Digital Credentials in Higher Ed

Over the years, college enrollments generally increased due to the ever-increasing demand for skilled workers. Globalization, technology, and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs have many rethinking what type of degree to pursue. Additionally, there’s a new norm in student type and it isn’t your typical 18-year-old freshman. As Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education states, “Today’s average student is no longer the 18-year-old whose parents drive her up to “State U” in a minivan stuffed with boxes. Instead, the “new normal” student may be a 24-year-old returning veteran, a 36-year-old single mother, a part-time student juggling work and college, or the first-generation college student. The faces we picture as our college hopefuls can’t be limited by race, age, income, zip code, disability, or any other factor.”

In an effort to meet these types of learners, education providers are providing new types of learning opportunities such as online learning, boot camps, competency-based training, and industry-specific training. These alternative types of credentials enable learners to demonstrate their competency in a specialized area. A recent report from ICDE conveys that traditional transcripts don’t really convey a student’s skills as a potential job candidate, whereas specific credentials provide a better indication of a student who has the required competencies for a job. “This ‘unbundling’ of learning acquisition, verification, and documentation will break the long-held advantage that higher education institutions have enjoyed in the verification of a person’s education and will further enable non-higher education organizations (such as professional associations and corporations) to become active in providing learning opportunities and credentialing.”

With these new types of learning opportunities comes the challenge of providing portable and authentic credentials. Currently, higher ed institutions control the gateways for access to academic transcripts, effectively restricting public access through fees and controlling what student data to release.

What are digital credentials?

Digital credentials are the digital equivalent of paper-based credentials. But there’s more to it than that; we have to think about the technology behind it. According to Gartner, “Digital credentialing technologies are highly dependent on their analog origin, trying to extend their use in an increasingly digital education ecosystem. Traditional credentials are based on the issuance of paper with special features, such as watermarks, to reduce fraud. They often require contacting the issuer or a trusted third-party for verification. Digital credentials deal with trust and verification differently, using technology like cryptography to eliminate fraud, allowing learners to control and share credentials more freely in the education ecosystem.”
Digital credentialing technologies have been around for quite some time, but what has been lacking is a universally accepted standard. As digital credentials become more of an accepted delivery format, a collaboration between learning management systems (LMS) and higher ed institutions is ever more critical. Sure, digitally signed PDFs may seem like a great format for digital credentials, but the issue of fraud can easily arise in such a manner.

According to a survey conducted by Ellucian, a higher ed software management system, “Hard copy degrees still hold value, but to be confident and stay relevant in the evolving workforce, students and hiring managers are giving more worth to digital credentials.” Because of this, many higher ed institutions are experimenting with blockchain to issue and verify degrees and other credentials that are secure and hard to discredit. Blockchain is a public list of records, known as blocks, that are joined through cryptography. Through blockchain, each credential can be a time-stamped record between the student and institution.

Gartner describes an example from Central New Mexico Community College, “…using the Blockcerts framework at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), students can share their digital diplomas with prospective employers via a web link or a JSON file. This enables the recipient to quickly view and verify the record with no additional intervention from CNM. The approach is akin to using a digital wallet to store and manage an individual’s credentials.”

Yet, as with any new technology, the process of digital credentials is hampered by the lack of the limited knowledge employers, academics, and the general public have of them. Further, with digital credential technologies with blockchain higher ed institutions stand to lose money on the fees it charges for credential fees. Either way, credentials must have a common standard to be transparent and trusted. A credential issued by one institution must be recognized by other institutions and employers in our ever-evolving global marketplace. The higher education sector has to understand that in order to be innovative, one must be experimental. Digital credentials are a part of a broader movement toward flexibility and democratization in learning through technology, but that revelation is still unfolding.


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