Category Archives: credentials

Open badges + credentials: the value of the not-credential

Image from page 205 of "Carnegie Institution of Washington publication" (1902-)

The value of things that count
We live in a world dominated by credentials. Credentials carry with them a public perception of rigor, assessment, brand. Credentials are the things that “count.” They’re what we look for on resumes, and what we ask about in conversations; they’re the lodestones and compass points of our social, cultural, personal, and political worlds. Unfortunately, some of our current social problems revolve around the basic binary nature of credentials: either you have them or you don’t. Either you have something that indicates your worth or you don’t.

The value of flexibility
Badges were designed to be agile tools: to operate in liminal spaces not currently acknowledged by other means. They were designed to capture learning whenever and wherever that learning took place, regardless of how or with whom. In short, badges are dynamic: flexible enough to represent formal education symbols (e.g., degrees, licenses) as well as informal social tokens (e.g., affiliations, friendships). Badges can fill the spaces that other learning acknowledgements leave fallow.

The value of credentials
I wholeheartedly believe that credentials (like degrees) can be and will be expressed as badges. Indeed, if there is a platonic ideal of a Connected Credential, it is an Open Badge. Open Badges include all of the quality dimensions defined in the ACE Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials white paper: transparency, modularity, portability, relevance, validity and equity. Perhaps, even more importantly, they’re based on the concept of complete interoperability. Somewhat paradoxically, those are precisely the qualities that allow open badges to act as both credentials and things other than credentials: not-credentials, if you will. Badges let us move into a new world of inclusive “yes, and” types of learning recognition, affiliation, achievement, etc., replacing the restrictive “either/or” world of traditional credentials.

The value of public understanding
We exist in a world that already thinks it understand credentials, so let’s work with that. Let’s use open badges to wedge our way into the cultural conversation so that we can sow the seeds of change and encourage them to blossom. Right now, we still need badges to flourish in the non-regimented space of not-credentials—a world of value that has yet to be fully realized or appreciated—where the sliding scale of social and cultural currency changes depending on context.

The value of freedom
Badges should be allowed to take root anywhere: in the conceptual high steppes where learning growth has been stunted, in the loose, sandy soil of the low learning deserts, in places where learning recognition is thin on the ground, where acknowledgement encourages flourishing, where before there had been only barrenness. That’s where one of the most  important promises of open badges can be fulfilled: bringing free and unencumbered learning recognition into the spaces starving for it. We’ve already seen some promising results in this area. But we endanger further development by calling all badges credentials. With that term we enslave badges to existing understandings and expectations of the current crop of credentials. Expectations that severely limit open badges’—and by default our own—revolutionary possibilities.

The value of possibilities
Of course there will be new forms of credentials that are badges. But those aren’t the types of badges we need to worry about. The lonely, desolate corners where learning acknowledgment has been overlooked and undernourished, that’s where recognition is most needed. Let’s ensure that those places continue to get what they need by allowing them to develop and use whatever type of badge makes the most sense for them, credential or not.

The value of waiting
Let’s not limit the possibilities of the open badges ecosystem by forcing all badges to be credentials—before we’ve seen all the things that badges can become. Let’s be comfortable just a little while longer in our uncomfortableness—in this liminal and dynamic space of credentials and not-credentials. There’s still so much yet to be built, so much yet to happen. Let’s learn to welcome the beauty and value of letting a thousand different types of open badges bloom in their own time, some credentials, some not.

Badges + credentials, another visual take

My last post included a badges and credentials Venn diagram that elicited a fair number of responses, and in turn, triggered a number of my own considerations. An important conclusion: we must at least roughly agree on what open badges are and how they are being used if we’re to have a constructive discussion about the accuracy of a Venn diagram that illustrates open badges and credentials as an incomplete overlap. It’s also worthwhile to reference where they are being used so as to situate the conversation. In short, they are being issued in high schools, out-of-school environments, workforce, colleges and universities, and notably less so in social and civic environments, although there are inspiring efforts concentrated to increase that activity. Even that encompassing swath may not present a complete picture of the spread of open badges.

