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Changing How We See Credentials: An Interview with Matthew Pittinsky

By December 8, 2016 Q & A No Comments

Matthew Pittinsky was the co-founder and CEO of Blackboard and serves on the faculty of Arizona State University and on the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Currently, Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment, a service for students who want a central way to collect and distribute their credentials.

Recently, I got a chance to talk to Pittinsky about credentials and how we can change them to better serve students’ and employers’ needs.

Please tell me about your company, Parchment, and its mission.

Parchment’s mission is to help turn credentials into opportunities. We provide the most widely adopted digital credentials platform for academic institutions to issue and/or collect transcripts, diplomas and certificates electronically.

We live in an increasingly credentialed society. One in two Americans holds a formal academic credential. One in four Americans holds a professional credential such as a certification or license. Parchment, today, is a credential delivery service. We help institutions and individuals issue, request, collect, deliver and share their credentials online. We save them time and money. We provide convenience.

In the future, we think what it means to be a digital credentials service will expand to encompass data-driven services that draw on the relationship between people, credentials, education providers and opportunities. All that being said, we include the qualifier “help” in our mission statement intentionally because it reminds us that our role is one of enabling. Our school and university members are the central players when it comes to making academic credentials a more effective and meaningful currency for pursuing opportunities for further education or in the labor market.

I recently read your blog post about turning credentials into opportunities. Please tell me about the state of credentials in higher education and what three things we have to do to turn credentials into opportunities.

The credentials we earn today, as learners, are less actionable than they can and should be. First, they are paper based. Second, they are pretty opaque, often communicating just a fraction of the information about what we know and can do. Third, they are fragmented across the places where we’ve learned.

At Parchment, we believe that to truly turn credentials into opportunities, we must do three fundamental things. To start, we need to make all credentials digital and then make digital credentials machine readable. This big idea removes the friction that exists in the paper form of credentials and creates new opportunities for learners.

Next, we need to innovate not only the form, but also the function, of credentials. The credentials that have been issued for generations — including transcripts, diplomas and certificates — have become antiquated. The time is now to improve the way these documents are presented, to tell the complete story of the learner.

The final step is to make credentials truly portable, allowing learners to collect, store, manage and share them throughout their life course.

What, if any, barriers do you anticipate from four-year institutions as we move toward more and different kinds of credentialing?

I am not sure they are barriers, but institutions are often paced in their adoption of credential innovation by two things. First, to innovate the content of credentials with co-curricular and competency information, institutions need to track and assess student outcomes in a way they haven’t before. This takes time.

Second, to respond to the more differentiated credentialing landscape — certificates, nanodegrees, traditional degrees — institutions need to view their programs as “stacked,” with credential “off ramps” as students reach key stages where they want to translate their education into a meaningful currency. That type of program restructuring also takes time.

Do you envision authentication of credentials to be an issue? As government regulators pay more attention to outcomes with for-profits, are they going to want to pay attention to credentials as well?

I think authentication is already an issue. Credential fraud is real. It carries with it real costs, regulatory risk and reputational risk. One application of digital credential technology is the ability for individuals to provide access to their diplomas on their own, with technology that assures the reviewer that it is official and secure.

Will your vision for credentials in the future bring down the cost of education and/or improve outcomes?

I think a more transparent understanding of the relationship between people, the credentials they earn, the opportunities those credentials provide access to and the capabilities those credentials represent can absolutely lower costs and improve outcomes through greater accountability.

I wouldn’t say it’s the most direct path to these outcomes vs. other policy and practice changes, but you can draw a line between a world where consumers are earning the “right” credentials and universities are accountable for the performance of those credentials. You can also draw a line to some worrisome unintended consequences of greater transparency, including the reduction of higher education to more narrow vocational concerns.

I hear two competing themes about higher education. On one end of the spectrum, I hear that the college degree is dying and obsolete. On the other end of the spectrum, most of the jobs of the future need a “college education.” What do you think about this issue, and will the term “college education” mean something different in the future?

Your question hints at its own answer. Both themes can be true and indeed are true in my view. Higher education has never been more important, but the one-size-fits-all degree is under great strain, most notably because of cost, but also because it no longer plays the differentiating (or sorting) role it once played now that more individuals hold one.

I personally believe that our democracy, our economic development and our individual mobility are best served by broad participation in higher education. I also believe that we need more differentiated credentials produced out of higher education so that individuals can access opportunities without a blanket four-year commitment of time and tuition.

What credentials do you anticipate being most wanted by employers and students in the future?

The persona, Employer, is pretty diverse. From global employers to local employers, and from employers who produce physical products to those who produce services, what they want varies. I believe the ability to write well, speak well, think critically and work comfortably with numbers are all key skills for a large number of employers. They are also the skills that a good liberal arts education and social science degrees develop in graduates.

That said, for many occupational fields, the ideal credential is one that reflects an education program and “certification” process that directly aligns with vocational competencies. Think welding or cybersecurity. So it is a difficult question to answer, which is why I think the idea of more differentiated credentials is so important, provided they don’t become a new form of tracking, the way college-bound and vocational programs in high schools sorted students.

The beauty of the bachelor’s or master’s degree is that it’s universal. Everyone has a sense of what it means, even if we all agree that not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal. I recently read that many new credentials, such as nanodegrees and MicroMasters, are being trademarked. How can employers and universities make a clear distinction here? Isn’t there benefit in some kind of universal system?

There is indeed a benefit to a system that helps organizations and individuals make sense of what different credentials, awarded by different institutions, mean. I don’t see a system like this being imposed top down by government, however. I think it emerges as a result of technical standards that allow credentials to be described with metadata that are machine-readable, and it emerges as a result of marketplace tools that enable reviews and data-driven insights from their user base. Efforts such as the Connecting Credentials Initiative are key.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: