Digital Credentials, the Missing Link for Online Learning

MOOCs have gone through a lot since they were first introduced. They were initially heralded as game changers, then they were criticized because of low completion rates, then there was the conversation of why that didn’t matter. The problem with MOOCs soon became defining exactly why they didn’t  catch on like they were supposed to.

According to Kevin Carey, a higher ed guru, the reason MOOCs weren’t the disruption they were promised to be is because they don’t supply sufficient accreditation. “What [MOOCs] don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for,” said Carey in his recent New York Times article. Once online education uses meaningful credentials, only then will it disrupt higher education, says Carey.

There are a couple reasons why this future may be closer than expected. For one thing, and Carey mentions this, college degrees fail to fully communicate what a graduate learned. There are projects, soft skills, and extra assignments that are not expressible through one piece of paper.

Secondly, MOOC providers understand that they need to step up their credential game. Certificates, badges, endorsements — online education is experimenting with accreditation so students can show what they’ve learned in the most effective way possible. Each of the big three MOOC providers offer their own form of credentials: Coursera uses Specializations, edX uses Xseries Certificates, and Udacity uses Nanodegrees.

Udacity has recently gone even further with their Nanodegrees by partnering with Accredible, a certificate service. Accredible, an Imagine K12 alum, is founded by Danny King and Alan Heppenstall. King says he and Heppenstall both realized the old form of accreditation needed an update. “We founded Accredible because we don’t think it should matter how or where you learned something for you to be credible, just that you did learn it and that you can show you did,” said King.

Accredible works with online learning platforms to issue certificates upon course completion, which is issued by the educators, and then students can add additional evidence if they want. “Through a digital certificate, students can show the huge amount of learning data/evidence that can be collected in non-traditional and online learning environments, like how helpful you were on the forums, how long you spent watching videos, how persistent you were at mastering the material, etc,” said King.

Udacity launched the Nanodegree program in October 2014 and since then has expanded to four more programs. Kathleen Mullaney, Vice President of Careers at Udacity, said credentialing is becoming even more important because how frequently adults need to be lifelong learners. “In the United States, an average person changes careers over four times, and in the technology field, it is closer to seven times,” said Mullaney, “These people need to constantly renew their skills to be current in their jobs.  That is where Udacity Nanodegrees can play a big role.”

On partnering with Accredible, Mullaney said they wanted to work with a company that focuses on improving how skills are represented digitally. She also found the system easily adaptable. “They developed a white-label version of their product to be fully integrated into our experience because we both felt that a certificate was not enough for Nanodegree graduates to get a new job,” said Mullaney. “The Profiles show off their portfolio of work — this is what is most important — the demonstration of skills acquired through actual projects and code available to future employers.”

This is not just the future of online learning, universities are beginning to put money into their online course development and more professors are thinking about how they would build their courses for the web. Accredible is in the works with residential universities to develop digital certificates for their courses. Soon we may see a digital credential system put in place that is universally accepted.

Image from Accredible

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.