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.
Carla Casilli, badge system design expert extraordinaire, former colleague, and one of the authors of the report I shared my notes on yesterday, has recently been writing about the nature of badges and credentials. In her most recent post she asks the community:
Are all badges credentials, regardless of conceptual size, depth of assessment, or amount of criteria?
Last year I wrote for DML Central entitled Taking Another Look At The Digital Credentials Landscape. In it, I created a visual representation of how I, and others I’d consulted through my work with City & Guilds, saw the current digital credentialing landscape. As you can see from the image below, we situated everything within a meta-level circle of ‘credentials’.
What I (spectacularly) failed to do in that post was to define what I meant by ‘credential’. I assumed that everyone was using the term in the same way as I (and I assume most Europeans do). The Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials report from the American Council on Education uses the Lumina Foundation’s definition of a credential as:
A documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard. Credential in this context is
an umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and professional/industry certifications.
While this is not a bad definition, it is rather limiting; I think it’s overly-focused on traditional education. The word ‘credential’ comes from the Latin ‘credentia’ via the English word ‘credence’. To give credence to something is to ascribe validity, often via a recommendation; it is a state of belief in something as being true. Credential letters in the Middle Ages were handed from a person unknown to the recipient from someone known to the recipient (if only by reputation). As a result, the recipient would be more likely to see the person in front of them as ‘credible’. It was credibility by association.
The meanings and definitions of words change over time, of course, but I think that the second half of the Lumina Foundation’s definition, the part that talks of ‘credential’ as an ‘umbrella term’ is key. I’d just reject the first half where it talks about ‘responsible and authorised’ bodies and a ‘given standard’.
This ‘umbrella term’ approach to defining ‘credentials’ also meshes with the definitions from sources that I find reasonably convincing:
- “A qualification, achievement, quality, or aspect of a person’s background, especially when used to indicate their suitability for something” (Oxford English Dictionary)
- “A credential is an attestation of qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third party with a relevant or de facto authority or assumed competence to do so.” (Wikipedia)
- “The abilities and experience that make someone suitable for a particular job or activity, or proof of someone’s abilities and experience.” (Cambridge Dictionaries)
- “Personal qualities, achievements, or experiences that make someone suitable for something.” (Macmillan Dictionary)
- “Warranting credit or confidence — used chiefly in the phrase credential letters.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
I think Carla and I are arguing for the same position from two different vantage points. For example, after sharing a diagram showing two circles overlapping (but not completely) she states:
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.
I definitely agree with that original vision for badges. I just can’t see a situation where a badge wouldn’t also count as a credential — even if that wasn’t the original intention .
As both the image from my DML Central post, and the image in Carla’s subsequent post demonstrates, it’s nearly impossible to do justice to the complexity of the credentials landscape in just two dimensions. Carla says:
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.
I agree: if represented in three dimensions, badges would be orthoganal to the current credentialing system. They’re certainly acting at some kind of different ‘layer’. But, I would argue, if we’re forced to represent them in two dimensions, they appear to be wholly contained with the circle we currently call ‘credentials’.
What badges don’t have to be, even if they’re wholly contained within the ‘credential’ circle, is traditional. They can recognise all kinds of knowledge, skills, and behaviours — as well as all kinds of things we haven’t even thought of yet!
Image CC BY-SA Andrew Moore
I hope this was useful for those experienced in the world of Open Badges, and those who are new to the ecosystem. If you’re one of the latter, you may find the Open Badges 101 course helpful.
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.
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.
I’m not in the habit of doing this, and I’m not one of the authors, but this is an important, useful report related to Open Badges which many people may never get around to reading. The report can be downloaded for free from the Lumina Foundation’s website, and I’ve also included a link to a backup at the Internet Archive in case that site is ever down:
Download: Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials (backup)
The first thing to say is that this report speaks into a specific context: Higher Education in the USA. Despite this, I think there’s much to glean for international audiences, and those outside of the university system. There are some areas in which I disagree with the authors (e.g. the definition of a ‘credential’, around the role of endorsement, and the need to prop up the existing system) but I’ll save that for another time. Overall, the report is excellent.
