Education entrepreneur and sociologist of education Matthew Pittinsky is co-founder of Blackboard and CEO of Parchment, a company that is innovating the way that credentials are designed and delivered. We had the chance to talk with him after his presentation at Connect 2018.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what your company does.
Parchment is a software provider to schools and universities. The problem we solve is how high schools and universities can begin to innovate their academic records. So, a student graduates with a transcript or a certificate or a diploma, and those are very important credentials for admissions or employment or licensing purposes. And so, institutions are increasingly looking at the most basic level to moving them from paper to digital, making it more efficient to request them and deliver them. But then on a more fundamental level, thinking about what content they include and the way that they present that content. So, we’re a digital credential service on the admissions side with guidance counselors and registrars, and also on the receiving side with admissions offices and employers.
How does a student access his or her credentials through your company?
Well, to start, his or her college or high school needs to use Parchment. I use a terrible analogy, which is OpenTable, the restaurant reservation service. If the restaurant doesn’t use Open Table, you can’t book a table. Go to Parchment.com and you can type in the name of your institution—your high school or your college—and if they’re in our network, they’ll come up. Then follow a very simple workflow for making your request of your record and then you can go over to your credential account and you can use them in different ways.
How many institutions do you have on board?
We now work with about 3,500 high schools and about 800 universities.
If you, for example, went to multiple universities, can you access all of those records?
That’s exactly the idea. I mean, in many ways, that’s the founding idea—an individual should be able to collect and manage their credentials. Not just academic credentials, I should mention. Professional certification and licenses and employer-based credentialing throughout their life. So yes, in your credentials account you could have links to multiple organizations.
You wrote an editorial about stacked credentials recently. Can you explain what that means?
I didn’t come up with the term, to be clear. But stackable credentials really means two things. The main idea is students will earn credits and they’ll reach milestones in terms of what they have achieved, but the one-size-fits-all nature of a degree, either they complete that degree or they don’t. Since many students don’t complete their degree, they’re then left with nothing. The idea of stackable is that if we design our curriculum and our program in a particular way, we could allow someone after completing four or five courses to earn this certificate. And then if they take a few more classes they earn that certificate. They’re stacking credentials on their way to what you or I would recognize as the primary credential that that program is designed to award them, and that way, two things happen: one is if they don’t complete, they still can fall back on that underlying certificate—even if they didn’t get the AA, they still got a certificate. And second, it also makes the summary degree more understandable because you can see the certificates that were a part of earning it.
The other way it gets used is to align university credentialing or professional credentialing. Many universities, particularly community college programs, are interested in a particular industry and the student is completing it because they want to earn a certification—so, to be an HVAC engineer or to be a truck driver, all the way up to being a nurse—that has an additional professional certification that’s associated with it. So stackable is also meant to say, let’s make it easier for someone to take the academic credential and then the professional certification and link the two and make them one.
What’s the benefit of digital credentials over our current credentialing situation?
I think there are two main benefits. One, it’s just operationally more efficient. It’s silly to be mailing envelopes inside of envelopes inside of envelopes. It’s coming out of an information system on the production side; it’s going into an information system on the consumption side of admissions or employment. So, the fact that we take it out of digital and turn it into paper and put it back into digital is silly. We ought to be able to solve that problem.
Second, digital is a platform that allows you to innovate and display content in different ways for different pathways that students are going on. And that’s important because hopefully, it will make those pathways more successful and effective—the student will get the job, the employer will recognize the value of their degree. But it also opens up the opportunity to understand those pathways a little bit better and make them more efficient.