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Lumina Foundation wants to talk about credentials. The Foundation announced a major initiative today addressing how to better align credentialing policies and practices with the needs of students and employers. In partnership with more than 40 business, labor and education groups that have signed up for the “National Dialogue on Credentials”, Lumina aims to better understand what is happening in the field of credentialing and develop strategies for improvement.

Why credentials? Because skills and knowledge don’t speak for themselves. Job seekers and employers need ways to identify the skills they have or wish to hire, and credentials are supposed to serve that critical communication function. The good news is that credentials are more available than ever before. Over the last decade, we have seen an explosion in the numbers and types of degrees, diplomas, certificates, and certifications, each attesting to the specific knowledge or capabilities of their holders. Credentials are a growth industry and proof positive of how responsive our decentralized and market-based postsecondary education sector is to the needs of students and employers. In more centralized systems, it’s hard to imagine something as innovative as digital badges getting a start, much less gaining a foothold in the market.

But while centralization can thwart innovation, fragmentation and disarticulation are its close cousins, potentially overwhelming the positive that comes from all that creativity. Today’s credential marketplace is a confusing arena of different types of credentials that are difficult to interpret and even more difficult to translate from one to the other. If you have a project management certification, is that about the same as an undergraduate certificate in office administration? Or is it more like an associate degree? How many credits is your license in practical nursing worth? And what if it was issued by a different state? What does an undergraduate degree in history mean you can do? What’s your military training worth? How about that MOOC certificate? If a job seeker has a badge from Code Academy, or an endorsement from Stack Overflow, does that mean they can really code? These are questions that consumers have to ask every day in our current credentialing environment. It is unpredictable, opaque, and more than a little frustrating. When every credential is a snowflake – unique to its issuer and impossible to replicate – they are of limited value to job seekers or employers.

In the publication accompanying the launch of the national dialogue, the Lumina Foundation lays out the case for building a more coherent credentialing system that would operate much like the international monetary system, with many different currencies but clear exchange rates. The principle of “interoperability” is at the core of their vision. Interoperable systems can work with parts or products from different producers and make sense of them without any special effort by the customer. As long as the providers design their products according to a shared set of protocols, the system can support them. It is a design principle that helps ensure plenty of room for innovation on the production side, while still enabling consumers to reap the benefits of being part of a larger, inter-connected system.

Two quick examples illustrate the potential of a credentialing system based on the principle of interoperability. In the mid-19th century, many new railroad companies emerged, fueled by the industrial revolution and America’s westward expansion. But trains could not always move easily from one company’s tracks to another’s, adding time and expense to every trip. Eventually, a combination of public policy and enlightened self-interest led to the widespread adoption of a standard gauge size that would allow trains to move seamlessly across tracks with different owners.

The establishment of simple design protocols for electronic mail is a second, more recent, example of how shared, voluntary standards can lay the foundation for transformative change. Common protocols enabled the widespread adoption of electronic mail and the emergence of many different providers of email and related Internet services. We never had to worry that someone with an AOL account wouldn’t receive email from our Hotmail account. From FTP to IMAP, email protocols evolve but always with the principle of openness and the goal of supporting many providers.

Lumina Foundation is asking us to imagine a similar system to support the movement of knowledge and skills across our economy. The key to that system is a set of shared principles and common language around the credentials we use to signal what people know and can do. If all credentials, regardless of type, shared certain common elements, it would be easier for consumers to use them. But what would those characteristics include? That’s a big part of the dialogue the Foundation is hoping to foster.

Railroads fueled a century of economic expansion and continue to play a vital role in moving goods and people where they need to go. Email has transformed how we communicate, both at work and in our personal lives, making us more productive and better connected than we could have ever imagined. Consider for a moment what a similar system could do to help Americans compete in today’s knowledge-driven global economy. To keep up, we need to continually build our human capital, but also make it visible, easy to locate, and easy to move. When communicating skills is as easy as sending an email or as seamless as a railroad switch, we will open up new possibilities for economic growth and personal mobility. If we don’t and we continue to generate credentials that are not portable or that obscure as much as they reveal, we know what the future holds; more of the same.

So let’s talk…