What follows is lengthy quotations from the paper, divided into the sections the authors themselves use. I’ve tried to avoid any sections specifically tied to the American education system. I’ve added my own where necessary by means of introduction and connection to help you understand the flow of the paper.
The authors identify problems around the granularisation of credentials, as well as the disintermediation of educational institutions:
[T]he diversity of credentials is not always meeting the needs of students, educational institutions, and employers, and unfortunately the proliferation of credentials is causing confusion. There is a lack of shared understanding about what makes credentials valuable, how that value varies across different types of credentials for different stakeholders, what constitutes quality, and how credentials are connected to each other and to opportunities for the people who have earned them.
It’s worth noting that the work leading to the paper was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:
It provides context for higher education decision makers by describing the problems caused by fractured credentialing systems, articulating quality dimensions that help to address these problems, and visualizing how institutions can improve their credentials to increase their value while meeting the
needs of diverse stakeholders.
Competency-based education is all the rage in the US at the moment, although not everyone agrees with the approach:
This paper is closely related to another resource from the ACE Center for Education Attainment and Innovation, Communicating the Value of Competencies (Everhart, Bushway, and Schejbal 2016), which focuses on how to improve communication of the value of competencies among educational institutions, students, and employers. These papers are related because connected credentials are premised on two foundational concepts: that the competencies a credential represents should be clearly defined, and that these competencies can carry independent value, including the possibility of individual competencies
having currency value as very granular credentials. The competencies paper dovetails with this paper in that understanding and improving the value of connected credentials is directly applicable to communicating the value of competencies (and vice versa). Therefore, improving the value of competencies
is a targeted set of approaches in the broader context of improving the value of credentials. Definitions, concepts, and the dimensions of quality are shared across these two papers, with different focuses.
There are frustrations in the current landscape shared by earners, issuers, and consumers of credentials:
Today, stakeholders experience numerous critical problems:
- Students do not always have reliable ways to compare credentials with regard to what they include, their market value, their transferability, their relationship to other credentials, and other important factors.
- Educational institutions need well-defined information about the value of their credentials for employment, career advancement, civic engagement, and other desired outcomes in order to attract students
and guide them to successful credential attainment.
- Employers have difficulty understanding the competencies potential employees may or may not have mastered through the credentials they have earned.
There are, however, ways to deal with these issues:
Many organizations are already contributing to initiatives to support connected
- Defining common language to profile the types and levels of knowledge and skills credentials represent, enabling explicit description of the relationship between one credential and other credentials
- Using clearly defined descriptors to characterize credentials with regard to market value, transfer value, assessment rigor, third-party approval status, and more, empowering institutions to publicize the
characteristics of their credentials
- Providing students with clear milestones based on modular components of credentials and relationships among credentials, helping them to understand and document their progress over time along career pathways
The best way to connect credentials is not in some top-down ways, but through more grassroots approaches:
A top-down or “authoritative requirements” approach is not desirable, and in fact, probably would not work, given the diversity of credentialing. Approaches to quality connected credentials more
appropriately emerge from within communities of practice. The framing premise of this paper is that higher education leaders and decision makers are well-positioned to contribute to national initiatives already underway and improve their own credentials in ways that are appropriate for their institutions and communities
What Are Credentials?
The authors use the following definition of a ‘credential’:
“A documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard. Credential in this context is an umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and professional/industry certifications” (Lumina Foundation 2015a, 11).
