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Report Outlines How Alternative Digital Credentials Will Transform Higher Ed

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An international working group led by two faculty members from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Continuing Education unit sees alternative digital credentials as a transformational force in higher education. While a new report from the group is intended specifically for institutions that are members of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, the guidance would be relevant for any college or university considering adoption of this form of credentialing.

According to "The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials," ADCs, as they're called, will "significantly transform the relationship between ICDE member institutions and their students — and ultimately between higher education and society." That will happen in several ways, by:

  • Countering the "relevance of the traditional university transcript";
  • Introducing a new format for evaluating applied learning;
  • Unbundling the package of learning attainment, verification and documentation traditionally delivered by traditional schools and allowing non-higher education organizations to participate in credentialing; and
  • Making students "the owners" of their learning credentials rather than the institutions, which, up until now, have been in charge of disseminating certifications.

An ADC is defined in the report as anything other than what schools already issue (specifically transcripts), which is maintained using digital technology and designates the learning of a specific competency.

Although the authors emphasized that ADCs don't call into question the value of a degree, they also stated that "treatment" of that specific challenge "is beyond the scope" of the report. So why would a university adopt something that might not be in its best interest? Among the reasons cited: ADCs are already "widely" offered; the traditional transcript doesn't connect a student's capabilities with an employer's specific needs, whereas ADC-like lists of competencies are more discoverable in digital searches and employers are slowly beginning to use ADCs in hiring decisions; more attention is being paid to learning outcomes and what students can do after they graduate; and young people are seeking new sources for shorter and more relevant learning.

The working group has taken the stance that schools that choose to wait in implementing ADCs will "fall behind," and those that embrace them now could gain "a highly functional competitive advantage." Among the list of recommendations for guiding institutions in the implementation of ADCs:

  • Work with third-party companies to supply the software and support services (several of which are listed in an attachment that documents cases of schools experimenting with ADCs), and then monitor and assess the issuance and use of the credentials;
  • Stay on top of blockchain developments, since this could very well become "the foundation of the ADC movement" as it matures; and
  • Figure out "what and what not to badge." For example, the report suggested that schools restrict themselves to competency-based criteria for ADCs rather than certifying learning accomplishments, even though "the pressure to include learning competency will be intense." What's the difference? According to the report, competencies are "relevant to the workforce" and have specific steps and assessments required to achieve them, whereas learning accomplishments are often "unevaluated" and might require "mere completing of a series of tasks or attendance at events."

"ADCs fill an important gap between learning and work-relevant skill verification. The adoption of an ADC system will allow universities to achieve greater alignment with the demands of both students and local economies, making universities more accountable for what they produce," said Gary Matkin, head of the working group and UCI's dean of continuing education and vice provost of Career Pathways, in a statement. "Young adults are demanding shorter, relevant education that they can put to immediate use. Industry hiring practices will increasingly depend on digital searches for job candidates and ADCs will make those competencies easier to discover."

The report is openly available on the ICDE website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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