Five things you should know about new ways of credentialing learning

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By Shizuka Kato and Thomas Weko

Higher Education Policy Team, Directorate for Education and Skills

A rising share of adults in OECD countries hold traditional higher education qualifications – such as bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Despite this growth, these qualifications continue to bring benefits, such as higher employment rates and salaries, to most people who obtain them.

Nonetheless, new ways of acquiring and signalling skills have emerged in recent years, engaging millions of learners. So-called “alternative credentials” – such as digital badges, micro-credentials and professional/industrial certificates – are an increasingly important part of the education and training landscape. The growing prominence is the result of a rising demand for upskilling and reskilling, and a sharp reduction in the cost of providing education and training made possible by digitalisation.

A recently published OECD Working Paper examines the emergence of these credentials.

Here is what we found:

How these new credentials are delivered to learners varies widely

Even offerings that carry the same name – such as micro-credentials – can vary widely in design, delivery, and duration.

Alternative credentials can vary in:

  • delivery mode: programmes can be delivered face-to-face, on line, or a mix of the two
  • duration and pacing: from hours to months, with frequent self-pacing
  • content and areas of focus: from general to specialised skills and knowledge, and from cognitive to non-cognitive skills
  • providers: programmes are developed by different types of organisations, including higher education institutions, businesses and non-governmental organisations, and are often delivered in partnership with learning platforms (Coursera, edX etc.)
  • validation processes: credentials can be awarded based on attendance, assignments or examinations
  • integration options: programmes can be independent or integrated with another credential.

Alternative credentials are not replacing traditional academic degrees

Alternative credentials do not yet serve as an alternative to a traditional higher education qualification. Rather, they complement prior education and experience.

Employers still seem to value a degree as a signal of a person’s skills and knowledge. The lack of standardisation makes it difficult for employers to understand what alternative credentials signal about an applicant’s skills and knowledge.

Employers have less experience in hiring people with these new credentials. This unfamiliarity on the part of employers also limits the labour market impact of these credentials; many choose to look instead at other candidate information, such as professional experiences.

Alternative credentials, especially when linked with work experience, can substitute for some higher education qualifications in selected sectors, such as IT, where alternative credentials are already well known and recognised, and are successful at attracting non-traditional learners.

Most adults pursuing alternative credentials have completed higher education

Approximately two-thirds of individuals participating in learning activities that lead to alternative credentials hold formal higher education qualifications. This means that alternative credentials do not yet serve as an alternative for individuals who are under-represented in traditional higher education programmes.

However, some successful examples tell us that alternative credentials have the potential to attract non-traditional learners. For example, over half of learners pursuing the Google IT Support Professional Certificate do not have a bachelor’s degree.

Alternative credentials do not yet serve as an alternative for individuals who are under-represented in traditional higher education programmes.

The expansion of the alternative credential market could increase the reach of prestigious, traditional institutions

Most alternative credentials that are available on line are delivered in English, allowing easier access to the market to institutions in Anglophone countries that are already highly competitive in the international higher education market.

Since learners are likely to choose alternative credentials provided by higher education institutions with strong reputations, prestigious Anglophone institutions are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of new digital platforms to become globalised providers.

Governments are starting to establish quality criteria and standards

New Zealand is taking a lead in formally establishing quality criteria and developing a public funding system for alternative credentials.

In Australia and European Union member countries, public discussions have begun about how to assure the quality of alternative credentials and how to embed them within existing qualification frameworks. In the United States, these discussions have been led by non-governmental organisations.

We reviewed policy documents across OECD countries and found some examples of these quality criteria and standards for alternative credentials:

  • included in all the documents: intended learning outcomes, resulting qualifications and the way of verifying/assessing learning (e.g. a summative assessment)
  • included in most of the documents: workload, verification of learner identity and a level of the programme referenced against a qualification framework
  • other criteria included in the documents: demand from learners and employers, the provider’s ability and financial capacity, non-duplication (i.e. not duplicating existing programmes) and stackability among others.

Since an important advantage of alternative credential programmes lies in the speed and flexibility with which they can respond to the demands of both employers and learners, governments will need to find quality assurance arrangements that balance high standards with offering sufficient space for innovation.

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