IMS Global recently held its annual Digital Credentials Summit in Atlanta, pulling together thought leaders in education, workforce development, and education technology to talk and share about new ways of articulating learning results and outcomes, moving beyond traditional grades and transcripts. You’ve probably heard some of the concepts and buzzwords: digital badges, stackable credentials, competency-based education, and comprehensive learner records. What’s the real state of thinking, and adoption, of these new ways of thinking about education, and what are the real-world implications?
While many of the sessions focused on strategies for implementing digital credentials or shared success stories, several key presentations at the Summit zoomed out to look at the topic from a broader perspective, asking the question, “Why are we having this conversation at all?” The answer lies in acknowledging an even more difficult question that has come to the forefront of conversations in both education and employment, and one that is fraught with social and political ramifications: what is the value proposition of higher education in the current labor market? Has it changed, or does it need to change?
Anecdotally, much has been said about the frustration that employers have with a workforce coming out of higher education without the skills needed to immediately contribute. In his presentation “Five Forces Shaping Higher Education,” Michael Buttry, Managing Director of Cherrytree and Associates, pointed to this dynamic as one of the forces contributing to this change in thinking about education outcomes: “The signals are broken. The signals that match people with jobs, and jobs with people, aren’t working right now.”
But it’s not just employers who are feeling this way. Increasingly, students are questioning what they are getting for their tuition dollars as they leave college with record amounts of debt but still can’t find a job. In her presentation “Hire-Train-Deploy: A New Model for Skills-based Hiring and Talent Acquisition,” Cassidy Leventhal, Vice President of Achieve Partners, pointed out that in 2000, 50% of college students reported that their main goal in going to college was employment oriented; in 2021 that number was 90%.
And what is higher education’s perspective in this? Certainly, the number of institutions participating in the IMS Digital Credentials Summit acknowledges and is grappling with this question, and the phenomenal growth of institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, ASU’s online program and others are examples of a market response to demand.
Balanced against that is the concern of some that the original intent of post-secondary education is being diluted, that the end goal of higher education has never been just about ‘getting a job.’ In the article “Earning is More Important Than Learning,” (Susan H. Greenberg, Inside Higher Education, March 8 2022), Wendy Fischman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education states as a fundamental finding of her research that “There’s a lot of what we call ‘misalignment’ between students and faculty and administrators…It’s largely the difference between students being transactional—caring about the job, the résumé, about what they’re going to do next—and faculty and administrators largely being what we call transformational: seeing college as the opportunity to grow, to consider your own beliefs and values and to change as a result.” Her colleague Howard Gardner says it more pointedly, when asked what he found disappointing in the study: “The obsession with jobs.”
What does all this mean for the future of higher education? Does higher education bifurcate in some fashion, with tracks more oriented toward employment skills and other in more academic or liberal arts orientations? (Full disclosure, my own background is decidedly in the latter camp, with degrees in Literature before somehow ending up in edtech…) Those are bigger, meatier, and perhaps more controversial questions than can be tackled here.
But what is very clear is the impact this conversation and these questions are having on education technology. The last generation of technology, still very prevalent in the market, remains essentially a digital representation of analog or paper-based administrative practices. Truly student-centric user experiences, and the underlying architectures to support them, are finally starting to make some headway, including in these emerging credentialing solutions, for example as can be found in the Indiana Achievement Wallet demonstrated at the Summit. But administrative systems need to accelerate their evolution to be able to model these new patterns and modalities of teaching.
Unicon is finding more and more clients wanting to understand how they should be preparing to transition to these new way of thinking about education outcomes, including competency-based education, badges, and comprehensive learner records, that transcend the traditional transcript to demonstrate not just what classes a student took, but what they actually learned. And taking it a step further, how can they optimize learning outcome data to position themselves to take action and make decisions? We’re able to help them in that journey through analysis of existing programs and how their learning outcomes can be mapped to competencies, what new technologies or architectures they need to consider to support these new models, and even learning content and experience to meet changing student needs.
While it is still early days in what may, in retrospect, be a paradigm shift in how we think about higher education, events like the IMS Summit help us understand and participate in the current conversation, and connect with institutions and partners to work together as we figure out this emerging new paradigm together, and how we can continue to contribute to the value of higher education.