What do transformer action figures and credentialing have in common?

Holly Zanville, Research Professor and Co-director of Program on Skills,Credentials, and Workforce Policy, George Washington University Institute of Public Policy

What if our postsecondary education credentialing system functioned like a childs transformer action figure? The premise behind a transformer toy is that individual toy parts can be shifted about to change it from a vehicle, a device, or an animal, to a robot action figure and back again. The transformation factor is important and permutations in that world are a good thing. Many types of transformers can coexist in toy world, though there is a whole culture around the best, strongest, and most powerful transformers — at least among children judging the transformations.

Picture the more than 960,000 credentials in the U.S. learn-and-work ecosystem: college degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, badges, microcredentials, apprenticeships, and others. They are “learning parts” that can be shifted about to change the total unit of learning an individual acquires. For example, if the learning was a learning transformer figure, one figure might be set up to reveal an associate degree leg, three certificate arms, and a two-badge head. Another could be set up to reveal a baccalaureate degree leg and a license leg. Each learning action figure would look different, but each would be composed of different units of learning that would be understood and accepted in our learn-and-work ecosystem; i.e., they could all work and play well in the marketplace.

To carry this analogy a bit farther, until recently most of our learning action figures looked alike — composed mostly of traditional “degree” parts. Then a variety of “non-degree” parts entered the landscape, and some learning action figures added non-degree parts. And some are questioning these different looks — these transformations — concerned that the new transformers may be inferior to the degree-centric figures.

We’re challenged now to think about a future in which our learning “action figures” will differ to meet the needs of various industry sectors, to hold down the costs of an individual’s education, to recognize that not all individuals can or will pursue education in a traditional linear path, that many learners prefer and need to go to work first and acquire educational credentials at work or school later by combining learning add-ons throughout a lifetime. What if the future reality is, we’re learning transformers living in a system that does not yet have a well-defined and understandable product line? That there can no longer be a single action figure? That in the new world, more than degrees will have value ─ smaller learning parts will have value, alone or in combinations with other learning parts?

Thanks to a group of pioneering faculty and administrators in the State University System of New York (SUNY), we have a map to point the way to a new product line of transformers — though admittedly the SUNY folks did not think they were building “transformers” when they came up with the product line.

Through a planning grant from Lumina Foundation, the SUNY group considered the pitfalls of a degree-centric system that will not serve us well in the future. They asked the hard questions: Can we come up with something better? Can our current system be improved?

The answer was yes — and they developed the new Incremental Credential Framework described at two recent symposia. The Framework with five learning paths is ready to try out and it holds great promise for transformational change in the U.S. postsecondary education system.

The vision is that an array of learning credentials will be enabled at all educational institutions throughout the nation, with state policy guiding these developments, and employers clarifying what types of learning they need. And that these credentials will be awarded incrementally, as students earn them.

Institutions building the new learning parts can use a blueprint like the Framework to guide their building. And no doubt they will come up with even better blueprints. At the same time, we will establish better ways to assess how well students move through the redesigned systems through checks and balance processes that review and assure quality. We should expect students to have their learning assessed and verified as they go — credentialed as they go — with backend services supporting students through their learning journeys.

Incremental credentialing has already arrived in pockets around our nation — and in other nations — to transform postsecondary systems. The task ahead is to build “learning transformer action figures” to large scale. Transformation is the name of the game.

Corporation for a Skilled Workforce is a national nonprofit that partners with government, business, and community leaders to support the creation of good jobs

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