In Search of a Tower of Babel for Credentials

In Search of a Tower of Babel for Credentials


In the last half decade, new forms of credentials such as badges, nanodegrees, microcredentials and certificates of completion have flooded out into the world from various learning environments. And with this torrent of new assertions of learning come a variety of questions: Who issued this credential? What is it supposed to represent? Was there a rigorous assessment involved? And even, what is this thing, and how should I attempt to understand it? All fair questions. But how to go about answering them?

We are at a crossroads with regard to where learning recognition intersects with our nation’s highly variable and increasingly incongruous credentialing systems. The gold standard of the degree is being questioned, loudly and publicly, and new forms of credentials—or things that act very much like credentials—are on the rise. Billions of dollars of VC money have poured into edtech over the last two to three years on the bet that degrees aren’t the only way for us to acknowledge the hard work of learning. Some believe that that money has been well spent, and some believe it hasn’t. One way to for us to find out is through the lens of a common language—one that provides insight into both old and new credentials and reflects their similarities and differences.

During the first few months of 2016, David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Larry Good, co-founder and CEO of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW), and I have had the pleasure of co-facilitating one of five different working groups, each focused on different aspects of the Connecting Credentials initiative. The full title of our working group, “Developing a common language to serve as the basis for a connected credentialing system” was a bit of a mouthful, so we settled on the “Common Language Working Group” for short. Since one of the key benefits of a common language is the ability to understand and compare credentials across different needs and contexts, our group was peopled by invited participants from a variety of areas including traditional higher education, postsecondary, education policy, certification, assessment, workforce, open badges and edtech.

A Credential by Any Other Name

Together the Common Language WG explored the possibilities of developing a common credentialing language. Our aim: to capture and clarify some of the most important aspects of the credentialing landscape. We sought to examine the role language plays in the pipeline from out-of-school learning to academia to workforce and beyond. Our process included auditing white papers, academic frameworks, and corresponding government and industry documents—anything that had attempted to establish a canonical set of credentialing terms. Through discussions, revisions, debates and iterations, we arrived at an initial set of terms related to credentialing. Altogether, we examined and defined approximately 30 different terms including competencies, learning outcomes, assessment, open badges, interoperability and even degrees. Yes, degrees!

Was it easy? No. Even among a small group of committed participants, there were strong opinions and subtle variations in definitions. Understanding what a badge is compared to what a certificate is, or what a license is versus what a certification is sounds relatively simple—in theory. But in practice, definitions, term choice, and usage vary widely across contexts. And the range of Common Language group representatives appreciated the sensitive and irreducible nature of context.

Along the way, we did ask ourselves, “Can we even get to a common language?” While we’re pretty proud of the first 30 or so terms, our work is just beginning. So, the answer to that question turns out to be a qualified yes. Or maybe a qualified no, depending on how you look at it. Yes, in that there appears to be a small set of foundational credentialing term definitions that the team was able to agree upon. No, in that developing a complete canonical set of universally understood and agreed upon credentialing definitions has repeatedly proven impossible.

Either way, there is hope. Our foundational set of terms, really a contextualized glossary, can grow into a functional, flexible framework. We can realize success even without agreeing on all of the terms, as long as we have enough to enable old and new credentials to share the same public mindspace.

There’s so much more to be done in this space to benefit credential stakeholders. As we look ahead, possibilities for this effort stretch on almost indefinitely: building up the initial set of terms, creating examples, providing specific usage contexts, etc. In the coming months we’ll be sharing this work publicly to gather feedback and iterate: lather, rinse, repeat. Because, let’s face it, 30 words alone are not enough content on which to build a common language. And it’s vital that we get this work right. Stay tuned to Connecting Credentials, for an upcoming report weaving together the Common Language WG findings along with the findings from the other four working groups. I’m sure you’ll find it definitive.

Carla Casilli (@carlacasilli) is co-facilitator for the Connecting Credentials working group focused on the question of a common language for credentialing.

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