Four Lessons Learned from the National Connecting Credentials Campaign


Larry Good, Co-Founder of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and Co-Director of the Connecting Credentials Initiative
Holly Zanville, Senior Advisor for Credentialing and Workforce Development, Lumina Foundation

Listen to Q+A with Holly and Larry below or on our Facebook page !

Several red flags were signaling danger in the U.S. marketplace of credentials in 2013. Long-standing credentials (degrees) were being joined by rapidly growing use of newer entrants (e.g., certificates, industry certifications, digital badges). Few understood the full array of emerging credentials, and we lacked common language to describe the meaning of credentials. Little was going on to connect diverse types of credentials with one another, so students could stack them to move more easily through their educational and career pathways. We lacked information about the marketplace of credentials including the level of use, the value, and the trust of various credentials. College and university transcripts were not presenting a full picture of learning behind credentials to enable students to communicate all they’d learned to prospective employers.

We were sure many others were seeing these danger signs too. What if we could join forces, set up a network to collect the best thinking around these red-flag issues, and try to fix some of these problems through a collective action approach?

Lumina stepped up to invest in this idea. Hence was borne the national campaign. We invited diverse stakeholders in the credentialing arena to join the network. The approach took off and the network has grown to 120 national partners and 3000 stakeholders. Managed by Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, the network has produced many notable products and services available at the Connecting Credentials website.

Now that we’ve been at this nearly five years, we’re pausing to reflect on what we’ve learned and share it with our community. So far, we see four big lessons emerging from Connecting Credentials.

1. Collective action works and partnerships matter. It is powerful to tackle a major endeavor with engaged, willing partners. A great deal of innovative work is being undertaken by partnerships formed during Connecting Credentials convenings and work groups. More shared language is being used than five years ago. And we see increased clarity among those working in this arena about what peers are doing and much more frequent connections across silos. Do all partners agree with everything Connecting Credentials has been supporting? No. But all agree there are significant issues to address to improve credentialing, and that the best way to address them is to participate in this sort of network.

2. The awareness needle has moved. One of our partners stood before a large conference audience last year and asked if anyone would have believed five years ago that we’d be holding conferences focused on credentialing. “I wouldn’t have forecast that,” she said, surveying a sold-out room that was buzzing with energy and creativity. Connecting Credentials has put the spotlight on credentialing by holding convenings, making conference presentations, creating widely shared documents, and operating a website from which thousands of people have downloaded resources. We’ve highlighted the important work undertaken by hundreds of organizations across the nation, and we’re managing a strategic planning process centered on a seven-step action plan to improve credentialing. The plan resulted from the contributions of more than 100 national experts who met last year in five work groups. It will be updated this fall with recommendations from a second set of work groups meeting now.

3. There has been real action, not just talk. Awareness of a problem is just the first step; action comes next. Network partners have identified important implementation efforts, including: work to improve data collection and use (National Student Clearinghouse and Manufacturing Institute); national work to bring transparency to credentials (Credential Engine); efforts to create digital student records that capture diverse types of learning (AACRAO/NASPA); research on industry certifications (New America’s Center on Education and Skills); and work that explores new pathways to credentials for low-income individuals and people of color (Opportunity@Work’s TechHire and Hope Street Group’s healthcare work). Another example is the work led by CSW to develop the beta Credential Framework that can connect credentials through common competency reference points and levels of knowledge and skills. One promising strand of this work is a major trial of the Framework among community colleges (AACC’s Right Signals). A guiding principle in all of these efforts is “rapid prototyping” ─ try out new ideas quickly, collect data to learn from experiments, make adjustments, and keep iterating. This approach is vital for work in the credentialing arena.

4. Speed matters. We need to move fast to keep pace with changes in the marketplace. The rate of change in the credentialing marketplace has increased dramatically in the last five years. That reality challenges institutions and policy organizations to accelerate their work beyond what’s normal and comfortable, or risk being left behind. Private-sector entrepreneurs, especially, are pushing the pace. We’re impressed with the caliber of thinking and product experimentation emerging from a number of companies – innovative firms that are creating tools that make it easier for learners, employers, and educators to communicate about competencies and understand the value of various credentials.

These four lessons are crucial – and the progress we see is encouraging. Still, several red flags confront us, including some we noted years ago. Fortunately, some of these are now in “construction zones,” as solutions are in process. But realistically, it will take years for these solutions to fully develop. And given the accelerating pace of change around the future of work and learning, we know we must focus on at least three important questions:

  • How can we reliably and consistently recognize learning that does not now count toward a credential, including knowledge and skills acquired in informal and workplace settings?
  • How can we build trust in the quality of diverse types of credentials?
  • Will credentials count, or count in the same ways, a decade from now?

As we confront these questions, we will look back on – and strive to apply – the lessons we’ve learned:

  • Work in genuine partnership.
  • Focus on action, not just talk.
  • Collect data to gauge progress and adjust plans as needed.
  • Keep moving fast.

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