital badging and using that data to inform the business on how different parts of the organization, from a human resource standpoint, were performing or advancing
When you talk about incremental credentialing and a level of granularity, can you go into what level of granularity you think is right or necessary to be able to achieve some of these things that you are looking to achieve?
I’ll use an example that I probably used with David years ago when we were on a panel, which which was, you’re going through a drive-through restaurant to get a burger and you tell the person that you just want a hamburger, but the person says, “Well, don’t you want the combo?” It’s a better deal, but I would say, “No, I just want the burger.” “You sure, you don’t want the combo?” So for a long time I thought well, maybe the combo was really better a better deal — and the combo is really important in education because you could acquire a degree, plus two badges, plus a license plus or something else and that might fit you better. So for a long time that was how I was thinking about changing the micro-credential system. But now I’m really going back to my original idea of going through the drive through thinking, “You know, it may be that just one part of that meal is a good thing and you don’t need the whole combo.” because I had been a proponent of the combo for a long time. I still am, for some. I think you do need certifications plus degrees plus a licenses, but not everybody needs that. There are meaningful valuable credentials that don’t require a degree and we need to understand what those are, and we need to have verifications and assessment systems that allow employers, especially, to understand what kind of knowledge behavior skills were acquired. So this is a new item on the menu for many employers and this is one of the complications of building a new system that a lot of folks don’t understand, which is why they go back to the proxy. David, you mentioned that the degree becomes a proxy because most folks understand the degree, but in the 21st century workforce and I’d say in an employment and training world, we are going to have to learn about and get used to these new meaningful credentials.
Do you mind if I share something Holly, because I think it touches on what you both said. I was speaking at a Training Magazine event a couple of months ago, and I was showing some slides and this one really resonated with a lot of people. It was from from McKinsey. It shows if you are able to capture skills at a granular level, you can easily move people into jobs that you didn’t know they could perform. And if you don’t capture a skills registry and take inventory at that nano level, how would know a person that in an entry-level first job as a customer service rep, has ten skills that can move them into a second job as a technical support specialist. Only a few skills entry-level skills go latent, but all these other skills are useful and the employee just has to learn four more skills. And then they get a 43% increase in their salary. Then for the next job, which might be a year away, three or four of those skills from the first job are still relevant and we only have to pick up three more skills to get there. I think about how democratizing this is to be able to know, at that level, what these skills are. Like you said, people are leaving college and they have nothing to show for it, but if they had badge or some sort of micro-credential certificate, even that they had the soft skills or communication skills or something else that can go into the system.
And I think the second thing about this is from a university or a college or any kind of educational institution perspective: If we know that somebody has these three or four skills, I can market to them because if they only need three more to be prepared for a technical support specialist, I can bring them back in for a weekend certificate program. I think universities and the schools are missing the boat by not bringing their alumni back.
This is exactly, right? And that’s in that garden of innovation I mentioned. There’s a lot of attention just in the last two years to skills registries building the granularity that you mentioned, Jim, about what sits behind each of the different client credentials — and then how are you going to build them? Are they going to be stand alone? Are they stacking? How do you make them available? This is the hard work that is between us all and it has to be disciplined occupation-specific, except where there are generalizable soft skills. No one loves that term, but everyone’s still using the term and there are many of the third party organizations working with institutions and employers to try to understand the granularity and put this down on paper so that we have an understandable system that folks can navigate. So this is the future. it’s here.
What’s in a name: Badges, Micro-credentials, Digital Credentials?
Speaking of terms, and this is a little bit of a left field sort of question, but I’m just dying to get your point of view on this, The term “alternative credential.” I’ve struggled a bit with that. I’ve kind of waffled all over the place. I’m curious as to what your take is on that term and how to use, how it’s applied and is there a better way or a better term?
