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Where next for digital credentials?

Discovery on the potential for increasing use of digital credentials in UK HE and FE

Alongside increasing levels of automation and the push for a zero-carbon economy, Covid-19 is contributing to structural changes in the way people live and work (i). The calls for a flexible workforce that can adapt to the new opportunities and challenges that arise in an increasingly digital economy have never been louder (ii). One way to achieve this is to adopt a model of learning, upskilling and retraining throughout our lives and careers. Learning in this skills-led way may be delivered in smaller chunks compared with traditional long-course degrees. There is a huge opportunity for UK HE and FE to diversify its offer to address skills-led learning, and not let other providers take potential students away.

Organisations like Microsoft and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are already delivering modular learning accredited with digital badges to upskill staff and customers of their products and services. Learning platforms like UdemySkillshareUdacity and others focus on providing skills that employers say they find desirable. UK HE and FE institutions have a head start in terms of being recognised in this space, which could be used to their advantage for attracting and retaining new shorter-term learners.

Potential in UK HE and FE

It is against a commercial backdrop that there is potential for HE and FE institutions to offer accredited modular learning. Learners could use this offer to address specific skills that they want or need to succeed in their personal or professional lives. Opportunities to access learning and training resulting in digital credentials could allow organisations to close skills gaps through targeted development and help learners who want to learn flexibly. This new offering would not need to conflict with the existing core offer of long-course degrees and qualifications.

However, the challenge remains how to easily, consistently, and securely accredit learners participating in modular learning. Credentials should also be stackable. Stacks can be vertical, indicating progressively deeper knowledge or skill e.g. Basic Woodworking, Intermediate Woodworking, Advanced Woodworking. Alternatively, stacks can be horizontal, indicating knowledge about a wider subject area e.g. Cloud Technologies. The stacking of credentials offers learners a variety of pathways which link related skills that are coherent to employers.

Digital credentials are not a new concept. One of the most recognisable are “Open Badges”, which have been awarded since 2012 (iii). Open Badges have most commonly been used to award verifiable credit to learners who have achieved or acquired a specific skill. If provided with an easy-to-use digital credentialing platform that offers the consistent standards required, institutions will be empowered to offer flexible learning opportunities for any number of new and existing use cases. Some examples include continuing professional development (CPD) for staff, employability skills, practical skills, and extracurricular activities.

What we have done

Although our initial focus was on the use of Open Badges to accredit short courses and skills, we soon widened our scope to look at using digital credentials for all types of learning in the UK.

A big part of our research into digital credentialing was reviewing the work that SURF (Netherlands) have carried out. They have developed a digital badging platform called edubadges for use in education, with extra features to suit the Dutch tertiary education sector. The platform was launched in the Netherlands in October 2020. We evaluated edubadges against commercial offers from BadgrCredly, and Open Badge Factory, and can see its potential for learning providers in the UK. Their development roadmap includes many of the features that would be required to use the platform in the UK.

We also talked to employers to get their perspectives on how they would assess applicants presenting digital credentials alongside traditional qualifications on CVs. We wanted to understand whether it would help or hinder their hiring processes and found that there is currently little recognition of digital credentials.

We interviewed representatives of UK HE and FE institutions to understand how they could use a digital credentials platform to deliver learning more flexibly. We collected a vast array of use cases as a result of these interviews.

We have also joined a QAA Scotland Collaborative Cluster project, which is looking at the use of microcredentials in building resilient learning communities. Microcredentials are one of the main use cases that digital credentials are currently used for, so it will be interesting to see what insights come out of the cluster in mid-2021.

Our initial findings

One of the first things we noticed after desk research and our early interviews was the lack of consistency in terminology. Terms like “digital badges” and “open badges” are often used interchangeably or used to refer to digital credentials more generally. For clarity, we agreed on working definitions and used them throughout our project:

  • Digital credentials are digital versions of any qualification (e.g. a university degree or a college course) that can come in many forms.
  • Digital badges are a type of digital credential typically used by any organisation to recognise an achievement or skill.

Digital badges can range from a simple pictorial representation of an achievement to an Open Badge which is a specialised type of digital badge containing metadata. This metadata can include who the badge earner is, its criteria, evidence for learning, and which organisation has awarded/endorsed it. Using the IMS Open Badges standard allows badges to be validated.

Many UK HE and FE institutions have been running small-scale experiments using a variety of Open Badges vendors over the past few years. This has led to a fragmented landscape of digital credentialing in UK education, with an absence of standards contributing to a lack of credibility among key stakeholder groups:

  • Employers told us that they may find it difficult to assess applicants who present badges. One of the main reasons is that there is no way to easily compare badges issued by different institutions and organisations. For example, there are no standardised ways of representing how much time a badge earner has put in to achieve a badge, what the criteria for earning the badge are, and how badge earners evidence their achievement or skill.
  • Without a noticeable impact on employability, students are similarly unclear on the value of earning badges. This begs the question of why institutions would invest time and effort into setting up badging programs.

However, we did find some evidence of demand from employers (including the Jisc Talent team), who are looking for ways of identifying verifiable skills of applicants. This is particularly the case for school leavers and early careers applicants, as there can be few other differentiators at this stage.

Finally, it is likely that the use of a unique learner ID will increase in importance as flexible learning opportunities increase. In the same way that ORCiD has proven successful at linking publications and other professional information to an individual researcher for proving and validating their body of work, so a unique individual education number for life would offer the prospect of a secure online record of recognised training that you can access anytime and anywhere.

What’s next

Over the coming months we will continue our involvement in the Scottish QAA Collaborative Cluster project, which we hope will lead to some interesting insights and opportunities. We are going to continue to investigate internal and external funding options that may be available to us to progress this work further. We will also work with internal product teams at Jisc to make sure that whatever we develop aligns with their roadmaps and objectives.

If you’re interested in hearing more about what we’ve been doing or want to get involved in any way, then get in touch and we’d be happy to talk to you at innovation@jisc.ac.uk.

Authors:

Sam Thornton (Product Lead)

Caroline Ingram (Product Lead)

i https://www.gartner.com/ngw/globalassets/en/human-resources/documents/trends/gartner-future-of-work-trends-post-covid-19.pdf

ii https://www.forbes.com/sites/neerajain/2020/09/30/3-things-to-know-about-the-future-of-work-and-automation/?sh=5661a2d74a15

iii https://openbadges.org/about/history

By Sam Thornton

Product Lead, Edtech & Co-Design

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