It used to be simple. You went to college. Or you got a job. There was one overriding credential, a degree. Yet today, we know that many forms of postsecondary education can provide access to good jobs and a living wage. Fortunately, the opportunities for postsecondary education and training and the credentials they yield have proliferated. Now in addition to degrees we have badges, certificates, certifications, apprenticeships, etc. But it’s no longer simple. The result is confusion on the part of employers, educators, and those seeking credentials that can express itself in a loss of trust—on the part of employers in the reliability of credentials and on the part of learners in the cost effectiveness of their educational investments.
To address this confusion and build trust, several complementary initiatives are evolving that seek to provide a new vision for a credentialing system, create a better understanding of the range of credentials, and define a common language for the learning behind credentials. Two closely related efforts are Connecting Credentials and Credential Engine.
The first, Connecting Credentials, is a cross-sector network of educators, learners, employers, funders, community leaders, workforce development groups, and public policymakers committed to making the credentialing system easier to understand, use, and connect. Through this network, Connecting Credentials has created an Action Plan that outlines an agenda and an array of resources to create a 21st century credentialing system in the US.
To date, more than 118 organizations are taking part in what can only be described as a significant systems change. Hence, Connecting Credentials has also become a platform for connecting many of the stakeholders committed to its objectives. As Larry Good, co-founder and senior fellow at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, says, “We’re a hub for information and connectivity for anyone interested in tackling their own pieces of credentialing improvement.”
The two subtitles of the September 2016 action plan capture both the breadth and the focus of the effort. The first is, “from national dialogue to collective action,” a progression now more and more evident. The second, “building learning-based credentialing systems,” points to the project’s overall motivation, that of improving learning levels in their quality, effectiveness, and alignment with one another. Clearly, the point of it all is to expand educational opportunity, encourage quality assurance, and support prudent educational choices. This is to be accomplished by making the ecosystem easier to navigate, providing a more secure basis for informed choices among educational paths, and offering greater transparency to employers and the public about what different credentials signify.
CONNECTING CREDENTIALS: SEVEN PRIORITY AREAS
1 Develop scalable ways to engage employers in the credentialing marketplace
2 Empower learners to navigate the credentialing ecosystem
3 Develop common language centered on competencies
4 Create an interoperable data and technology infrastructure
5 Foster shared understanding of credential quality and reciprocity among quality assurance processes
6 Pursue public policy that advances equity in the credentialing ecosystem
7 Promote field-based development of new credentialing tools, policies, and practices
To contribute to the development of a common language for the learning behind credentials, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce has undertaken the piloting of a beta Connecting Credentials Framework of education levels. By categorizing competencies according to eight levels, each of which is described in terms of the knowledge and skills it represents regardless of subject matter, the framework seeks to clarify and describe the learning behind credentials that is closely “with the needs of 21st century learners, employers, and the economy.” Good explains that one of the drivers of this work is enabling education providers and learners to connect and integrate “smaller credentials” (e.g., certificates, badges, diplomas) with degrees.
Another important goal focuses on the creation of “an interoperable data and technology infrastructure.” The Connecting Credentials Action Plan outlined the vision for a system (p. 15) that would “capture signals of worker requirements,” and “link data on all of the credentials awarded by providers to illustrate connections with other credentials and career opportunities.” Turning this final goal into a reality is at the heart of a major new organization called Credential Engine. Credential Engine is leading the development of the web-based “Credential Registry” that will enable employers, students and workers, educators, state policy makers, and more to have access to real-time information about every credential offered in the U.S.–from the competencies and educational linkages a credential may have to its value in the labor market and status of approval or recognition by a respected authority. Credential Engine is also creating a common credentialing language, the Credential Transparency Description Language (CTDL), based on standards underlying search protocols on the web, in order to enable easier search and comparisons among credentials published in the Registry. Finally, Credential Engine maintains a Registry search engine app called “Workit” with the intent of opening it to public access and to additional customized app development this December.
To avoid confusing these closely complementary initiatives, Connecting Credentials, the beta Credential Framework, and Credential Engine, it is important to keep in mind important distinctions among clearly describing and improving the “credentialing ecosystem” (Connecting Credentials), defining a common language about the competencies behind credentials (beta Credential Framework), creating a common language to describe critical aspects of every type of credential in the country (and eventually the world) (Credential Engine‘s Credential Transparency Description Language), and creating a registry of all credentials and making information readily accessible and transparent (Credential Engine).
The work undertaken by Connecting Credentials and Credential Engine is not complete. As it continues to evolve, they will guide the development of many types of solutions needed in the credentialing marketplace. But the metaphor of an “ecosystem” both embrace points to a vital synergy. To create and improve an ecosystem, you need a good map. Connecting Credentials offers that map. But you also need vehicles in order to enter the ecosystem and travel efficiently and successfully through it. Credential Engine responds to that need.
By Paul L. Gaston
Consultant to Lumina Foundation
Chair, Quality Assurance Advisory Group, Credential Engine