They also supply a (long) definition what they mean by ‘badges’:
Badges use digital technologies to represent learning achievements; however, not all digital badges are open badges, in that not all badges use open standards that support interoperability and connections among systems and contexts. In this paper, “badge” refers to “open badges” and therefore includes technical and conceptual frameworks for openness, transparency, and interoperability (for more context on open badges, see Derryberry, Everhart, and Knight 2016). “Badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience” (Casilli and Knight 2012, 1) and can be created and awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals. Badges are flexible with regard to how issuers create them, define their use, and develop their criteria (which are publicly
viewable, embedded in the badge, and verifiable). Therefore badges can be used in numerous ways to meet a community’s needs, to represent granular competencies as well as deeply linked, rich experiences and complex learning. Badges are being used in conjunction with and/or as modular components of traditional credentials such as degrees. In some cases, especially when badges link to evidence, they are being used as representations of credentials. Badges can expire or be revoked, making them useful for credentials that are not continuously valid. Given their flexibility, badges bridge traditional, accredited credentials, professional and industry-recognized credentials, and nontraditional, experimental credentials.
Importantly, the authors explain that their approach is separate from the (controversial) approach of ‘competency based education’:
Note that a focus on the value of competencies is not the same as “competency-based education,” that is, the restructuring of academic programs to focus on mastery of competencies rather than focusing on time. References to competencies in this paper are relevant for knowledge and skills in all types of credentials and academic programs.
The authors also give a definition of ‘connected credentials’ which seems to be a Lumina Foundation shorthand for an emergent taxonomy of badges:
In the context of this paper, “connected credentials” refers broadly to multiple aspects of connectedness, including connections and relationships among credentials, connections to purpose and value in multiple contexts, and connections to opportunities for credential earners.
Collective Impact for Connecting Credentials
There are many different types of credentials, serving different purposes, and issued by different kinds of organisations. This is confusing for people:
In the face of… many variations, stakeholders struggle to make sense of how credentials are related to each other. This is a particularly poignant struggle for those who seek to earn credentials, since they have few guides or coordinated information to help them make decisions and appropriate investments.
The authors outline the particular problems in the US, which I think are more widely applicable:
The Connecting Credentials Initiative’s Making the Case paper provides a clear overview of the situation, outlining the contextual factors that put pressure on our credentialing ecosystem (Lumina Foundation 2015b, 1–4):
- The diverse range of students pursuing postsecondary education, including approximately 85 percent post-traditional students (Soares 2013, 6)
- The mismatch between what employers need and job seekers’ capabilities
- Lack of clear credential pathways to help students understand and reach their goals
- The proliferation of education and training providers, with most people using multiple providers
- Lack of transparency and consistency in quality assurance for credentials
The report goes on to reference many different aspects of the Connecting Credentials initiative, including their Beta Credentials Framework, which “uses competencies as common reference points to help users understand and compare the levels of knowledge and skills that underlie all credentials” — although this is, of course, focused on the American system.
The authors introduce some useful nomenclature for describing the differing roles of stakeholders in the ecosystem:
For the purposes of these descriptions, the complexity of participants in credentialing ecosystems has been simplified to focus on four types of stakeholders:
- Credential earners
- Credential issuers
- Credential consumers
- Credential endorsers
Earners are “the people who attain credentials”. They have a number of problems around comparing credentials, signaling their competencies, credentials expiring, a lack of modularity and ‘stackability’ in credentials, ‘dead ends’, a lack of on-ramps, socio-economic issues, issues around transparency, and a lack of employer/industry understanding of the credentials they have earned.
Issuers are “organizations that award credentials to earners”. Their problems are around the ‘market value’ of their credentials, how credentials stack together, collaboration with other issuers, and the lack of common descriptors for popular credentials.
Consumers are “those who use credentials to make judgments and decisions about the qualifications and competencies of earners for specific purposes”. Their problems include understanding what the credential represents, and the burden of ensuring employees have the skills to go with the knowledge they earned while earning a credential.