There has to be a better term and Credential As You Go has been sponsoring some summits in order to carry information about this movement to many others. One of our more popular summits frankly was on the language of the learner work ecosystem and, for that, we develop a dictionary of terms because there are a lot of terms and people aren’t using them in the same way. They probably never will, we just have to understand how do they translate with one another. The two that are most difficult to accept and use are “alternative credentials” and “non degree credentials.” Most students would not want to go home and tell their parents, “Good news, I just signed up for a non-degree credential.” or “I just signed up for an alternative credential.” That just does not ring the bell for most parents. So we think that there are other titles and that we all need to understand what they are as much as we can. And so we’ve been working hard to put a dictionary of terms out there, the ways in which they’re using, and we’ve also developing as part of Credential As You Go a learning work ecosystem library as a resource, not only the credentials you go. those folks working in incremental credentialing, but the folks that are working to literally to strengthen and improve our learning work ecosystem and at one place where you could answer questions about what are these things mean who is working in these spaces who’s working on the granularity or the break out of skills that you just showed us.
It should just be credentials. The same thing of course was true for digital photography. It had a stigma originally. “Oh, analog is so much better with film.” Now it’s just photography because everything is digital.
Yes. Isn’t that’s what has been happening in an online for a long time? I haven’t worked in the state system of higher education and Oregon for many years before I went to a limited foundation and online or distance learning was just beginning to happen in major ways because of the advances in technology so that we were using. At some point, this is just going to be education. It’s not two separate types of education. So this is going to happen. It already is happening in credentialing also.
I would just follow up to that one because you mentioned we’re never going to get to be on the same page on language, but we do have to get people on the same page with standards for interoperability and for equivalence. Where are we at with that? Where do we need to go ?And who do you think’s going to do it? Is there a push-pull problem there with a government versus industry?
Well, right now several states have passed legislation statutes on credentialing and micro-credentials. So, in New York, they use the Word micro-credential; in Florida with the legislation that came out not too long ago that is requiring the public institutions to offer a full credential after about two years and they’ve identified the criteria. My understanding is Florida is wants to call it a “badge,” whereas New York calls is more to intending toward micro-credential as a term, but they really may be very similar terms. No one is going to tell any of the states that they have to call them. On the other hand, we can have a translator and use dictionaries, et cetera that just tell us that the badge that Florida may offer after about two years is equivalent to an associates degree that may be equivalent to micro-credential that is equivalent to an associates in New York. We’re just going to have to accept the fact that for a while our language is going to be a little messy. That is the way it is in my mind and then at some point I think we’ll get more and more to standards, particularly as we get to the verification and transcripts systems that are under play. And we all know about the learning deployment records that can really identify the key learnings that you have acquired over a lifetime that you can carry with you, that you own yourself — and your college or university doesn’t necessarily own it. You always have to go back to them and get a transcript because you’ve acquired learning from the workplace or from the military or from other venues. A lot of folks are thinking blockchain is going to help with that and encourage us to use a more standard, understandable coherent language. I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re still in the innovation rapid prototyping world, and at that point, we don’t have a national government that dictates as many other nations do. We’re not going to have it in the U. S., and so once we accept the fact that we have a decentralized system that offers many opportunities for innovation, we can still do that work. And I believe that there are many groups that are working on standards and informing us, particularly on the technology side of the shop where we have to collect data. We have to understand who’s getting these things and how does it lead to assessment and verifications? I think we’ll get there. I think it could be a few several more years before we get there.
That’s really interesting about Florida. Choosing the word badge. This is an area, and this has been a pet peeve of mine for quite some time. Now, I don’t, I don’t consider a badge to be a credential. I consider a badge to be a container, right? It’s an open source based digital mechanism for documenting what, you know, what you can do and what you’ve mastered. And lots and lots of things even beyond that. A badge is not the thing, right? It represents the thing. So I’m not sure if you see it that way, or if you think the broader ecosystem will eventually pivot and look at digital badge or badge as a term. That’s really defining a mechanism for how you document something or if it will continue to be considered a type of credential.
