The Growing Need to Standardize and Validate Online Education Credentials for the Job Market

Near the end of The Matrix, right after Neo and Trinity have their epic battle with the agents on the rooftop , he turns to her and asks whether she “can fly that thing”, referring to a nearby helicopter. They need to do this in order proceed to rescue Morpheus. She doesn’t know how to … just quite yet. Then she takes out her mobile phone to call Apoc and ask him to quickly upload a program to her virtual self that will enable her to pilot the chopper.

The very first time I saw this groundbreaking sci-fi film, at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 on Broadway and 13th Street in Manhattan, the audience laughed at the absurdity of this dialog. While they were utterly dazzled by the rest of the narrative and strikingly original special effects (especially the astonishing and brain-melting sequence known as “bullet time” where Neo fights and clearly proves he’s no neophyte), this was still an awkward moment because people were laughing at this otherwise captivating film.

While I doubt that anyone would still laugh at this line in today’s world of all things networked and digital, we still have not reached anywhere near the point where people can have new skills and knowledge uploaded right to our brains. Well, at least not anytime soon and, to say the least, doing so would redefine the whole notion of an “upgrade”.

Nonetheless, there has been an enormous revolution in the breadth and diversity of webwide learning platforms. These are now available to anyone anywhere anytime with online access and a desire to learn. The benefits and the potential of online education were first taken up here in a Subway Fold Post on February 15, 2015 entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process. I have taken MOOCs on everything from content strategy to project management to basic programming and have learned a great deal from them.

Standards Still Lacking for Online Education Credentials

However, in today’s highly competitive economy and job market, employers are just not sure how to evaluate prospective workers when they list online courses on their resumes and discuss them at interviews. There is no standardization yet in the requirements and weighting of these credentials. This critical issue was taken up in a very timely and informative feature in the November 18, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Online Skills Are Hot, But Will They Land You a Job? by Lauren Weber. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some of my own non-academic questions.

Employers are currently searching for people with latest “technical and digital skills”. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the services rendered by course providers including Udemy and Lynda.com, coding bootcamps, and MOOCs such as Coursera and edX. These online learning platforms aim to assist workers in enhancing their skills or to provide “experience they didn’t get in college”. Nonetheless, many managers still neither trust nor recognize these new providers and their course offerings.

According to Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, there is no central authority setting any standards for these online educational providers. Some of the job seekers who have taken these online classes are likewise frustrated by this situation.

Independent Groups Trying to Create Credential Standards

An effort to create such standards has recently been undertaken by a group of academic researchers with additional assistance from trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Support for this also includes a $2.25 million grant from the Lumina Foundation, whose stated goal is for 60% of Americans to gain post-high school training by 2025. This project involves creating an online registry for use by both employers and workers to research credentials. This is intended for either group to “see exactly what skills they reflect”.

The creation of this credential registry is currently being done as a joint project by George Washington University, Southern Illinois University and the American National Standards Institute. A pilot of the directory is expected to be rolled out sometime during mid-2016.

The working group plans to assure employers that an online educator’s credentials (or “badges”) are “a sign of rigorous training”, by surveying employers about the credentials held by employees in specific roles. This will be done in an effort to provide validation for particular courses and badges.

(I also searched and found a position paper entitled Connecting Credentials: Making the Case for Reforming the U.S. Credentialing System, published by The Lumina Foundation in June 2015. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this for the clear and compelling case it makes for this project.)

Similar initiatives have also been developed by:

  • LinkedIn which is engaged in a pilot program in Phoenix and Denver. The company is canvassing area employers about the skills they are seeking and the credentials of the workers they have recently hired. Using this information, the job networking site will permit users to learn the skills they will need for a particular job and the classes and training that “recent hires in that role have had”. This service will launch in early 2016.
  • TechHire which is a new U.S. government venture launched earlier this year by the Obama administration, whose mission is to expedite training and employment opportunities “for people without traditional academic backgrounds”. It is expected to accelerate the validity of the credentials it is offering by persuading “employers to review their skill requirements” and coordinate with training providers of “nontraditional coursework” including coding boot camps and online classes.

Employer Initiative to Test Applicant’s Job-Specific Skills

Employers on their own initiatives may soon be testing job applicants’ tech and marketing skills with simulations. These could be given in conjunction with interviews. During an HR conference in 2014, a number of companies demo-ed such tests for a wide range of specific skills from “basic math to drafting legal contracts”.¹

According to Dennis Yang, the CEO of Udemy, if these gain wide acceptance, college degrees or technical certificates might no longer be relevant. Rather, for him, the two key criteria are the ability and the willingness to learn new things.

Currently, recruiters believe that badges and credentials from online education programs indicate someone’s receptivity to learning. For example, Melkeya McDuffie, the Senior Director of Talent Acquisition recently promoted an employee at Waste Management, Inc. partly because he had taken some relevant MOOCs on Coursera. She was impressed that he had taken the initiative to do so and could demonstrate his knowledge.²

My Questions

  • Would a hybrid of credential standardization and skills simulations be another viable approach? That is, could the groups involved in each of these efforts could inform, influence and shape each others’ work?
  • How would either or both of these processes be affected in jobs requiring state or federal licensing?
  • Should employees in certain jobs be somehow incentivized by their employers to take duly certified online courses in order to remain current in their fields? Should companies factor online courses taken into an employee’s annual performance review?

1. See also a September 12, 2014 post on Lawyerist.com entitled The Legal Tech Audit Proves Lawyers Are Terrible at Technology, by Lisa Needham.

2. See also an October 23, 2015 article in the Houston Chronicle entitled Waste Management Overhauls Its Recruiting by Sarah Scully, where Ms. McDuffie is also quoted several times.

Editor’s Note – this article reprinted with the permission of the author – first published on his blog – The Subway Fold.

Posted in: Continuing Legal Education, Distance Learning, Internet Resources, Job Hunting, KM, Training, Web-Based Training
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