A version of the phrase attributed to Heraclitus, You can’t step into the same river twice, seems an apt way to describe the open badge ecosystem during the last five years: iterating, testing, and improving. It’s fair to say that the previous Venn diagram visually spotlighted a limited aspect of a much larger conceptual conversation about how and where this new credentialing world is moving—and where it may considering moving. Right now the credentialing world is also part of that swiftly moving river as it struggles to accommodate new members. The great part? We, the open badges community who have been building badge systems over the last half decade, can help to structure and influence the direction.

A constantly growing and evolving ecosystem is difficult to capture in a visual. And yet, there are numerous benefits to distilling things down to a visual representation, not the least of which is improved insight about its parts and a sense of its gestalt. To that end, I’ve prepared another graphic to illustrate the inherent flexibility and dynamic potential of badges, focused on where they might be issued / used / consumed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.09.55 PM

Assertion: An open badge can be designed to represent a small thing, such as a fundamental principle or a single competency (micro level)—and an open badge can also be designed to represent a large thing, like a competency set, or a license, or a degree (macro level). This visual illustrates that badges can be used to represent any credential currently being issued. This may seem like a minor thing to visualize, but given what badges can represent, it’s one that is definitely worth understanding. Why?

Nothing else in the credentialing world operates like open badges.

Badges can slot into a variety of environments and be used in a myriad of ways, and so are the chameleon of the credentialing world. Or maybe they’re the cuttlefish of the credentialing world: able to assume various conceptual shapes and sizes according to their context. Either way, chameleon or cuttlefish, they are unique. For some people this wide ranging flexibility—to grow to the size of a degree and shrink to the size of an essential component—is a feature and for others, it’s a bug. Again, because nothing else has the capacity to be as flexible as this in the current credentialing world.

The last post’s Venn diagram referenced this dynamism in a roundabout way that may not have been readily apparent. But now that this power has been teased out with this discussion and visualization, what are your thoughts, open badges community? Are all badges credentials, regardless of conceptual size, depth of assessment, or amount of criteria? Or are some badges as big as our current understanding of credentials, and some badges as small as elementary principles within a course or experience?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Badges + credentials, a venn diagram

A wonderful and long hoped for event has been transpiring in the credentialing world: badges are being openly discussed, recognized, and included In the conversation. The new forms of credentials that have emerged over the last few years, e.g., badges, nanodegrees and even certificates, are being swept up and embraced by the credentialing club. This evolutionary development is welcome news—and a huge win that clearly indicates the growing public appreciation of badges and the value they carry. I extend my heartfelt congratulations and thanks to all members of the open badges community who have dived in, toyed with, worked on, pushed back, fought over, and exulted in open badges. You’re how we got here.

Now that badges are shifting to become an active member of the credentialing club, new requirements and responsibilities are ramping up. To that end, I am privileged to be able to represent the voices of the open badges community in a variety of discussions and initiatives sensitive to badges as one of the newest forms of credentialing.

As a number of conversations within different initiatives have progressed, a specific need has arisen, and that need is a starting point to orient the conversation—a commonality, if you will. The question being posed across two Lumina Foundation funded initiatives, Connecting Credentials and the Credentials Transparency Initiative is this: What essential aspect or component will allow us to collectively converse about value and meaning across many, if not all forms of credentials?

For all of the conversations that I have been privy to and participated in, the deliberations have homed in on competencies as one of the essential initial components. Let me pause to highlight the word initial and follow up with this caveat. As a member of the open badges community and as a long-term shepherd of the ecosystem, I recognize that for some people this credential / competency component decision can appear to be both a terrific structuring arrangement as well as a hair-raising disruptive concern. Why? Because badges cross many conceptual boundaries. More specifically, badge criteria are issuer defined, created, and designed. That means that badges are not required to express the same things that traditional credentials do, and a number of badge issuers do not want to use competencies as their lodestone.

