Credentials in the Digital World

2020 confronted students with a revolution in digital learning. As learning was taken fully online, both students and educators had to adjust to new tools, techniques, and standards for teaching and learning.  

Part of the changes that folks faced was in evaluating the cost and value of their education. In tangent to this revolution in further education, digital learning unaffiliated with colleges and universities has been on the rise.  

Websites like Lynda, LinkedIn, Coursera, and plenty of others all offer courses that can significantly improve a learner’s skills while quantifying their achievements through a digital certificate. Some companies including Hootsuite and Microsoft also offer digital certifications evaluating competencies with their software. Interestingly, Microsoft has taken the avenue of offering digital certificates on multiple platforms. Some of these certificates are paid and go in depth. These include those offered by Microsoft on their website, and cover topics related to Microsoft’s software. Others are free and cover the basics of using software like Office 365, with the option to pay for a certificate at the end of the course. But how can we evaluate the quality and value of these certificates when so many exist, and no overarching structure exists to compare them? An interview with a professional in the field may help clarify this.  

Q&A 

My friend Jake works at Microsoft. He’s one of the smartest people I know, to the point where I get him to go over most of my written work, including many of the articles on this website. I brought him in to ask some questions about digital learning and online certificates.  

I’ve personally taken some courses on LinkedIn Learning, but even there the quality and depth of courses varied too much to know how employers might value them. On the other hand, I’ve taken courses directly with Hootsuite, and in being quantified by the company itself, I felt like these were more valuable.  

Here’s some of what Jake had to say:  

I wouldn’t be calling you an industry professional if there wasn’t a grain of truth in that title. Can you talk a bit about what you do and how it’s changed in 2020?  

Jake: When the lockdown began in March, I was working retail at the Microsoft store – where selling computers was secondary to building the company’s brand by offering tech support and free training. Once the lockdown shock wore off though, we were reorganized into remote stores; I was put into a training group, and my full-time job since then has been delivering remote training on all sorts of Microsoft products. So in a way, the core of what I do hasn’t changed all that much; I’m still responsible for adding value to the brand by making sure companies, schools, and governments know how to use the tools that they’ve already purchased. Despite Microsoft’s monolithic status in the computer world right now, they’re still playing catch-up when it comes to awareness. 

From your point of view, how do employers value the different levels of digital certificates?  

Jake: It really depends on the company, and sometimes it comes down to the individual who’s reviewing your profile. Something like a LinkedIn Learning certificate might only be of note to someone who is familiar with it and what the certification process entails. This is symptomatic of the awareness deficit I mentioned earlier – while LinkedIn is certainly well-known, it’s by no means ubiquitous. And since there are so many certs on LinkedIn Learning (over 16,000!) it can be hard to know exactly what kind of work someone had to put in to earn the badge.  

Now, if you’re looking at industry specific certs, and especially company specific certs like the ones offered by Microsoft directly, there you see a larger interest from employers. Those certs are custom tailored to their environments. If an employer sees one of their own certs on your resume, they have a much better idea of the kind of work you had to do to earn it. 

You mentioned badges, which I think is an important part of this discussion. Can you tell me more about badges?  

Jake: Right, so a badge in this case refers to anything that signifies your proficiency in a product or service. It’s almost interchangeable with ‘certification,’ but not quite; the point of the badge is that it’s partially a reward you can display on a profile or landing page that says to everyone: “Hey, I’m proud of this achievement and I want you to see it.” A badge allows you to measure your growth visually and display that growth on a virtual shelf for others to admire (and take note of, in the case of employers). 

Badges 

I’ll take a moment here to expand on badges. A digital badge can be defined as: 

“A clickable graphic that contains an online record of  

  1. an achievement,  
  1. the work required for the achievement,  
  1. evidence of such work, and  
  1. information about the organization, individual or entity that issued the badge.  

This definition is taken from Lemoine and Richardson, 2015, but I’ve quoted it from the UNESCO report on digital credentialing. One thing that the report does well is outline the distinct types of digital credentials out there, as well as what the benefits and risks might be of each level of digital credential.  

Badges, as can be seen above, are useful in their ability to point to specific achievements or the completion of a course. As Jake puts it, badges point to something important in a visual manner. It’s about as tangible as it gets when it comes to digital certifications.  

As they become more widely implemented, badges will also be able to hyperlink to both the course and the test required to earn them. Not only will this help make digital certifications more transparent, it will also break down some of the barriers that exist in transferring skills and certifications internationally. Being able to see the full process behind a credential makes it clearer to see whether it’s like a different course or test. But let’s get back to our expert.  

Q&A 

If you think about Microsoft itself, do you get a sense of how the company would value digital certificates?  

Jake: As you mentioned, Microsoft has two different streams of certs it looks at: LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Certifications. LinkedIn courses are generally seen by Microsoft as snacks – little bonus certs that can prove basic competencies and speak to goal alignments between the employer and prospective employee. The real deals are those MS Certs, which involve proctored exams and intense study over weeks or months to prove mastery of the content. Those are more valuable because they demonstrate a much more thorough and practical understanding of skillsets relevant to specific streams of employment – data science, software engineering, administration, and so on. 

Ed: I like that you call them little snacks, I think it paints a great picture of the differences that exist between those Microsoft Certifications and other online courses that you can find anywhere. I think it also rings true in other industries. I know that something like a PMP is going to be a lot more impactful on a resume then simply having taken a LinkedIn Learning course about project management. At least, no one has reached out to me since taking that LinkedIn course! 

What about when the certificate is related to one of Microsoft’s product?  

Jake: That really depends on the job you’re after. If you’re applying for a cloud engineering position and you have great Excel skills but no Azure certs, they’re not going to be overly impressed. Conversely, if I were applying for the job I have now, having LinkedIn certifications for the basics like Microsoft 365, Power Platform, Public Speaking, and Social Selling would have way more of an impact than the highly technical certs. It’s all about targeting your effort toward the certs that align best with your goal.  

One last question for you Jake, how do you see digital credentialing involving into 2021? What role do you think digital credentials will play?  

Jake: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Microsoft during this pandemic, it’s the importance of reskilling. Their whole retail division has been turned on its head, and the new responsibilities that have thrust onto its workers have in some ways demanded that they rapidly reskill to keep up. For many, that means collecting certifications as quickly as they can. And I think that really shows the dynamism of some industries that rely heavily on credentialling; in a post-Covid world, where people have become more cognizant of the weaknesses and gaps in socio-economic safety structures, the ability to reskill and to prove that you’ve acquired new, usable knowledge will be even more valuable. Companies are paying more attention, and some, as we’ve seen with Microsoft and LinkedIn, are making certifications more accessible. 

Conclusion 

I think Jake said it best. Reskilling is becoming more commonplace, which is great for folks ready to move on to greener pastures, but it’s important that reskilling doesn’t become an expectation from the part of employers. It’s not because of the availability of digital credentialing and developing new skills that this should be done without cause. It still is a lot of work to take classes on a topic, especially if the end goal is to become quite good at whatever the class is about.  

While the future is unpredictable, digital credentialing, micro credentialing, and digital badges all present unique opportunities for future learners. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved in academia, and as both a current and former student, I look forward to see what learning opportunities are available to me in the future.  

Notes 

Lemoine, P. A., & Richardson, M. D. (2015). Micro-credentials, nano degrees, and digital badges: New credentials for global higher education. International Journal of Technology and Educational Marketing (IJTEM), 5(1), 36-49. 

Digital Credentialing – Implications for the recognition of learning across borders 

Further reading here, as well as here 

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