The Case for Social Innovation Micro-Credentials

Digital badges as a credentialing tool may force us to re-think and redesign education, especially for emerging fields such as social innovation.

We’ve seen the disruptive power of “micro” in the fields of finance (micro-loans and micro-savings), insurance (micro-insurance), work (micro-jobs), housing (micro-homes), and entrepreneurship (micro-consignment). Now, it’s education’s turn. Many schools, companies, and nonprofits are starting to experiment with micro-credentials, using a common digital framework (“open badges”) developed by the Mozilla Foundation. Even textbook giant Pearson has launched its own badging platform, placing a huge bet on this new trend. Similarly, Blackboard is integrating digital badges into its learning management systems.

If digital badges start to gain traction as a credentialing tool, they will force us to re-think and redesign learning and education, especially for emerging fields such as social innovation.

So how do digital badges work? Unlike traditional academic degrees that tend to communicate what subject you studied and where you studied it, most digital badges are more granular in scope. They point to specific knowledge and skills you’ve acquired, and in most cases, demonstrated. For example, instead of going to a reputable business school and leveraging that institution’s MBA to get a job, you would earn a series of badges that would demonstrate your business acumen—such as your mastery of business model canvas, Lean Startup, and customer development. Your school—or any school for that matter—doesn’t need to issue the badges itself; the badges simply need to come from a trusted source that can certify your competencies.

Some may ask, what’s wrong with our existing system of education credentialing, and why would micro-credentials be better? I believe three global trends are driving the move toward digital badges as a new knowledge currency:

1. The widening skills gap

As McKinsey reported in its 2012 “Education to Employment” survey, companies are having a hard time filling job vacancies even though 75 million youth are unemployed. According to 39 percent of companies surveyed, the main reason is “lack of skills.” Although 70 percent of educational institutions believe students are prepared for work, only 42 percent of companies think so.

Employers will want new ways to close that “reality gap” and signal the specific skill sets they need, possibly using a system of micro-credentials (badges). Just last month, AT&T and other industry leaders joined forces with Udacity to launch “nanodegrees,” which they describe as job-focused credentials that people can earn in 6 to 12 months.

Schools that care about job placement will soon have to follow suit and guide students toward similar nano- or micro-credentials; this will require that learners demonstrate, not just claim, that they have the specific skills industries want.

2. The need for flexible, lifelong learning

Getting a job is just the beginning. Today’s workers will likely change jobs every 4.5 years and change careers 2 or 3 times over their lifetimes. If you’re a freelancer—a likely scenario for 40 percent of US workers by 2020—you will change the type of work you do even more frequently.

This means we need a system for constant, lifelong learning in all contexts. Today’s academic degrees and certificate programs could never offer that type of flexibility.

Furthermore, work in today’s ever-changing world is increasingly multi-disciplinary. I used to be a full-time journalist, but my job today cuts across multiple sectors—media, education, and social innovation. I need to build competencies and credibility in all three fields, and I have to do so while working full-time. I can probably fit in micro-credentials, but I definitely don’t have time to earn another master’s or doctorate degree.

3. The rise of networks over institutions

Where we learn is changing too. For centuries, institutions have curated and disseminated most knowledge. Although institutions still hold great power, we also see networks, both online and offline, driving much learning and change.

Today’s learners want to access the best knowledge from across networks, rather than from one or two reputable institutions. In fact, whether or not schools encourage it, people already do. Network-based learners will demand a new knowledge currency, one that can travel across online networks and provide evidence for knowledge and skills.

Mozilla’s Open Badges are traceable and verifiable, and allow people to embed all types of proof—testimonials, endorsements, links, images, documents, and videos. They are more than “just a piece of paper.”

Universities may resist micro-credentials the way many have resisted massive open online courses (MOOCs). Mature and protected industries such as law and medicine might also stand firm. But quite a few universities around the world have already shown a willingness to experiment. UC Davis, for example, has designed a new major based on badges (rather than courses) to integrate skills and experiential learning. Purdue is moving towards a passport system of badges for all students.

But we won’t see true disruption in credentialing until entire fields or communities of practice adopt micro-credentials. Computer science has been heading that way. So might social innovation, which hasn’t found a home at most universities; even when schools offer classes, it’s not clear which department should own it or if any one department could.

In Canada, businesses, nonprofits, and schools across the innovation ecosystem are planning to co-create badges for the national (and potentially global) network of changemakers, and have already held an Open Badges Summit. Whatever school you go to and even if you’re not in school, you will be able to earn badges for Social Innovation 101, Sustainability 101, Leadership, Crowdfunding, 3D Printing, Storytelling, Theory of Change, and Social Finance.

Each badge will define a learning pathway that builds on other pathways and leads to new ones. In addition to schools, nonprofits and even companies will facilitate some learning. Social entrepreneurship education (and credentialing) will be everyone’s business.

Can a new knowledge currency (and marketplace) for social innovation take hold or will we continue to seek institutional stamps of approval from elite universities? Even if badges are not the answer, we will need something to make education and learning credentials more relevant, flexible, and open.

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  • BY Eric Korb

    ON July 7, 2014 11:44 AM

    Charles has brilliantly describes\d the opportunity for micro=credentials.  At Accreditrust, we share Charles’ viewpoint and focusing on delivering a SaaS solution, called TrueCred(TM), that developers integrate into their applications to process high-stakes credentials (e.g. professional licenses, certificates, skills tests).  This type of credential is digitally signed with an issuer’s private key and is linked to the recipient’s web identity.  With over 79 million US Adults holding 1 or more licenses or certificates, the opportunity to create efficiencies in the issuance and verification of digital credentials is enormous.

