The recent ICoBC symposium in November 2021 was a unique gathering of different expertise and perspectives. It helped our team in creating research connections that were not visible beforehand. The symposium included panel discussions and working groups on the perspectives of Corporations, Higher Education, Associations (lobbying organizations), as well as tackling the topics of Workforce Development, Digital Identity and 21st Century Skills, in the context of Digital Credentials. The debates within each of those working groups showed that even within each stakeholder in the Digital Credentials ecosystem, there are still gaps and differences to bridge. With that, the debates made it quite clear what needs to be done to get to a wider, institutionalized, productive use of digital credentials.

Some interesting topics that surfaced during the conference were:

(Higher) Education: The current business models that Higher Education institutions are based on are of cumulative, continuous study path, that sums up in a label – a formal degree. Digital credentials allow students to break down the label into granular skills and qualifications. Therefore, embracing digital credentials in higher education means embracing a different idea of learning, and coming up with a new business model that fits it, without compromising the brand trust that is strongly associated with Higher Education.

The new model requires significant investment of time and financial resources. This can only be achieved with multi-faceted Trust:

  • In learners’ demand: that students would pay for the smaller units
  • In employers’ demand – that employers would agree to acknowledge what the students achieved.
  • In public perception – recognizing micro-knowledge as the same quality as Degrees

Corporations:  Credentialing and skill-based development is cross-siloed by nature – it allows for mobility across departments, resource and skills efficiency. However, most corporations organisationally differentiate hiring (HR) and Workforce Development. When employees are trying to push forward Digital Credentials, it causes internal friction and push back, as it calls to look beyond existing structures and potentially change them.

Related to this, Workforce Development hardly uses Digital Credentials within corporations and other organizations. Credentialing is also not commonly used to evaluate salaries, staff teams etc. Discussions led to assume that this may be due to lack of understanding of skills – what skills exist in the company? What does the company need to be future proof? Workforce Developers are also lacking standardized qualification input, making it difficult to learn from one another – knowledge within companies equals a currency that is only valued locally, and cannot be compared or shared on a wider scale.

Associations:  Associations, a collection of organizations who are coming together to empower one another and lobby for common interest, are a rising engine for the promotion of Digital Credentials in Europe. Associations create value through recognition inside a closed network, amongst benevolent partners. When applying this value to developing competency and applicable skills, there is an inherent web of trust laid out to support it, amplifying the chances of successful implementation and reception.

Digital Identity:  This term refers to one’s own personal identity, as well as to the identity of Digital Credentials (their issuers, content and validity). One need that arises through the topic of Digital Identity in the context of Credentials, is that of reliability on both sides of the equation:  Everything a learner does is connectable and connected to their Digital Identity, it could be traced back to them – therefore learners would like to make sure that the identity provider (e.g. Google for gmail)  would always be accessible to them.

In the case of Open Badges and other digital credentials, if the platform / providers of the technology disappear – the learner’s achievements may disappear with them.

The learner also wishes to remain in control – define who can access their credentials, that they are not exposed to everyone.

This sets two prerequisites for the successful implementation of Open Badges – assurance of permanent accessibility, independent of providers, and personal means of controlling access to credentialing information.

21st Century Skills:  It’s easy to assert that we (as learners, employees, humans) need skills that fit our highly volatile, ever changing environment, so we can stay competitive and make use of technological development. However, as it turns out from discussion, there is no established mutual agreement on what that means, and different experts speak in different terms to portray required skills and competencies, making it difficult to create training and evaluation.

Digital credentials could be used to reflect exactly those skills that cannot be easily represented in other ways. One avenue forward could be the creation of a trusted centralizing body to define a small number of subskills, to start off with – going into detail of how they could be proved – and methodically expanding from there.

As you can read between the lines, one notion repeated in the different debates and working groups, and, with some distance, we realized that it is not a new one –  this notion is TRUST, more specifically DIGITAL TRUST. It is at the core of all digital marketplaces, a field that is increasingly better understood, through the experiences of giants as eBay or airbnb to your local neighborhood network.

So what if we think of Digital Credentials as a marketplace, and concentrate on how we can establish DIGITAL TRUST between the different stakeholders? Perhaps this is a key to successful , wide scale implementation of Digital Credentials across Europe.