Working toward digital credentials as a type of universal currency

by Ildiko Mazar, Research & Development Associate, Knowledge Innovation Centre, and EPICA - EAB member

Photo by ZSun Fu on Unsplash

Qualification, skill, and competency recognition, just like learning assessment and non-formal learning validation in the past, are important aspects of both continuous professional development and the up- and re-skilling of existing workforce. What’s making credential recognition both significant and challenging is that with physical mobility being mainstream in education as well  as employment, and the acquisition of essential digital and soft skills often being the result of non-formal learning events and experiences, people expect to be able to have their qualifications, achievements, and work experiences widely acknowledged.Whether judged by higher-education institutions (HEIs) upon one’s return to formal education or by employers when a new job application is received, any credential should be understood, in an equally comprehensive way, by:

  1. its holder,
  2. the education/learning provider, and
  3. the prospective employer.

To facilitate this, commonly understood and acknowledged digital currencies, such as ECTS credits or university degree certificates, as well as vocabularies like the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) levels and ISCED-F codes for subject areas, are required. Equally necessary are open and ubiquitous documentation templates that allow a thorough and precise interpretation and validation of credentials by any of the above-mentioned stakeholders.

People familiar with open-education practices could immediately say that such templates already exist in the form of open badges. This, of course, is a valid observation, but I would argue that open badges have so far been unable to get traction in higher education because they are a bit “too open” and “too flexible” to be applied in a sector in which formal accreditation and standardisation are crucial components of quality assurance.

So how can we achieve the best of both worlds? That is, how can we establish highly structured and standardised mechanisms of credentialization that are principally open and transparently interoperable?

Certain global trends are clearly urging the production of more open digital credentials. Higher education, for example, is becoming more open and flexible – with joint degree courses and some universities sharing their MOOCs on popular platforms like Coursera and Udacity. Moreover, the labour market’s demand for constantly changing and unique sets of knowledge, skills, and competencies is pressing HEIs to pay more attention to issuing credentials that are open, portable, and quick and easy to validate. Best-practice cases of the latter are still rare.

In Europe, there are several standards and innovative technologies helping to advance credential recognition, but they are fragmented, and all seem to have some restrictions in their use. They include the following:

  • Europass is the still-evolving, go-to online CV template for many job seekers in Europe. It can provide – in addition to a well-structured CV – a Certificate Supplement for people who hold a vocational-education-and-training certificate, as well as other EU-supported documents and self-assessment tools to produce annexes, such as the Europass Language Passport.
  • The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) indicates the level of various qualifications, but not micro-credentials or those earned through non-formal education.
  • The European Diploma Supplement provides a standardised template with additional information about a study-programme diploma, but only for degree-level education.
  • The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) describes individual learning units in terms of knowledge, skills, responsibility, and autonomy, but it is only used in higher education.
  • The European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations (ESCO) database provides a standard terminology of skills, competences, qualifications, and occupations, but these terms are not used or referenced in any of the above-listed tools.
  • The European Commission funds education innovation in many ways, including Horizon2020, which finances EPICA. There is also the Erasmus+ programme, which (co-) funds collaboration among various European projects that deal with validation and recognition issues. The following are a few of the major ones:
    • The ReOPEN project developed validated non-formal open-learning practices, allowing for transparent recognition of skills, qualifications, and competences by education providers and employer organisations. It also established instruments (a course template, a learning agreement, and learning-offer- description tools on the course level) that demonstrate the link of non-formal open learning with formal curriculum and employers’ needs.
    • The OEPass and MicroHE projects, which exploited and sustained valuable outputs from previous relevant projects like the OpenCred study, have developed two valuable tools: a viable foundation for a European credential- documentation mechanism (Learning Passport) and a digital credential-sharing platform (Credential Clearinghouse), which takes into account differences among Europen educational systems.
    • The e-SLP project’s objectives include the formulation of institutional policies, strategies, and frameworks for the development and delivery of flexible, scalable short learning programmes (SLPs) in Europe. It also strives to empower university leadership and staff in the realms of curriculum and course design, quality assurance, and recognition for SLPs that comply with the EQF.
Ildiko Mazar, Research & Development Associate

In addition to funding projects like those listed above, the European Commission is also conducting expert consultations and investing great efforts and intelligence into developing its own European framework for digitally signed credentials (to be launched in early 2020).

The Knowledge Innovation Centre has been closely involved in this consultation, bringing to the table results and lessons learned from EU projects and other thematically relevant experience. We hope to continue playing an important role in liaising between the Commission and these transnational collaboration efforts.