From Google career certificates to online academies to LinkedIn badges, 21st-century higher education is striving towards coherence. Prospective Bachelor's students increasingly balk at the debt associated with the degree, yet it remains the most credible way to prove employability. Legions of new certifications and vocational programs clutter the higher education ecosystem, yet lack accreditation.
Four-year institutions can take this time of disruption as an opportunity. Containerized skills and their digital proof points, verifiable credentials, are already forming a new kind of higher education, one that gives students more choice and employers more insight. Because they wield educational credibility, colleges and universities can transform from digital laggards to the architects of tomorrow's workplace skills.
According to a recent UNESCO report, advancing digitization is changing the economy in fundamental ways, leading to a need for "new credentialing methods and systems that can capture, recognize and validate a broader range of learning outcomes."
Our connected economy blurs the lines between one type of industry and the next, McKinsey points out. It enabled clusters of 'digitally native' businesses and new types of jobs. Suddenly a day trader could also be a Lyft driver, or a mobile app designer could also run an online affiliate business on the side. Amazon can run a pharmacy; Google can sell a 'replacement' university.
One of the great powers of Google--and any big tech company, for that matter--is its ability to build new lines of business from online data. The most successful tech companies maximize the opportunities of Web 2.0, the 'social web' that enables multi-device interoperability and unlimited sharing. Four-year institutions also thrive on interconnected networks of people, but have yet to connect the technological infrastructure to support the options required in the mid-21st century.
As the economy continues to digitize, expectations of digital behavior also increase, placing laggard institutions at risk of losing credibility. Most Americans still consider the Bachelor's degree the bare minimum for a lifetime of stable wages. Yet prospective students balk at record student debt. Construction, skilled nursing, cybersecurity and other growing technical industries can't find enough employees to fill demand.
New programs proliferate to fill the gap. Community college and for-profit vocational programs have increased in number over the past 20 years. Coding bootcamps abound. States such as Colorado offer multimillion dollar grants to subsidize education. A few four-year colleges advertise a hybrid type of program called the upside-down degree, which prioritizes trade skills before general education.
Microcredentials are also having their moment. EdX, founded by MIT and Harvard, offers a global collection of free, accredited online courses, which can be used to attain 'MicroBachelor' and 'MicroMaster' designations, along with more traditional certificates and degrees. Coursera and Udacity boast options including the 'nanodegree.' Digital badges such as LinkedIn badges and IBM Badges also signify the attainment of skills. Stack enough badges together and you attain a bigger credential. Badges are also machine readable, meaning that each student earns a repository of skills that can be transferred between jobs and schools.
Like so many other industries before it, higher education is reckoning with the consequences of accelerated digitization. Colleges' and universities' biggest advantage is accreditation, and the credibility that comes with it.
Employers aren't versed in the major differences between the nanodegree, MicroBachelor's, stackable badges and other new kinds of vocational certificates. There is no standard way to evaluate credentials or assure quality.
Four-year institutions have an opportunity not only to expand their own offerings to meet the needs of the digital generation of students, but to inform a new set of standards that employers understand. Just as four-year institutions led the way in 20th century education, they can also lead the way in the 21st, by parsing skills into a coherent, transferable and stackable body of education.
"Our talent marketplace is fragmented, preventing an individual's record of learning from being transferable data." This is the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation's premise for offering $900,000 in grants towards not only digitizing the diploma, but adding greater flexibility to the ways in which students showcase evidence of their skills.
This is the crux of where the four-year degree is headed, and it is enabled by a specific kind of technology: the verifiable credential. Basically a cryptographic digital version of the college diploma and transcript (and, in daily life, the driver's license, social security card and so on), the verifiable credential is how four-year institutions can not only catch up with the disruptive effects digitization, but render coherent a messy higher-education ecosystem, and meet both student and employer expectations.
In a sense, four-year degrees are already made of stackable units, namely course credits. Verifiable credentials enable students to containerize the different skills that come as a result of these credits. The resume may tell employers that you graduated with a degree from MIT, but verifiable credentials will demonstrate your specific skills in IT networking, Python coding and organizational psychology.
A student's entire body of knowledge thus becomes containerized, verifiable and customizable. If Employer A wants skills in organizational psychology and human-machine interfaces, a student can load up a verifiable credential with courses associated with those skills, and send it to an employer, who opens it with a cryptographic key. If Employer B wants skills in Python and IT networking, the student can containerize and send those skills, in addition to any previous workplace experience she has, and post-graduate certifications.
The resume becomes not a matter of rewriting bullet points, but of sending containers of verifiable skills to recruiters, proving not only that an applicant is a customized fit, but that she's not lying on her resume. Standards for this new system of credentials are still being decided. What is the overall equivalent of a Bachelor's degree? Which courses comprise 'badges' of attainment in a certain skill, and which courses stack together to become a certificate?
This is where colleges and universities have the opportunity to lay the groundwork. Comprised of networks of human experts, institutions of higher education have the smartest people to dedicate towards establishing these standards, and the longest history of expertise in credentials and accreditation. Pilot projects in verifiable credentials, with the digital diplomas and digitized transfer credits that result, are the ideal first step in understanding how this new system works. Strong contributions to spreading and educating on standards such as those espoused by the W3C working group on Verifiable Credentials will place institutions at the center of the global digitization movement. Parsing workplace skills and training into verifiable credentials will help students understand that the four-year institution is relevant and interested in their employability. And a new kind of 21st-century education will be forged, the kind that benefits all.