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. A chart developed by one college in developing a new “Cybersecurity Support Technician” program demonstrates how this works. First the chart explains what the technician does (overview of occupation; job titles in this training area; occupational context, purpose, and pathways; attitudes/behaviors for the job; certification/licensure required). Then the chart rates the many cross-cutting competencies for the program using the Credentials Framework. As example, in Personal Effectiveness, the competency standards are rated level 4 (out of 8, where 8 is equivalent to a Ph.D.) for integrity, professionalism, reliability, dependability, and lifelong learning; level 2 for initiative and adaptability/flexibility; and level 1 for interpersonal. For Academic Competencies, the levels for reading, writing, and communication are set at 2; and at 4 for math, science/technology, critical/analytical thinking, and basic computer skills. And for Workplace Competencies, the standards are 4 for teamwork, customer focus, problem solving/decision making, working with tools/technology, and checking/examining/recording; level 2 for planning/organization, scheduling/coordinating, and health/safety; and level 1 for business fundamentals and sustainable practices.The colleges’ early trials are finding that a framework is a useful tool to bring more transparency to their credentials. Think how helpful it would be if learners, employers, policymakers, and certification bodies had access to this type of information across all credentials.
  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. Paper documents are not helpful to faculty as they plow through the essential job of making credential programs understandable ─ to send the “right signals” about what learning their credentials represent. Once a college develops transparent descriptions for its credential programs, having them available in digital format will enable easy sharing with other colleges and credential providers. This then will move us forward toward the goal of a system that uses common language to connect all credentials.
  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. How great would it be if the competencies outlined in maps like the cybersecurity technician program could be described (or linked) on the student’s transcript so employers would know what the student offers as a future employee? And what if all of these credentials were listed in a national registry that connected our many credentials?

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.

Find the important takeaways to date in the Right Signals initiative such as competencies becoming the new currency in AACC’s first-year report.

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