However, because we need a basis to begin to create a mental model, illustrate concepts, and provide some guideposts to explain how we are shaping a new and more inclusive and representative world of credentialing, this is a fair enough beginning. Think of it as a beginning point of another journey: one that leads into the larger, more rough and tumble world of formal credentials.

As badges shift into a form of currency in the credentialing world, do we gain or lose anything by having a completely overlapping Venn diagram? Or, as I have long asserted, are badges and credentials an incompletely overlapping Venn diagram?

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.23.00 PM

To my mind, the answer is yes to the latter question, and here’s why. Badges, as they were envisioned originally, were created to capture learning whenever and wherever that learning occurs: formal, informal, public, private, group, individual. The overlap on the Venn diagram is sometimes referred to as microcredentials, and actually gives that term greater meaning and sense. Although, the overlap can still just be referred to as badges.

With this in mind, I’m eliciting feedback and encouraging open conversation about badges that are credentials and badges that are not credentials. What are your thoughts? Should all badges be considered credentials, or, as illustrated in the Venn diagram above, should we leave the door open to badges that fall outside of the requirements of credentials?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, open badges community!

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com


Credentials: not finished changing

Image from page 176 of "The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon" (1848)

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” —Benjamin Franklin

From the gold standard to the floating exchange rate
The world of credentialing is evolving. Degrees have long been considered the basic unit of educational currency. But it appears that we’re experiencing an accelerating shift away from the gold standard of degrees and toward a more inclusive credentialing world that embraces badges, microcredentials and nanodegrees and is based on a market-driven floating exchange rate.

For the last decade we’ve lived through increasing degree inflation, watching jobs that previously required only a high school diploma become jobs that require not just an Associate’s degree but a Bachelor’s degree. In extreme forms of degree inflation some of those same jobs now require a Master’s degree or a Doctorate, or even post-doctoral work. What has happened to make this necessary? Have jobs changed that much in the intervening years? Is the world exponentially more complex? Could it be the degree itself causing these problems? My response to that last question is yes.

if u cn rd ths…
Our dependence on degrees as the primary means by which we collectively judge what someone knows and can do has effectively turned degrees into social and cultural shorthand. An unfortunate and increasingly inaccurate shorthand. An interpretive shorthand that attempts to speak to an individual’s qualifications well beyond what formal education currently provides, and one that gives informational short shrift to all stakeholders, perhaps most disappointingly, to the learners themselves. Why must the degree be so opaque? What does a transcript tell the student of their accomplishments other than the grades they received in a prescribed pathway? How does a course grade correlate to an amorphous future job? Is an A equal to a Job Grade Level V review?

Coke vs. Pepsi (or the problem with big educational brands)
Brand recognition should not be the calling card that gets most people in the workplace or college door. But it is. Ultimately, that’s primarily what our credentialing system has reified: brand. And not the brand value of the exiting learner—no, that would most likely be an incredibly useful metric. Instead the shorthand / reification focuses on the brand of the credential-issuing institution. Thankfully we’ve begun to see a questioning of this confused metric from both industry (EY + Penguin Random House as noted in Cracking the Credentialing Club) and through calls for research into college and university success rates in the somewhat de-fanged College Scorecard. These credential tremors are indicative of a larger and maybe-not-impending-but-already-happening tectonic shift occurring in education, learning, credentialing, and assessment.

Evolve or Die
I suggest that there is an implicit choice currently available to the credentialing world: evolve or die. You’ll note that this is the same choice that confronts every living thing and it affects both the small no-name brand and the very large, multinational brand. Academic and business systems are living things and must evolve in order to stay useful and relevant. The popular and useful thing of yesteryear may fade quickly into obscurity—and you don’t want to be the flightless bird in this story.

Consequently, we need to ask what we think we’re expressing when we hand out degrees and certificates. What is missing? What opportunities do new credentials like open badges offer? What are we hoping to effect and why? These questions must always acknowledge that context and audience are essential components of any answer. Because the credentialing environment is not composed solely of monolithic, faceless institutions struggling to survive, but rather thoughtful, circumspect individuals making hard choices about the potential, cost, and value of credentials in their own personal evolution.

