Are the unique values of your programs overlooked and underappreciated?
Is your organization struggling to align its programs with in-demand skills?
Do you believe your organization is leveraging technology effectively to benefit learners?
This article explains how IMS open standards and the Credential Engine's Credential Registry work together to support critical institutional and learner goals.
The Move to Skills-Based Hiring
As institutional leaders confront challenges of education affordability and questions of relevance, learners increasingly are using their education dollars carefully and selectively. Organizations that offer credentials focused on in-demand skills, publicized in an open form and delivered through a convenient and efficient platform, differentiate themselves and are positioned for long-term growth.
Many institutions today are in the process of reviewing their programs and curriculum to confirm alignment with the needs and interests of prospective students, most of whom are focused on employment, naturally. Among sporadic debates about education's purpose (is it to teach the person how to think or how to code?), it is becoming more widely accepted that traditional liberal education does, in fact, offer what employers need and value. As the report from recent AAC&U research illustrates, both technical and essential professional skills, such as teamwork and flexibility, are important in today's economy. Institutions that become experts in identifying and integrating those skills into their programs will have a strategic advantage.
How will institutions describe their programs internally and online so everyone can choose the best school and the best program for them? Many prospective learners will opt for a program with certifications providing in-demand skills and credentials. With so many offerings available now (almost one million credentials identified in the 2021 report Counting U.S. Postsecondary and Secondary Credentials), institutional leaders need to be explicit about the value of their offerings. How can unique, high-quality programs differentiate themselves with so many options available? This article will show how an institution can provide the needed transparency by strategically managing program outcomes internally and to the public efficiently and sustainably through open standards from IMS Global Consortium and the Credential Registry from Credential Engine.
The Credential Registry is a free public service of the non-profit Credential Engine with a mission to map the credential landscape with clear and consistent information, fueling the creation of resources that empower people to find the pathways that are best for them. The Credential Registry organizes information about all credential offerings (such as degrees, certificates, licenses, and more) and makes this information available as a public good for search and reference. Government agencies in twenty-seven states and regions have partnered with Credential Engine to make credential offerings and underlying learning outcomes (referred to as competencies) available online, already engaging with 906 institutions and credentialing organizations.
IMS is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to achieving an open and inclusive digital ecosystem that serves the needs of every learner throughout their educational journey. As part of its principal services, the IMS community develops and publishes open standards for exchanging data between education technology systems. IMS does not offer products; its mission is to ensure efficient interoperability across the broad landscape of learning technologies. More than 650 school districts, colleges, universities, state agencies, and technology suppliers are members of IMS. Using IMS open standards in its technology products, institutions can manage and synchronize their institutional data across systems and with external services such as the Credential Registry. The CASE® (Competencies and Academic Standards Exchange®) standard enables this exchange.
The Problem With "Disappearing" Learning Outcomes
Institutions develop programs and courses to achieve desired learning outcomes and skills. However, after their initial design and development—and perhaps over a few years of revisions—the underlying learning outcomes can lose visibility or become less central to instruction. Partially, this is because the technology platforms and tools in use often do not account for learning outcomes. Instead, they are focused on the course and content delivery unmoored (in an administrative sense) to the program's underlying goals as represented by learning outcomes. It's challenging to find a curriculum system or learning management system that effectively integrates learning outcomes into instructional plans, educational resources, and assessments for a particular module, course, or program. These systems exist but are not the norm yet, as expected. Since learning outcomes and skills are the essential element of credentials, we need to capture, manage them well and share them broadly.
Unfortunately, ensuring that courses teach the desired outcomes has been more a matter of faculty diligence than the product of well-designed processes and technology. Most institutional systems are not tracking outcomes or their underlying relationships to courses and instructional materials, so data does not even exist for many institutions to manage or share internally or with systems like the Credential Registry. Instead, many institutions across the country have faculty and staff analyzing existing courses and syllabi to extract and document program learning outcomes. Periodically the data are assembled for self-studies, external reports, or marketing campaigns to represent the value of the institution's credentials. Experienced leaders will immediately recognize this one-and-done approach is error-prone, expensive, and an unsustainable process. In the long term, learning outcomes must be treated as foundational data in the institution's teaching and learning systems and rigorously audited and managed as the institution's financial or HR systems. Does the central "product" of the institution deserve less?
Developing an Efficient, Sustainable Process
A one-time spreadsheet upload of credentials and competencies into the Credential Registry is a very good first step to make your institution's program outcomes more transparent. Still, it is insufficient if your goal is to keep up with changes, new programs, and inevitable program eliminations. A process is needed where you can centrally manage all learning outcomes (new, changed, and deletions) and publish them to internal systems (LMS, assessment systems, content repositories, and others) so you can share and get up-to-date data about your institution's program with external systems, like the Credential Registry. Implementing this type of process requires a strategy that places a high value on learning outcomes as important information for your institution and your learners and, therefore, worthy of purposeful management.