    This will take cooperation amongst all of stakeholders to accomplish this, as it did when credit card processing first came into being.  That’s why Accreditrust is working with W3C members. like ETS, and Mozilla’s Badge Alliance Standards Group to establish an open specification for the exchange of identity-based signed credentials.  Identity-based signed credentials are tamper-proof and can be exchanged securely between disparate systems.

    We are just getting started, but the future is bright for micro-credentials.

  • BY Charles Tsai

    ON July 7, 2014 07:32 PM

    Thanks, Eric, for your comments.

    Can you describe your early adopters at the moment. I’m curious what type of institutions have already adopted your solution for digital credentials.

  • BY Judi Piggott

    ON July 7, 2014 10:08 PM

    Hi Charles, this is a direction that might solve some of the problems we’ve discussed over the years - highly educated and underemployed creative and unconventional people have ‘silos’ of conventional training and experiential learning but the tapestry needs some extra threads for the big picture to emerge.

    Prior Learning Assessment can be an acknowledgement that lets people enter the sausage factory a little further down the line, but to assess this prior learning and then give badges for it is perhaps a way to show the linkages of one’s life exploration of interests, opportunities and talents, even for oneself. Add that to the mix, and you know just who will start to emerge from the margins. to contribute more fully to community AND economic life.

    Most of the really innovative entrepreneurs I know left school early. Not because they couldn’t make it, but because they had great ideas and drive and were impatient to get on with it. To have a way for people like that - those who want it - to have formal acknowledgement of their micro-learning along the way is one other asset of this approach.

    Anyway, as catalytic interloper to another, keep up the good work!

  • BY Charles Tsai

    ON July 8, 2014 04:38 AM

    Thanks, Judi. I think the tapestry concept will be key. Schools will need to accommodate different tapestries or else many learners will seek other environments to gain the credentials they want.

  • BY Eric Korb

    ON July 8, 2014 05:06 AM

    @Charles Accreditrust has just released our sandboxes for private pilots after 12 month’s of intense development. Due to contractual terms we are not allowed to diclose those companies at this point.  However, what I can tell you is we have a badging application for Instructure’s Canvas LMS with over 185 higher-ed and corporate institutions participating called BadgeSafe(tm).  Plus, we ran a MOOC on last fall with over 800 participants. That work has led to the development of TrueCred(tm), which addresses the need for users, institutions, corporations and organizations to exchange digital credentials with authority and trust.

    The adoption of signed credentials will be required once micro-credentialing moves from individual and departmental experimentation to institutional adoption.  As a former CIO of an accredited higher-ed learning institution, I would have my school issue ONLY digitally signed credentials to protect all the stakeholders in the value chain.  Today, the good news is: it’s easy for anyone to issue hosted type micro-credentials using open source or commercial software…the bad news is: anyone can begin issuing hosted type micro-credentials.

    As the use of micro-credentials that represent high-stakes achievements increases, so will the possibly of fraudulent misrepresentation.  Digitally signed credentials are tamper-proof,  that’s why we developed TrueCred (tm) APIs so that developers can issue digitally signed credentials from within their applications.  The observer of a TrueCred issued credential can instantly verifiy that both the issuer and recipient are who they are claiming to be. Plus, the credential’s meta-data is digitally signed and can validated, therefore it can not be altered without detection.  Our users believe this is the kind of protection that is required for high-stakes credentials.

    So, Accreditrust is playing hockey, we’re sending the puck where the player is going to be. We welcome all issuers who are in the high-stakes credentialing arena to experience TrueCred(tm) first hand.

  • BY Karen Cator

    ON July 10, 2014 04:57 PM

    Great post and conversation. We are working on micro-credentials for professional educators for all these same reasons. Educators gain new skills throughout their career and this is a way to both support and recognize them.

  • Taffy Davis's avatar

    BY Taffy Davis

    ON July 18, 2014 11:06 AM

    As I read this, I’m sitting in a national nurse educator conference whose theme is innovation.  I hope someone is looking at the use of badges in relationship to healthcare.  I’m happy to help! Ok, session is about to commence. This is a great concept.

  • BY Charles Tsai

    ON July 18, 2014 05:36 PM

    @Taffy Maybe you can bring it up at the conference if no one else does. smile

  • BY Damian Ewens

    ON July 21, 2014 12:29 PM

    Great piece Charles. At Achievery, a digital credentialing platform, we have seen significant traffic in competency-based learning models, organizations with emerging standards, online and distance learning, and corporate certifications. Breadth of global adoption is also compelling. Typically these users come to Achievery, and digital credentials in general, because they need a more robust way to prove quality evidence beneath their credential, are looking to strengthen connections/pathways, and extend their brand online.

  • BY Charles Tsai

    ON July 21, 2014 06:48 PM

    Thanks, Damian. I just signed up.

    I’m curious… as more badging platforms emerge, what’s the key to success? Will there be dozens of platforms serving different segments or do you see things consolidate pretty quickly? How does one stay competitive?

  • BY Eric Korb

    ON July 22, 2014 06:27 AM

    @Charles It is fine for many platforms to emerge.  Users should have a choice and be able to select the system or service that meets their needs and offers the most value.  What’s important is that all the systems should be based the same specifications, which is critical for adoption and portability of micro-credentials. Accreditrust and Achievery, along with others, are working with standards groups to accomplish this.

  • BY Damian Ewens

    ON July 22, 2014 10:31 AM

    @Eric is right that interoperability will be important and there will be quite a few platforms that service specific functionality or target markets.
    We see a correlation between an open, distributed, digital credentialing system and the early internet. Important features from the internet’s evolution including transparency, openness, security, interoperability, portability and end-to-end design will be valuable. Much of this boils down to trust. In a more interconnected global world, the future of demonstrating one’s capabilities will be stackable credentials that can come from anywhere and must go anywhere while retaining their data and trustworthiness. Platforms that do these things well will stick around.

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