Digital Credentials & Digital Pathways Poised To Revolutionize Higher Education


According to a Welsh professor who was once honored by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen never listens to what people say to her while dispensing annual honors like knighthoods. So when it was his turn and the Queen asked him what he did to earn the honor, he replied “I murdered, ma’am, my mother-in-law at breakfast over Rice Krispies.” Per the professor, the Queen’s response was “What a good idea.” 

This nutty story rang true to me. On my first visit to the University of Cambridge nearly 20 years ago, I met with the Vice Chancellor who regaled his American (and Canadian) visitors with a story about the Queen, whom he had met on several occasions, most recently when he was knighted. According to the Vice Chancellor, if you meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, she takes a keen interest in how you got there – specifically your mode of transportation, and particularly if you took the London Underground. She wants to know the station you started at, and where you alighted (British term). And the reason she’s so interested is that she’s never taken the Tube herself. 

How one gets from point A to point B is of interest to everyone – not just cloistered queens. It should be particular interest to colleges and universities; while the destination is typically a degree, how students get there often says more about their education and competencies than the degree itself. It’s self-evident that two different pathways through the same institution or academic program can lead to very different educational outcomes. But colleges and universities have had little ability to track this until now. As Tube maps go, transcripts are pretty lousy. 

For a few years, digital credentials or badges have been viewed as the essential innovation here. Digital credentials provide evidence of specific, tangible skills: cognitive, soft, and technical. And when accredited (and especially brand-name) colleges and universities issue digital credentials, it solves the central problem facing digital credentials. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an article about new providers like Udemy, Lynda and Coursera, digital credentials “don’t carry much weight in hiring yet… because managers don’t trust or recognize many of the companies and organizations behind the badges and courses.” 

Digital credentials are taking off. Earlier this year, Credly acquired Pearson’s Acclaim platform and solidified its market leadership in digital credentialing. (Full disclosure: My company, University Ventures, is an investor in Credly.) To date, Credly has issued tens of millions of digital credentials and demand is growing rapidly, particularly among employers, industry associations, and scale credential providers such as large IT vendors. Issuers seeking to badge specific competencies are either on or joining the Credly platform. Credly already hosts the majority of credentials most commonly requested in job postings, and more than 80% of the top IT certifications found on LinkedIn. But in addition to badging specific competencies, colleges and universities are waking up to the power of digital credentials – not just of road markers, but as ways to create new roads. We’re starting to see digital credentials as building blocks of digital pathways that will shape the future of higher education. 

In order to complete these digital pathways, students must produce and post work product demonstrating the sets of required skills. Portfolium pathways allow faculty to assess the work product according to pre-populated rubrics. The assessments result in the automatic issuance of badges or road markers, along with the evidence proving the achievement. And completing all of them yields a meta-badge signifying completion of the pathway. Three additional University of Maryland campuses are launching digital pathways next month for a total of nine. 

If majors provide depth or verticality to higher education, Portfolium’s skills-based digital pathways are horizontal, cross-cutting current academic offerings. It’s a meta-layer that creates a much-needed lattice. Tennessee has bought into the concept of digital pathways. The Tennessee Department of Education will be using Portfolium across its K-20 system. This year, the TNPortfolio platform will utilize the ePortfolio functionality, but the intention is to enable digital pathways across the entire system, starting in 2019-20. 

Digital pathways are a response to higher education’s crisis of employability. Underemployment is plaguing new college graduates in terms of frequency, acuity, and persistence. Many students are trying to hedge their employment bets by double majoring. A Vanderbilt study on double majors found that double majoring was up significantly at almost all colleges and universities, with some schools reporting that as many as 40% of students are pursuing more than one major. But double majoring may be the equivalent of making two one-dimensional bets when what’s needed is a second dimension. Why not combine a degree in computer science with globalist pathway, or a degree in sociology with a professional pathway? At a time when employers are increasingly seeking strange and wondrous new blends of skills for hybrid jobs, digital pathways are a logical solution. 

As pathways evolve, students will be able to chart their own pathways through their universities’ vast intellectual and academic resources. Just as the best way to lay out pathways on college quads is to first see where students walk, enlightened schools will take input from students as they chart their digital pathway map. And with more and more students motivated by an employment imperative, many of these pathways will lead directly to good first jobs. 

But digital pathways won’t only be of use to employers. Digital pathways address the very human need for narrative. They do a better job of telling the story of your educational journey than a flat transcript – a story you’ll not only want to tell prospective employers, but also friends, significant others, your children, and probably also yourself. What did your educational journey mean to you? 

When you visit the Queen, she’s interested in your journey because she’s never done it herself. Likewise, every student’s journey is unique – like a snowflake, but in a good way. The narrative of each student’s educational journey is a story that must be told, and digital pathways can be instrumental in helping to tell that story. Doing so will enhance employability and quality of life. If we can get students to the destination with the ability to tell the story of their journey, we’ll be giving them the royal education they deserve. 

Ryan is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of University Ventures. He is the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (2015) and the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. Prior to UV, Ryan led the Education & Training sector at Warburg Pincus where he was the founding Director of Bridgepoint Education (NYSE: BPI), one of the largest online universities in the United States. 


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