The Future of Digital Credentials: Portability, Depth, Focus. (Pick Two)

min read

An old designer’s adage says that you can build something that is "good, fast, or cheap, pick two.” So it seems is the situation we face confronting the development of digital credentials. The entire domain is characterized by some pretty blurry lines that represent boundaries of uncertainty, responsibility, and trust.

In one corner, you have the institutional responsibility for awarding credentials, which is typically vested in the registrar. The registrar certifies and validates that a student has achieved the necessary requirements in order to have a degree bestowed. The record of this — the student transcript — is, however, increasingly useless. According to, “Your college transcript is used to prove to employers and graduate schools that you've earned a college degree and to show what you studied in your degree program.” That’s true. It is the official record.

They go on to write that the transcript is “the record of everything you accomplished while in college, including the credit and non-credit classes you took, the degree or degrees you earned, your grades and more.” Well, not that much more. Yes, it documents transfer credits, and whether you withdrew from a course, got an incomplete, etc., on a per-course basis. But a record of what you’ve accomplished? Not so much.

In the other corner is the learner, the person who is doing the work to earn their degree and as a final official artifact from that effort receives either a multipage list of courses and grades, or its secure PDF equivalent. If you’re like the increasing number of learners who don’t remain at the same institution in which you started your academic journey, this record is now scattered across those you attended as you worked toward that final moment of achievement.

The problem with this is that it is context-bound, but not in a way that you, the learner, has any input. You may have received an incomplete because you were a slacker who slept in one too many times for that 8:00 am class. Or you may have received it because you got sick, tried to complete things, but just couldn’t get it all done. Or you may have done all the work but missed a submission deadline that the faculty member wouldn’t waive. The reader of your academic transcript has no idea. They may not care if it’s on a topic that is wildly outside the domain of the job. But you, the person whose life is transcripted, don’t get the opportunity to contextualize the information.

We need to move toward student ownership of the transcript with institutional stewardship, based on new design principles: interoperable, customizable, and informative — demand all three. What does this imply? Your record of achievements as a student are maintained by the institution from which you’ve earned them. It’s clearly in the interest of the institution (and is also their legal obligation) to maintain an accurate record of student achievements up to and including their granting a degree based upon the validation of requirements for bestowing it. But these are your records, too. And it’s your need to present these in a way that is most advantageous to your professional prospects while neither fabricating or otherwise inaccurately embellishing them.

How do you accurately shape the presentation of your accomplishments as substantiated by your official records?

The key is to give you more granular control of their presentation while retaining or conveying their authenticity. That might sound more easily said than done. But the architecture of badging is a step in that direction.

I’m not suggesting that a badge should be the equivalent of a course, or that this is the substitution of choice. Nor is the badge underlying technology necessarily the ultimate mechanism for validating your assertions of accomplishment. The immutable block of the blockchain environment might serve better, as the validation is in the writing of the block, obviating the need to check with the institution each time the learner presents the badgechain data to a third party.

There is much more to this story as we explore the ways in which technology can make the records of students’ achievements simultaneously more secure, more user-friendly, and better contextualized. I hope you’ll tune in for future installments.

Phillip D. Long, Ph.D., serves as Chief Innovation Officer and Associate VP for Learning Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.