On skills and recognition

With various authorities deciding against the reopening of schools, colleges and other academic institutions, there have been 2 specific themes which have repeated themselves

  1. Online education delivery is going through an unforeseen boom and the most nimble of delivery providers will be able to cash in on the interest
  2. Portable, shareable and verifiable digital credentials are more important than ever at any point before.

Both of these sentiments are correct because they reflect what is happening in the present. In order to truly appreciate the scale of change one has to observe this in additional contexts

  • The hiring for the federal government in the US is all set to focus on skills rather than degrees (read more)
  • On-premises institutions are going to have to take drastic measures while they restructure their financial and teaching models (read more)

A small set of situations (or “use cases”) where Verifiable Credentials would be a good purpose fit is provided at the Use Cases document. However, the uptake of verifiable credentials as the underlying basis of creating career paths need a well thought out approach to the adoption. The net positive of digital and verifiable artefacts of a student’s learning path is built on the network effect. It needs a growing number of organizations within the ecosystem to seek and adopt the electronic data exchange routines which allow for machine readable credentials to be verified. In turn, this creates incentives for more issuing organizations to adopt this model and become part of the verifiable data exchange framework.

The work at the W3C provides the basis for a standardization which is critical in order to avoid silos of incompatible formats in which credentials are locked in and lose interoperability. And this is the reason I do not subscribe to the theory that formal degrees are going to continue to be eroded in value and eventually become redundant.

The present form of education delivery follows the function which seeks to conclude that learning originates from teaching and only a high-touch in-person discourse is the way to acquire the necessary knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge is then tested through a question/response model in examinations and the results of such are supposed to determine the quantum of expertise a student gathers in a particular subject. This model is going to be severely disrupted as 3 unique but related events streams occur

  1. Learning is no longer going to be limited to a teacher-student direct discourse but rather is going to be supplemented with information streams blended from multiple sources. This by itself is not novel — the adoption of open courses and such have enabled this for a while now. What I suggest is that the impact of this would be compounded by the other two events.
  2. The learning lifecycle and knowledge acquisition pathway is going to be further chunked out enabling students to pull together multiple data repositories in order to accomplish the outcome desired for that unique and discrete modular part of the learning lifecycle. The immediate consequence of this change is that there is an increased significance of milestones and credentials generated for each of these modules which are then arranged into a flexible learning plan.
  3. This in turn opens up a boundless opportunity for knowledge and skills which are not immediately recognized by formal degrees but have a growing requirement in the business space. The absence of verifiable methods to attest to skills have opened up a trust deficit in the talent acquisition space and thus have hobbled companies from being able to identify talent and created impediments for the truly competent from landing the right jobs. A quick example — aspects around the subject of cybersecurity which do not by themselves get highlighted as part of a formal degree course and yet have a vibrant and growing ecosystem of knowledge sharing and expertise.

The “shift to online” allows the formal path to a degree and transcript to be viewed as a set of discrete milestones of knowledge, achievements, learning paths and expertise sharing. There are ways to enable the learner to acquire verifiable digital attestations for each kind of knowledge session. And a standards based credential method enables the experience of a self-governed data store of accomplishments — either as a digital wallet on a mobile device or as a wallet on the cloud. Digital credentials are also well suited to participate in challenge/response scenarios best described as Zero Knowledge Proofs — the holder of the verifiable attestations can choose to provide just that bit of data which is sufficient to enable access to a service.

The Project inCredible proposes a system of portable credentials based on “badges” by deriving from the OpenBadges v2.0 specifications. And this publicly available format is another way of exhibiting the acclaims the learner acquires through the duration of undergoing education and training.

There is work to be done to raise awareness to perceive education in a manner that evolves from how it has been designed and delivered for a long period of time. It is important to see how the current model originated in the nature of business of that time and the needs of skills from that period. As we rapidly shift towards validating skills, competence and ability the capacity to do rote learning needs to also evolve to a capability to learn from a synthesis of sources, events and incidents. But more importantly, to clearly and accurately demonstrate one’s ability so that it enhances the trust in the transactions.

Access to knowledge sources and courses will switch over to electronic exchange of verified data. This level of disintermediation demands that existing concepts of transcripts, certificates along with the very model of education delivery be reviewed for readiness. The ongoing work in the standards organizations are thus well placed to enable organizations to take the first step towards enabling this switch.