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

Cracking the credentialing club

The Open Badges movement has grown and evolved in sometimes tumultuous ways over the last five years. And we’re beginning to see ideological light in places where previously there was only questioning shadow. For example, there have been inklings in the professional world that despite—or perhaps because of—creeping degree inflation, the long-term infatuation with the degree may be fading. Indeed, some rather large employers, like Penguin Random House and Ernst & Young (EY), are venturing into relatively unknown territory by dispensing with degree requirements altogether. While it might seem disorienting, this is a good thing for both the learner and for the traditional degree granting institution.

The Credentialing Club
Too much has been asked of degrees as representational communication objects. Our assumptions about them have grown to be enormous and consequently, virtually impossible to fill. Additionally, the degree granting system has perpetuated the degree-granting system: discussions about any learning experience after high school are typically had by people who have attended higher ed—and more than likely possess an advanced degree. In a feedback loop such as this, how can we guarantee that new ideas will be appreciated and promoted?

While graduates of four year degree programs are the majority in any discussion about post-secondary education, a little less than half of the individuals who pursue some form of education after high school attend community colleges or technical schools, among other educational environments. The power, impact, and usefulness of these educational opportunities should not be underestimated. And here’s a surprise: that 44% percent also includes people with higher ed degrees. It seems that a healthy minority of folks who attend some learning institution after high school go to a community college at one time or another. Yet somehow when we talk about post-secondary education, our conversation defaults to four year colleges and universities. This must stop.

And stop it shall, particularly as our society moves toward embracing different forms of credentials. On a related note, I’ve ceased using the term alternative credentials in my discussions about these new initiatives. Why? Because that word introduces an adversarial quality to the conversation. It suggests that the new forms of credentialing might be alien or less dependable or less robust or less valuable than a degree. Horsefeathers!

I’ll take time in another essay to distinguish among the new credentialing forms (there are more similarities than differences) but for a second, let’s just consider some of these new representational possibilities:

  • online degrees
  • course certificates
  • badges
  • microcredentials
  • nanodegrees

And the best part? They’ve been developed already and they’re here, operating in the real world, right now. The credentialing club is about to start accepting new members.

Interrogating the new world of credentialing
From the consumption perspective, this impressive burgeoning might indicate that right now and for the foreseeable future, there are too many forms of credentials. On the one hand, isn’t that wonderful? It means that many more people have many more ways to represent their abilities, competencies, experiences, and skills. On the other hand, it means that potential consumers of those credentials now have to sift through hundreds and thousands of different permutations of learning representations. If we’re concerned that degrees have become an unfortunate elision of abilities, a surfeit of new credentials can prove equally problematic. Happily, there are initiatives (more on these in future posts) looking at the many and varied aspects of what constitutes a good credential—and not just from the credential issuer standpoint, but also from the other stakeholders in this process, e.g., the credential earner and the credential consumer.

Educational map ≠ learning territory
This discussion brings to mind Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus hypothesis: the massive collective power released by shifting from a social construct based on consumption to one based on creation. To me, the credentialing boom is just one of the reverberating results of the big bang of the internet. The web’s continuing expansion seems to indicate that our current system just isn’t broad enough or powerful enough to adequately address the experiential, social, professional, and personal representation requirements that it has engendered. A quick test: for those of you who hold a degree, would you feel comfortable saying that it accurately represents all of your capabilities? And for those of you who hold multiple degrees, why wasn’t the first one enough?

These challenging questions help us to understand that the educational map is not the learning territory—that our abilities are so much broader and more nuanced than anything a degree imparts or a transcript indicates. We’re capable of so much more than what any one credential says we are. And that’s where badges, microcredentials, nanodegrees, etc. come in.

I’m glad that the credentialing club is beginning to accept new members. It’s about time.

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com