Thoughts on the recent Digital Credentials Summit

Thor Anderson
7 March 2018

The Digital Credentials summit hosted by the IMS Global Learning Consortium in Scottsdale, Arizona was well worth attending this year. It is clear the interest surrounding competency-based education, digital badges, and stackable credentials is increasing rapidly. There are also some new tools out there and talk of some new specification work. Here are some of my thoughts on what I think were the most interesting developments from the summit.

Southern New Hampshire University is always involved in cutting-edge online learning. Their College for America programs are competency-based and stackable. One interesting point was their own research on the biggest growth potential in training employers wanted was in "software developers". They don't yet have a program to produce those types of skilled workers, but I bet it won't take long before they develop one.

Another interesting takeaway from SNHU is that they have been investigating the use of blockchain technology tied to educational credentials. Just in case you've missed all that Bitcoin hype, blockchain technology is like a digital ledger sheet that can track basically any type of transaction - and the record of those transactions is incorruptible and not controlled by any single entity. Pretty powerful stuff and the use of blockchain for credentials just makes sense to me. Definintely something to keep an eye on.

My favorite presentation of the entire summit was by Ryan Craig, from University Ventures. I could have spent the entire day getting his thoughts on the disruption occuring in higher education. He covered a ton of material because he is getting ready to publish his new book "A new U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College". Previously he wrote "College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education" so you can see he is big into the competency-based education shift.

Here are some of the highlight points from his talk:

  • 90% of those enrolled in college admit their purpose is to get a good job.
  • Many young people have "employment anxiety" because it is common for them to "just focus on school" rather than seek early employment opportunities.
  • The Career Services department serves as a very poor interface between the college and employers. (my own experience certainly backs up that claim!)
  • The mechanics of hiring have changed. Practically every job is posted online making it easy to apply.
  • Big companies use applicant tracking systems and keyword filtering, so "easy to apply" does not neccesarily mean easy to get an interview.
  • Because technical skills have proliferated, companies respond with degree inflation, experience inflation, or leave their position unfilled. Currently, there are about 6 million unfilled jobs in this country.
  • Current pay-up-front training bootcamps may be replaced by "income sharing" programs where graduates only pay once they have a job.
  • We are likely to see more staffing -> placement -> education -> employment style pathways in the future.
  • Post-secondary education should not be purchased "all at once", but more like a lifetime "software as a service" model. Buy what you need when you need it.
And here is my favorite quote from his presentation regarding the primacy of lifelong skill development:

"Cognitive skill development done in the context in which it will be applied is less likely to be forgotten".

As I hope you can see, it was a very interesting presentation. And I just barely scratched the surface of the material Craig presented, so be sure to grab his book when it comes out soon.

Another very interesting presentation was from Concentric Sky. They have been doing great work on Open Badges since badges have been a thing. They provide the awesome Badgr validator1 and have just recently updated all of their work to Open Badges 2.0. They have been working with the Education Design Lab on something called "Open Pathways". They have also been working out a way to globally search all publically posted open badges and even rank them. This is definitely a company to be aware of regarding competencies, badges, and credentials - and the pathways between them all.

IBM has been on fire with digital badges the past few years. They now have a collaboration going with Northeastern University where IBM has mapped their badges to 54 graduate degrees and 17 certificates! One of the IBM badges maps to 10 credit hours in a particular Northeastern graduate program that could save a student around $6,000 in tuition. What a great example of a university recognizing the value of learning that has happened on-the-job and awarding credit for it. Remarkably, IBM has issued over 1,000 badges so far and I'm sure there are many more to come!

I haven't even mentioned progress on things like the Extended Transcript standard or the Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange (CASE). Those will have to wait for another time.

In summary, the Digital Credentials Summit was very valuable this year. It was much heavier on demonstrable tools and products than any previous meetings on these topics that I have attended. The summit was a great reminder of the huge amount of potential to improve teaching and learning through smart use of emerging technologies. And the fact that all of the people there are committed to working through collaborative IMS standards groups was also very reassuring.