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Education, Tech Leaders Endorse Digital Credentials

In a Thursday panel at the Learning Impact Conference in Nashville, tech executives and higher ed officials discussed ways to help connect students to careers through programming and credential sharing.

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As higher education institutions and workforce development programs set their sights on bolstering technical career training to equip students for in-demand jobs such as IT, some of the main challenges involve guiding students to the correct certification programs and identifying skills gaps.

Touching on these needs, higher education officials and ed-tech executives met Thursday at the Learning Impact Conference in Nashville to discuss how institutions can help guide students on career pathways and demonstrate skills to prospective employers, as well as how tech platforms can assist in those aims. The four-day conference, which concluded Thursday, was hosted by the nonprofit collaborative 1EdTech, formerly known as the IMS Global Learning Consortium.

In a panel titled "Recognizing Achievement and Connecting to Careers,” University of Phoenix Vice Provost Doris Savron said the university works to identify high job-growth sectors, then point students to courses that help them gain skills needed for credentials in those industries. She said the institution’s academic programming is built around practical skills training to meet employers’ demands.

“We create a map that identifies all the skills down to a very specific course level and to a credit level, so every credit equals a skill. That allows us to then decide what assessments we need to measure that particular acquisition of the skill, and then that helps us build the learning activities around it and that puts a course together,” she said. “That baseline of having that map allows us to then decide, ‘How do we want to credential that with a badge?’"

“We can do it by employer desire, we can do it by specific job titles we align our credentials to," she later added. "It allows us to customize to the needs of the industry, as well as what the student’s goals are.”

At Western Governors University's cybersecurity program, for example, officials take a competency-based approach to courses focusing on in-demand job skills, which students can advance through at their own pace and then demonstrate to employers when looking for jobs.

Recognizing that traditional higher education transcripts were “no longer the right way to tell the student’s story," Darin Hobbs, vice president of academic records at WGU, said officials recently embarked to adjust their programs to better meet job market needs. He said credentials earned are put into a log to show how their skills compare to the needs of jobs, as well as to show students relevant skill gaps.

“WGU has always been competency-based,” he said, adding that credentials are awarded digitally. “The first thing they did was they basically went through all of our competencies and aligned them to skills, and in doing so, they developed a concept of a ‘rich skills descriptor,’ which takes skills that are relevant to job roles and puts them into the context of job roles. … They created a library of 13,000 RSDs.

“We recognize that learners need to be able to see and act upon their achievements,” he said. “Everything under the degree, we consider a micro credential.”

With institutions changing their approaches to skill-building and logging credentials for workforce development, the Texas-based software company Territorium has been using AI to compare student abilities against job openings.

Keith Look, vice president of equity and innovation with Territorium, said their Comprehensive Learner Record (TerritoriumCLR) platform measures a student's academic performance, personal interests and co-curricular activities to paint a full picture of their competencies and skills. Using these metrics, class rubrics and instructor feedback, the tool compiles a "complete digital record" of a student’s learning progress, which it measures against skill sets mentioned in advertised job openings.

“Our ultimate goal is to connect the learner to their career goals and opportunities,” he said. “We know if we can help those individuals figure out what they know and are able to do, we can then work with marketplace data, work with postsecondary pathways and connect them to the opportunities they need.”

In terms of other innovations in this sphere, Marty Reed, founder and CEO of the data company RANDA Solutions, said the company offers a tool that makes use of blockchain technology to log and share credentials earned by students. The company recently worked with the Utah Department of Education and others to develop a digital wallet for teachers to store credentials, licenses and other proofs of practice and share them securely with state licensing systems, human resources departments and learning management systems.

“There’s a publishing tool that can create verifiable credentials. You can consume those in a wallet, and you can share them with other blockchains,” he said. “On the teacher wallet side, it’s really purpose-built to streamline teacher onboarding across state interoperability, and ultimately solve the teacher shortage problem by reducing those boundaries between state licensure systems.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.