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“As colleges and universities continue to confront digital transformation, they must ask themselves, ‘What does our core product—the educational credential—evolve to look like in a more data-rich, technology-centric world?’” —Sean Gallagher, Aug. 10, 2023 

When the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers joined the “Beyond Transfer” conversation this year, we noted the need to broaden the conversation about transfer and credit mobility to better encompass learning mobility on a global scale. Over the year, our members have reflected on transfer business models, evaluated the transfer student experience, revealed transformation through automation, examined partnership agreements with alternative credential providers, questioned the trust between institutions and affirmed the need for institutions to focus on adult learners.

The beauty and bane of higher education in this country is the sovereignty of the state systems. Unlike our colleagues in other countries, there is no central Ministry of Education. This means there is no easily obtained or ordained shared national vision, policy or language. This situation complicates our objective of broadening the conversation. Are we all talking about the same thing when we say “credential”? If not, how can we expect transfer to work?

A new AACRAO report, “Credential Confusion: A Call for Uniformity in Practice and Terminology,” is based on a 2023 survey of AACRAO members and focus group information from over 100 AACRAO leaders. The survey collected responses from 48 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and five Canadian provinces, and the information we received helped us focus our understanding of the current state of credentials—the artifacts of learning. This brief article highlights several important lessons we learned from survey results.

Lesson: Words Matter

A first and most important insight from the data is that words matter. Credential confusion is a reality, and it begins with the words used to discuss the topic. Given that so many terms are thrown about in the world of credential innovation, we explored what our members were saying and how they navigate the confusion. We learned that institutions have their own language and definitions. For example, institutions use words like “microcredentials” and “badges,” while others say “alternative credentials” or “digital wallets,” yet they are all talking about the same thing—innovative credentials. Conversely, there are other commonly used terms—comprehensive learner records (CLRs) and learning and employment records (LERs)—which were not commonly used among our membership. While “CLR” and “LER” are commonly used terms in the overall conversation, among our membership these terms do not resonate.

Lesson: Institutions of Higher Education Are Implementing Innovative Credentials

Prior to the survey, we had only limited understanding of the prevalence of credentials at AACRAO member institutions. It was gratifying to learn that once we got around the terms and descriptions, over 60 percent of respondents reported that their institutions are at some stage of considering or implementing innovative credentials. This participation rate is far higher than we had expected based on previous informal surveying.

Because words matter, AACRAO is working to understand and clarify the language about credentials. For example, a commonly used term is “digital credential.” People use that term as a catchall term for any innovative credential (e.g., badges, digital wallets), yet it is imprecise, because a digital credential also accurately describes PDF versions of transcripts, and that hasn’t been considered an innovation since the 1990s.

We find it useful to make some basic distinctions that might help the conversation. Credentials certify that a learner has achieved a designated level of knowledge. Credentials are issued by a trusted third-party entity (perhaps a college or university) that has the authority or accepted competence to issue such a document. While credentials can be on paper, in PDFs or via badges, these terms are better understood as modes of transport for credentials. We propose that in a world of fast-evolving technology, a separation of credentials and their mode of expression or transport is necessary.

Lesson: Roles, Use Cases, Challenges and Technology

Another finding from the research is a consensus that registrars should continue to play a role in higher education credential innovation conversations, but there was no consensus on the depth and breadth of that involvement. This represents an important question for AACRAO professionals and higher education.

If not registrars, then who?

It was also interesting to see the perceived best use cases for innovative credentials. Employers were overwhelmingly listed as the most likely users. Professional and continuing education, information technology, and career services were also frequently mentioned. One surprise was the assertion of almost 70 percent of respondents that the admissions office was an important use case. The implication is twofold—that our respondents believe that all learners (including K-12) will be sharing innovative credentials and that those credentials will necessarily be integrated into higher education pathways.

The survey also revealed the challenges and concerns regarding implementation of innovative credentials and the way they are delivered. Main challenges include: financial and resource limitations, technology infrastructure, communication, uniformity, quality, and value.

It was not a big surprise that the survey also revealed a high degree of concern about the interoperability of technology systems that need to be connected for innovative credentials to function. Most obvious were the SIS and the LMS. Several other systems were mentioned that should also be considered, including social media, job search platforms, HR systems, transcript vendors and degree verification systems.

Lesson: Learning Mobility Is a Priority

The good news is that despite confusion about credentialing terms, a majority of respondents’ institutions are considering innovative credentialing of some type, and learning mobility is a priority. This confirms AACRAO’s focus on facilitating the seamless evaluation and documentation of learning, the aforementioned innovative credentials. As guardians of data and record integrity with direct contact to faculty, learners and academia, AACRAO members are in a pivotal position to address the barriers to implementation of policies and practices aimed at alleviating issues related to transfer, credit mobility and recognition of learning. While all institutions may not yet be ready to take this on, this report provides the baseline that will inform our priorities in coming years as we work to address the barriers to learning mobility. It confirms that we have their attention and they are interested in solutions. And so our work begins.

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