Endorsers have “traditionally… been accrediting bodies or other independent third parties that vouch for the institution or organization and the quality and validity of its credentials. [They] are often also the ones who authorize issuers to award specific credentials. In the case of certifications and licenses, these authorizing entities can be licensure boards, state agencies, or industry organizations.” Endorsers’ problems are around determining the value of credentials, a lack of transparency and clear frameworks, and the paucity of information on which to base their endorsements.
Dimensions of Quality for Connected Credentials
This is the ‘meat’ of the report, in which the authors outline six dimensions for quality, ‘connected’ credentials:
[The dimensions] are not all-encompassing, but they provide useful ways of discussing credentials and how they can be improved, both generally and in the analysis of specific credentials.
The dimensions overlap and also mutually reinforce each other. For example, modularity supports portability by making it easier to move credentials from one context to another; transparency supports relevance, by making it easier for consumers to understand what a credential includes and therefore how it is relevant for their purposes.
The authors outline what they mean by each of the six dimensions in bullet point format. To avoid making this long post even longer, I will simply quote the summary at the end of each dimension.
Transparency supports connectedness by making credentials easier to understand and compare, facilitating the definition and implementation of relationships among credentials. Transparency also supports connections to opportunities by helping all stakeholders understand how credentials are valuable.
Modularity supports connectedness by making credentials more componentized and less monolithic, leading to more connection points and possible relationships among credentials. Modularity also helps students understand the components within credentials and how they connect to each other and to larger goals such as socioeconomic mobility and lifelong learning.
Portability supports connectedness by making credentials more applicable in multiple contexts, connecting to multiple purposes and opportunities. Portability also facilitates connections among different types of credentials in different environments.
Relevance supports connectedness by illuminating the applicability and purposes of credentials for specific stakeholders in their own contexts, thereby connecting to opportunities in those contexts. Relevance also connects and amplifies different types of value by helping stakeholders understand the
network of verification, documentation, evidence, and social interpretation supporting the credential.
Validity supports connectedness by illuminating the broad frameworks of meaning and value that connect the credential to opportunities. Validity provides a shared understanding and trust of how the credential is defined, including the evidence and quality assurance structures that are necessary to implement well-defined relationships among credentials.
Equity as a dimension of quality credentials helps people overcome their disadvantages and connect to opportunities. Equity provides a network of flexible access points and supports that connect students to credential attainment and the benefits of lifelong learning.
Describing the Current State of Credential Types
This section applies the six dimensions of quality as defined by the authors to different types of credentials, including badges. They find that badges pass all of the tests, with the only problems being (unsurprisingly, given the nature of the report) around the lack of a common language/framework for connecting them together.
Challenge Questions for Analyzing Credentials and Visualizing Potential Futures
The final section before the report’s conclusion is a series of questions under the six quality headings that issuers can ask of their credentials. For example:
Are the competencies (knowledge and specialized skills, personal skills, and social skills) represented by this credential clearly defined?
What value does this credential carry for specific stakeholders that you identify as important? How do you know what these stakeholders value? Are they involved in your credential improvement
These are extremely useful questions for any issuer of credentials to consider.
Conclusion: Call to Action
The authors list various ways that those reading the report who are in US Higher Education can get involved. These include forming working groups, writing papers and book chapters, hosting workshops, and reading other papers by Connecting Credentials.
[A] willingness to ask and seek answers to these questions is an essential first step in breaking down the credentialing silos that sometimes impede student progress and cause our systems to be less effective and beneficial than they could be.
We encourage you to complete the arc of your journey: Identify your credentialing ecosystem stakeholders, articulate the problems they encounter when credentials are not connected, use the challenge questions to analyze and discuss the current state of your specific credentials with regard to the quality dimensions, and then establish a realistic plan and timeline for developing more valuable, robust, and connected credentials that reflect your new approach.
I’d recommend reading the report in full here and, more importantly, think about how you can apply the findings no matter what your context.
For more on Open Badges and how to get started with them, check out Open Badges 101, a free, open community course Bryan Mathers and I put together.
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?
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