The most common means of curriculum management is based upon a learning framework, a term that describes a collection of related concepts. Items in a framework may be learning outcomes, skills, or competencies and can be organized in appropriate hierarchies along with their relationships and possibly equivalencies. Frameworks can be in paper-based tables, spreadsheets, or, more preferably, linked data sources accessible to any system in the institution and, when desired, outside the institution across the internet. IMS's CASE specification is a free and open standard for publishing machine-readable linked data frameworks for learning outcomes, skills, and competencies, enabling that data to be easily shared and understood among institutional systems and across the web.
IMS CASE Enables Data Exchange
Internally and Externally
In addition to publishing the CASE standard, IMS tests and certifies technology products that adopt the standard, so buyers can choose with confidence and know that their products and data are interoperable and, ultimately, more useful and valuable.
Each CASE-certified product provides its own features and functions; certification does not imply universal capabilities across products. However, institutions that buy or build a certified CASE-based framework system will be able to use it to define their institutional outcomes and program-level outcomes and align those outcomes to courses, instructional materials, assessments, and ultimately credentials. Further, if the product supports Credential Engine integration, institutions can publish new and changed data to the Credential Registry as it happens, keeping their systems and the Registry data in sync. Management of the Registry data can become a byproduct of normal operations of the institution keeping its catalog and curricula updated. All of these capabilities are enabled by the use of open standards, which means that the institution won't be locked into one product, but rather can adopt the best products available that use the CASE standard for exchange.
Reflecting on Personal Journeys: A Key Benefit of Curriculum Transparency for Learners
Managing your institutions' program learning outcomes strategically and publishing your programs to the Credential Registry are important steps toward making them more visible and distinguished from other institutions and offerings. But arguably, the more important result from formalizing the management of learning outcomes is in the impact on the learner, helping them better understand their educational experiences and communicate their achievements to others, especially prospective employers.
Many institutions committed to strategically managing learning outcomes provide engaging, data-rich student dashboards and issuing Comprehensive Learner Records (CLRs) containing a detailed map of the learner's academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular achievements and credentials. The IMS CLR standard contains verifiable achievements such as degrees, certifications, licenses, learning outcomes, and demonstrated skills or competencies which the learner can selectively share with others from an online portal or digital wallet. Along with the related micro-credential standard Open Badges, the CLR standard contains a wide variety of learning and skill-based achievement types. These achievements can be directly linked to the associated credential published by the institution in the Credential Registry as well as to the institution's program catalog and published industry skills frameworks. The learner has control over her verifiable achievements, sharing those that she thinks are most relevant given a particular opportunity. Even self-asserted achievements and evidence are available to represent learning that happens outside of the classroom. When presented with a CLR, understanding an individual's verifiable knowledge, skills and achievements can take just a few clicks.
While the high-quality, structured data in a CLR provides convenience and valuable insight to the person reviewing the credentials, it's the machine-readability and verifiability of digital credentials that provide even greater value through scalable automation with any IT system that can consume the open standard CLR or micro-credential. And when a learner shares her credentials via social media, information about an institution's brand and programs will be only a click away for any interested viewer.
Open standards working together can link an institution's CASE-based curriculum, the Credential Registry, and the learner's Comprehensive Learner Record and achieve maximum transparency and benefits for the learner and the institution alike.
In Challenging Times, A Foundation for Growth
More and more, learners of all ages expect their institution to provide convenience and value beyond the classroom. IMS open standards and the Credential Registry help institutions meet these challenges, providing easy access to valuable program information. Institutional leaders want to also meet the expectations of their faculty and staff by providing them with high-quality technology tools that operate in an efficient, interoperable, and convenient manner. These goals can be achieved with the strategic use of modern technologies and services based on open standards such as those from Credential Engine and IMS—working together to meet the needs of today’s learners and educators.
To help prepare your institution and learners for the skills-based employment economy, we encourage you to signal your support for open standards and transparency and explicitly require these capabilities in product procurement instruments as your institution makes its technology decisions.
Resources to Help Your Institution Get Started
→ Open Standards for Digital Credentials and Skills
→ Guidance Signaling Expectations for Credential Transparency – Sample Language
→ Standards First Program and Pledge
About the Authors
Jeff Grann, Credential Solutions Lead, Credential Engine
Jeff is the Credential Solutions Lead for Credential Engine, where he advances systems of trust that incent adult development and empower learners to reach their potential. He currently works with the higher education industry to advance the goal of publishing to the registry, setting standards, improving data integration and interoperability, and realizing use cases that improve credential decision-making.
Mark Leuba, Vice President, IMS Global Consortium
Mark is a technology leader in education with particular expertise in online learning. As the vice president of product management, Mark guides the strategy and development of IMS Global Consortium’s extensive portfolio of technology standards. His leadership has grown the organization's digital credentials initiative, which is pioneering new ways to connect learners to work.
Published July 2021