Well, maybe maybe I think there’s a little bit of both. I do believe that badges are being marketed as a credential. Often it is suggested they will blend with or be a part of a degree program, so they become part of that combo that people are acquiring. I know the Education Design Lab has been designing badges, focusing around soft skills that will be embedded into a degree program. So the extent to which you view the badges when they look like a credential, when they look like a seal of something on a piece of paper that stands for learning that folks have assessed is meaningful, then they can be put along with other types of learning. So in that sense, they become a credential along with the array of credentials. I think most people who are who are looking at the array of credentials see badges as one of many types of credentials. So I think that’s how a lot of us are viewing it.
I encountered that day in and day out. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over time. I’ve seen a tendency, especially in the industry or commercial space outside of the education higher ed sector for people to start to diminish the use of the term badge in favor of using the word “credential.” I’ve seen that happening, particularly amongst like platform providers.
Some employers tell me that they think the word certificate is more understandable than badge. They use the word certificate because it somehow seems more understandable, but there are several different types of certificates. I don’t know if we’re going to get around the messiness we’re living in. Doesn’t bother me as long as you say, “I’m calling mine this, here’s what it stands for.” And then we have a translator and technology helps us share, and it goes on to your permanent record
I would like to underscore is employers are a major lever in the innovation cards. I think more and more her institutions and individuals who are wanting to learn are looking to see what are employers asking for. I think employers are in a very, a very strong position to encourage and assist the innovation developments which are underway.
How can you get involved?
What are the timelines for the work you’re doing? Are there ways for other people to get involved?
A planning grant started with Lumina funded New York for 2018 to 2020. We came out of that with a few works and the interest to run into a test market, which is what we’ve done with the federal grant. We’re halfway through that. We have another year and a half on that, and we’re not going to be finished. We’re hoping we’ll find resources to enable us to keep going to add other states and to do a lot more research and rapid prototyping. The Walmart grant started just in the fall and we’ll be going for about a year. We have more institutions and state systems contacting us asking whether or not they could be involved, and we’re literally right now trying to determine whether or not we should stay the course and just focus on the rapid prototyping or if can we accommodate and bring in others who want to do the work, which is why we’re putting open resources at our website — playbooks and others — and having some of the summits that are open to anyone to attend. So the timeline is literally by next by this time next year, we will have good research outcomes on what’s happened in the three states. We’ll be writing a lot more about outcomes, and then we’re working in a pretty large community. We have a very large advisory board that you know of because you’re on it. We went large because we wanted to capture advice and counsel from a lot of people who are working in this space. And we’re not the only one working in this space. Many other groups, thankfully, are working in this space and we all have to figure out how we work together to move forward more quickly.
To get involved, people can go to our website at https://credentialasyougo.org. They can go to the library at https://learnworkecosystemlibrary.com. They can attend some of our functions and they can send us emails if they want to be involved and we’ll be taking them up on a case-by-case basis while we figure out how fast we can do our advocacy and research work.
I think there’s so much value and what is offered through Credential As You Go. I think back when David and I first embarked on building IBM’s digital badging program, there was nothing like this at the time. it was truly an expedition.
You were a large garden of innovation.
Whether you’re an education institution, an association, an organization, an employer or if you’re considering a digital credentialing strategy or standing up or program using digital badges, Credential As You Go. has to be a first stop. There’s so much valuable information that applies very effectively across the board.
What’s the one thing that you think that people should do first?
I often almost never think of one thing. Whenever I complete a survey, it’s almost always all of the above. But I think raising all of our awareness of what is happening and having good knowledge of what’s happening and accepting the fact that we’re in the middle of a transformation and we’re not the only ones. A lot of folks are thinking about this. Some are farther along than others. Then getting involved or recognizing where the networks that you’re already involved in or already working in this space is really really important. How does that link with what everyone else is doing? We are in an ecosystem where we are all dependent on each other. We don’t seem to know that very well, but the fact is it’s not going to help if one part of our ecosystem works well and all the other parts do not. I think of the learner where ecosystem is being made up of twelve big building blocks and we have to make progress in all of them. Most folks are not familiar even with what are the parts of our ecosystem that we have to pay attention to.
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