Digital Credentials And Digital Pathways Poised To Revolutionize Higher Education

According to a Welsh professor who was once honored by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen never listens to what people say to her while dispensing annual honors like knighthoods. So when it was his turn and the Queen asked him what he did to earn the honor, he replied “I murdered, ma’am, my mother-in-law at breakfast over Rice Krispies.” Per the professor, the Queen’s response was “What a good idea.”

This nutty story rang true to me. On my first visit to the University of Cambridge nearly 20 years ago, I met with the Vice Chancellor who regaled his American (and Canadian) visitors with a story about the Queen, whom he had met on several occasions, most recently when he was knighted. According to the Vice Chancellor, if you meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, she takes a keen interest in how you got there – specifically your mode of transportation, and particularly if you took the London Underground. She wants to know the station you started at, and where you alighted (British term). And the reason she’s so interested is that she’s never taken the Tube herself.

How one gets from point A to point B is of interest to everyone – not just cloistered queens. It should be particular interest to colleges and universities; while the destination is typically a degree, how students get there often says more about their education and competencies than the degree itself. It’s self-evident that two different pathways through the same institution or academic program can lead to very different educational outcomes. But colleges and universities have had little ability to track this until now. As Tube maps go, transcripts are pretty lousy.

For a few years, digital credentials or badges have been viewed as the essential innovation here. Digital credentials provide evidence of specific, tangible skills: cognitive, soft, and technical. And when accredited (and especially brand-name) colleges and universities issue digital credentials, it solves the central problem facing digital credentials. As the Wall Street Journal noted in an article about new providers like Udemy, Lynda and Coursera, digital credentials “don’t carry much weight in hiring yet… because managers don’t trust or recognize many of the companies and organizations behind the badges and courses.”