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The use of alternative digital credentials to certify learning will erode the value of the traditional postsecondary transcript, and colleges and universities that fail to embrace them will "experience a slow decline in relevance and market position," asserts a new report from an international group focused on online and open education.

The report, "The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials," was produced by a working group established a year ago by the International Council for Open and Distance Education, which represents 186 institutions and groups in more than 60 countries. Its members -- which in the United States include institutions like Colorado State University Global Campus, Drexel University Online and the University of Maryland University College -- advocate for the use of technology-enabled education to increase access to higher education.

Given that membership, it isn't surprising that the group's assessment of the importance and likely impact of alternative credentials is as insistent and urgent as it is. Skepticism about alternative credentials abounds in large pockets of traditional higher education, and many brick-and-mortar institutions will probably be just fine whether or not they embrace newfangled certifications.

Inside Higher Ed's own 2018 report on alternative credentials and new pathways to degrees -- while covering much of the same ground -- steered clear of warnings that the typical college or university will be made irrelevant by the emergence of such credentials, though it acknowledged their fast-growing spread and potential to attract students and satisfy employers.

The international council's report goes much further in envisioning alternative credentialing's ability to break higher education's historic stranglehold on preparing people for work.

"Higher education institutions are being challenged in their role as the dominant credentialing player in society," the report states.

"By providing a fully digital, information-rich record of workplace-relevant skills and competencies in the near future, the use of [alternative digital credentials] will seriously challenge the validity of traditional university transcripts making them obsolete and, in the long-term, irrelevant," the authors write. Colleges that do not embrace them will face the same fate, it suggests.

The report does not dismiss outright the impediments that are widely seen as impeding the spread of adoption of alternative credentials now, including limited employer acceptance and the lack of a common infrastructure.

But it asserts that these problems are being addressed and that institutions that wait too long to decide how -- not whether -- to engage with alternative credentials may not be able to catch up.

"Failure to take progressive action in adopting ADCs by the university sector will erode our position in the market as non-higher education institutions create a confusing array and proliferation of digital credentials," the report concludes. "In addition, individual institutions which fail to adopt ADCs will experience a slow decline in relevance and market position."

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