New forms of education require new types of credentials. But what does it mean when job applicants put digital badges on their resumes or when an employee earns a verified certificate from a free online course? One of the biggest opportunities for MOOCs and other digital learning environments has been in the development of alternative credentials, which may turn out to be even better than traditional degrees at highlighting one’s knowledge and skills.

Why do we need alternative credentials?AlternativeCredentials

As you are probably well aware, employers in general are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with traditional higher education. This stems from the fact that most business leaders don’t feel that recent graduates are adequately prepared for the workforce: in a recent Gallup survey, only 11% of business leaders strongly agreed that colleges and universities are doing a good job preparing students for work. Only 11%! Most companies want to hire degree holders, and indeed the number of jobs requiring a degree is expected to hit 60% by 2018, but hiring managers are becoming less and less certain about what those degrees actually mean.

To solve this problem, alternative credentials are being developed that are more closely tied to specific knowledge and demonstrable skills.

What alternative credentials are available?

There are basically two types of alternative credentials: non-degree credentials offered by degree-granting institutions (i.e., professional diplomas and certificates) and new credentials that are outside of the traditional higher education system altogether. This article focuses on the latter, as they are the types of credentials that are being developed in conjunction with MOOCs.

At the moment most MOOCs, along with other digital learning environments, are unaccredited. So, if your employees take them, how do you know what they’ve learned? And how do you give credit for the MOOCs offered by your own organization? Here are some of the alternative credentials that have been or are being developed by various providers.

  • Verified certificates. Anyone who enrolls in a course from one of the major MOOC providers can earn a certificate of completion, providing they meet the course requirements. Coursera and edX also offer verified certificates for certain courses. These certificates, which cost in the range of $40 to $100, verify the identity of the course taker. Through verified certificates, employers can be certain that it is actually their employees who are taking the courses.
  • Course sequences. Recently, both Coursera and edX have introduced course sequences, which are pathways of three to nine courses on a specific topic, all with verified certificates. These are MOOC versions of professional certificates, and many require a capstone project to complete.
  • Digital badges. Digital badges are becoming extremely popular in many types of alternative education, particularly those that incorporate gamification. Badges are a game element that have been introduced to education via the Mozilla Open Badges project. Digital badges have a couple of major advantages in the alternative credentials market. First, any organization can develop and issue them, and they are being used by companies, government organizations, and higher education institutions alike. Second, they are modular and information-rich, which means that each badge contains information about exactly what learners had to do to earn it. This provides a direct tie between the credential and the competency it represents. Badges can be used by companies in many different ways—to highlight learning, to reward collaboration, and for gamification. As learning becomes increasingly bite-sized and modular, digital badges will become even more widespread.
  • Digital portfolios. Digital portfolios, or e-portfolios, provide flexible ways for learners to showcase their learning. Digital portfolios are powerful because they can combine credentials like degrees and badges with work samples, such as design work or marketing copy. In this way, they allow organizations to assess employees’ formal and informal credentials as well as their marketable skills. Digital portfolios have already become standard forms of enhanced resumes in fields like computer programming.
  • 21st century transcripts. As the lifelong learning trend has developed, several education technology companies are exploring different ways to showcase a person’s entire life’s worth of education. For example, Degreed tracks both formal and informal education in a knowledge graph that can be used as part of a digital portfolio or resume. Accredible is another company that allows learners to create portfolios that represent all of their learning experiences. These are just a few of the initiatives toward creating a new transcript for the 21st century.

Challenges to alternative credentials

The main challenge to alternative credentials is that many organizations don’t know about them or know what to make of them. Traditional credentials, like degrees, may be too abstract to be as useful as companies would like them to be, but they are still familiar. In terms of usefulness for hiring, alternative credentials have yet to be proven in the marketplace, but that will just take time. As companies start to validate them, their popularity and their reliability will increase.

In terms of using alternative credentials internally in a T&D program, the only real challenge is implementation, and it is a minor challenge at most. Mozilla Open Badges are free and easy to create, and most learning management systems support them, so all companies need to do is set up an account and start creating.

New models of education like MOOCs aren’t changing just how education is delivered, but the way we think about credentialing as well. Alternative credentials will become much more prevalent in the near future as students, companies, and schools seek new ways to validate learning in these new digital environments.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual. Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn:
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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.

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