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A new study examines how six adult-serving institutions are defining and using alternative credentials such as badges, noncredit certificates and those issued for successful completion of MOOCs or coding and skills boot camps.

The 30-page report, which was released today by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), the Presidents' Forum and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), seeks to shed light on how colleges with a deep background in prior learning assessments are dealing with new and emerging forms of credentials.

“Beyond the province of anecdotal accounts of student experiences, little is known about how institutions accept and document alternative learning opportunities and whether the opportunities result in meaningful progress toward degree completion,” Leah Matthews, DEAC's executive director, said in a written statement. “This report is intended to provide a better understanding of how adult learning institutions address students who possess alternative credentials and seek to apply these experiences to a degree.”

Even the colleges examined in the study have at times struggled as they attempt to grant college credit based on alternative credentials, said Jill Buban, the report's author and senior director of research and innovation for OLC. Better data are needed about the knowledge and skills some alternative credentials represent, she said, as well as further-developed systems for assessing that learning at the institutional level. "During the onboarding process, are the right questions being asked? Are these credentials speeding a student's time to degree completion?" Buban said in an interview. "I don't think we have a clear answer."

However, the report suggests, the six colleges, which include Thomas Edison State University and SUNY Empire State College, likely have a leg up compared to other institutions when it comes to assessing student learning that occurs on the job or outside the traditional academic classroom. "These colleges have immense systems that have evolved over time," said Buban, adding that the institutions' approaches were developed with the involvement of faculty members and subject-matter experts.

For example, several of the colleges are members of the recently formed Consortium for the Assessment of College Equivalency. The consortium's aim is for participating institutions to recognize college credits for training, certifications and license evaluations that other member colleges have previously assessed.