A game-changing solution to a serious credentialing problem

By Holly Zanville

Twenty colleges participating in the Right Signals Initiative are using Lumina Foundation’s Credentials Framework to create a common language around credentialing.  

The Right Signals initiative is on to something. The initiative is trying to solve a serious credentialing problem: confusion in the credentialing marketplace stemming from a lack of transparency in what credentials mean ─ what knowledge and skills they stand for. A promising solution has been garnering support from many quarters: use common language to describe credentials through the language of competencies.

To take this idea to the next step, Lumina Foundation joined forces with the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce a few years ago to commission the Credentials Framework, a “common language” tool that uses competencies – what the learner knows and is able to do – as common reference points to help understand and compare various types of credentials – including degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships, diplomas and other microcredentials.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) next assembled a group of community colleges to test the framework to see if it would be useful in working with the many types of credentials they offer. For the past year, 20 colleges across 15 states have been experimenting with the framework to see if their credentials are sending the “right signals” to students, employers, workforce groups and many others.

I had the pleasure of joining the presidents of these colleges when they met recently to compare their experiences. Here are three takeaways from listening to their important insights about the framework:

  1. A framework that outlines core competencies of knowledge/skills, by level of expertise, is useful as a common denominator for education programs across many disciplines. The Credentials Framework is providing a new way to improve program review processes by providing a common point of reference and standards for faculty, counselors and administrators.
  2. To be usable by faculty and staff, the framework must be available in digital format. There are two issues here: a) no one size fits all and b) technology is needed to achieve interoperability of standards among multiple credential providers and users.
  3. Once credential programs are mapped to a knowledge/skills framework of core competencies, where do they live to meet the goal of credential as common currency? Can a program mapped using the framework connect to other credentials, either within a college or with other education providers? I heard many great suggestions about how to connect credentials within an ecosystem of credentials. Two featured in the Connecting Credentials Action Plan stand out ─ get credentials into the Credential Registry being developed by Credential Engine, and use competency maps to inform the student records of learners completing these programs.

The idea of using common language characterized by core competency statements and levels of knowledge and skills to make credentials more transparent is alive and well in the trials being led by the 20 Right Signals community colleges. The question is: How can we get these approaches to take hold in the larger credentialing marketplace? We can start by asking all credential providers to use common language tools like the Credentials Framework to describe their credentials. This seems like the best solution to bring transparency to our confusing credentialing marketplace.

The Right Signals colleges are on to something. This may be one of the game changers we’ve been looking for.

This is an abridged version of an article at Lumina Foundation’s website. Read the full article here, then discuss it at LinkedIn.

Holly Zanville

Holly Zanville is senior advisor for credentialing and workforce development at Lumina Foundation.

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