Digital credentials are poised to replace traditional resumes as the primary signal of achievement of learning due to their increased functionality. Digital credentials are an electronic version of credentials, and can be issued for degrees, certifications, certificates, licenses or any other traditional credential. Digital credentials can also be issued to mark other achievements or learning, such as bootcamps, a series of courses, apprenticeships or an assessment.

Digital credentials are designed to have features that can greatly benefit learners, credential issuers and employers alike. Perhaps the most important aspect is that digital credentials are secure, validated and immutable. These qualities mean that digital credentials can be electronically verified by their issuer, allowing their holder to share their verified credential with others. This is important because an individual applying for a job that requires a certification (or other credential) could share their digital credential during the application process. Because digital credentials are secure and immutable, this eliminates the need for further verification from the employer. For example, some health care positions may require evidence that an individual has a degree from an accredited higher education institution, has passed the relevant occupational assessment to earn a certification and has a license to practice in a specific state. Verifying these credentials would require an employer to reach out to at least three different organizations and could take weeks to receive a response. Digital credentials would eliminate this step because they are already verified, which means that their use could greatly shorten applicant screening and onboarding processes for employers.

Another unique functionality of digital credentials is the ability to include metadata in the credential. Metadata can provide employers with much more transparency into the value of the credential as well as the potential for evidence of competency relevant to an occupation. This metadata could be: additional information on the credential issuer, such as their accreditation status at the time of issuance; evidence of competency by the credential holder, such as a portfolio of projects or a list of competencies or learning outcomes which have been met by the individual holding the credential.

Additionally, learners can store their credential(s) in a digital “wallet” and can share selected items from their wallet as needed. This has two significant benefits to an individual – the ability to share select data as needed with others and consistent access to the credential. This means that an individual does not need to go through a third party to share their credential(s) or other items in their digital wallet, they can do it directly. This also means that an individual can select to share confirmation that they have a credential without disclosing the year it was earned.

For example, individuals who need to confirm they hold a bachelor’s degree could use a digital credential to do so, without having to share their whole transcript, which would include an award date. This would meet the verification needs of employers while removing concerns an individual may have about age-related discrimination. This will also provide employers with the ability to continue to gather information needed to make personnel decisions without extraneous information.

There are also other benefits of digital credentials for employers. One of the most significant is that digital credentials can provide information to develop more targeted and efficient upskilling and reskilling programs. Since digital credentials can embed skills and competencies in their data, an employer can examine an individual’s credentials (in their digital wallet) and understand the skills profile of that employee. Skills strengths — and gaps — captured in digital wallets offer an evidence-based approach to professional development, and allow for tailored training. Digital credentials can also support upskilling or reskilling employees into new roles. A series of digital credentials can be recognized by an organization as a pathway to qualify for promotion or position change. This approach provides transparency about skill gains relevant to a role for both individuals and employers.

For these reasons, digital credentials are gaining in popularity – more than 43 million digital credentials were issued through mid-2020. However, there are two elements which still need to be met for digital credentials to transform the talent marketplace: full interoperability, both within the U.S. and internationally; and an inclusive approach to adoption.

Fulfilling Their Promise

Full interoperability for digital credentials will require a universal data standard for all digital credentials. Voluntary consensus standards are a key component to support and grow emerging technologies like digital credentials. Standards have been essential to the growth of technologies such as wireless internet, ensuring that consumers can purchase electronics such as laptops, cell phones and tablets which can connect to wireless networks globally.

Currently, such standardization is lacking for digital credentials, limiting the ability for credential holders to widely share their digital credentials, as well as the ability for employers and other organizations to receive digital credential information. One of the challenges to developing a single data standard is the fact that all the many stakeholder groups in the education and workforce communities need to come to consensus around such a standard for digital credentials. These stakeholders include: individual users (i.e., secondary students, post-secondary learners, workers), credential issuers (i.e., high schools, colleges, training providers, certification bodies, government agencies and state licensure boards), employers (i.e., private and public, large and small) and others (i.e., accreditation bodies and public workforce systems).

Although this may seem like a tremendous undertaking, there are established procedures for this type of effort, and this type of coordination of standards is central to the mission of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which facilitates the development of standards among the various stakeholders to serve the public interest. This is done through standards developing organizations (SDOs) that follow a standards development process that meets ANSI’s principles for openness, balance, consensus, and due process.

While the use of digital credentials is growing, there are still many individuals and organizations who do not use them. An accessible and inclusive approach to adoption of digital credentials is central to the ability of digital credentials to transform the status quo. Increasing the adoption and use of digital credentials to access their full potential will require deliberate action by educational institutions, employers and non-profit organizations. For example, most large- and medium-size employers are likely to have the infrastructure to utilize digital credentials with few additional investments, but that may not be the case for small credentialing organizations, employers, or government agencies, who may need technical support to implement offering, using or adopting digital credentials. Adoption at the individual level will also require focused outreach, particularly to communities already impacted by the digital divide.

The ability of all learners and organizations to participate in the use of digital credentials is central to using this technology to change the talent marketplace. As secure, validated and immutable, digital credentials have the potential to transform the workplace of the future.