Timothy Makepeace, JWST Vertical Primary Mirror, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 49 x 49 inches.

Digital Learning and Employment Records


Everything You’ve Ever Learned
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In “Everything You’ve Ever Learned” (Issues, Summer 2021), Isabel Cardenas-Navia and Shalin Jyotishi present a compelling and timely argument for the important role digital learning and employment records (LERs) can play. While many organizations have piloted LERs or moved in the direction of issuing microcredentials or other types of digital credentials, it is clear they are valuable only if stakeholders can easily decipher their quality and credibility. Developing governance structures internally within institutions, let alone across an ecosystem that has many actors, is a primary challenge.

Institutions of higher education are poised to play a major role in this development if they can take a fully learner-centered approach and be willing to engage with industry openly and intentionally. LERs can increase responsiveness to the market and facilitate a learner’s ability to package what they have learned to be meaningful and understood outside the walls of academia. While many institutions work with advisory boards or have recruiting relationships, the depth of these conversations often does not reach an understanding of the competency-development process. Leveraging the expertise of institutions when it comes to assessment is critical—and relying on them to be the posting and vetting authority for external skills or credentials could help to mitigate concerns regarding validity.

Further, through being leaders in developing LERs, institutions of higher learning will better support adult learners and currently enrolled students. However, this requires focusing on competency-based education and pushing institutions beyond what is currently a very rigid academic structure. LERs utilized in this way can increase access to higher education, especially for adult learners, and provide students who are also working while learning or engaging in cocurricular activities the ability to document skills that will make them more competitive after graduation. If more institutions move toward a competency-based model, LERs would begin to quickly demonstrate returns of investment. Further, a system such as this—one that can be taken with students as they graduate—facilitates the development of a “lifelong learner” mindset and drives an institution’s ability to market programs to alumni for reskilling and upskilling.

Institutions of higher education are poised to play a major role in this development if they can take a fully learner-centered approach and be willing to engage with industry openly and intentionally.

The call to include workers as well as institutions of higher learning and corporations is critical. As institutions pilot these programs, involving their offices of engagement and continuing education offers additional perspectives in terms of what is meaningful to learners who are not formally enrolled. Expanding into these areas can enable institutions to play a critical service role in validating skills and “hosting” these LERs for the community at large, and not just students. For anchor institutions, this is already part of their mission, and would enable them to not only better serve their communities, but better develop pathways that could lead to additional stackable credentials.

To be successful, taking a learner-centered rather than an institutional-centered approach will be imperative. Institutions of higher learning are poised to play a critical role based on their expertise in documenting learning. However, their input and expertise are only as valuable as their ability to engage with industry and move toward a more flexible and nimble approach to learning.

Assistant Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs

Florida International University

Isabel Cardenas-Navia and Shalin Jyotishi outline the challenges workers face in attempting to articulate their knowledge, skills, and abilities learned and demonstrated in informal learning environments. Their solution is the adoption of comprehensive learning and employment records stored and distributed digitally.

Nowhere do we see a better example of the need for verified and trusted digital records than in the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Anecdotal reports of Afghan scholars arriving at checkpoints only to have their academic credentials and visa documents destroyed is a perfect example of the need for trusted and verified credentials—immutable and secured digitally. While the ethics and self-sovereignty of these data is a debate for another day, the fact remains that many scholars around the world would benefit from digital LERs, similar to the workers highlighted in the opening paragraphs by Cardenas-Navia and Jyotishi.

The authors accurately describe a critical issue within the workforce ecosystem: those skills most desired by employers, earned through informal learning experiences, are the most difficult for job seekers to describe and the least likely to be included in transcripts or certificates. When we consider the thousands of quality nondegree postsecondary credentials offered by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s member institutions, along with those offered by informal or noninstitutional education providers, we should question how we will ever make progress on ensuring equity and fairness in hiring when only a subset of learners—degree-holders—possess evidence of their learning, even if it was achieved in contexts independent of, and perhaps unrelated to, the world of work.

My hope is that readers will return to Cardenas-Navia and Jyotishi’s contribution and consider the equity issues they raise, as well as those raised here. We should all feel compelled to examine the nature of credentials and the role they play in hiring decisions, to consider the nature of assessment as well as demonstrations of learning, and to better appreciate how the use of digital learning and employment records could impact a global workforce.

Vice President of Online and Strategic Initiatives

Managing Director, National Council for Online Education

University Professional and Continuing Education Association

Isabel Cardenas-Navia and Shalin Jyotishi’s article explores the potential for learning and employment records to address key market failures in the US labor market associated with hiring/job finding and ongoing learning. The authors maintain that LERs may make some aspects of the labor market process function better. They also note several challenges that will play a major role in shaping whether LERs can truly increase equity and expand talent pools, such as how LERs can verify quality, protect privacy, and counteract bias.

In order to succeed, it will require legislative and policy changes focused on standardization, data security, and regulation (e.g., quality assurance) at a level that some stakeholders, especially employers in the private sector, often are unwilling to get behind.

I have two observations to add. First, there is an underlying tension and political struggle over decentralized versus centralized governance. Education is highly decentralized in the United States. This makes it difficult to evaluate or change education systems at scale, because innovations require coordinated action across multiple fragmented programs and overlapping, often conflicting authority structures. Decentralization also has contributed to the reification of formal higher education institutions and an overreliance on a narrow set of education delivery models. It has similarly constrained private-sector education technology innovations due to the challenges of scaling solutions across a fragmented, chaotic landscape. In short, the lack of a consistent “rules of the game” framework is a barrier for private-sector education technology actors to consolidate a market to innovate.

LERs offer a potential opportunity to transcend this tension over governance because the technology allows for both a distributed administrative setup and a centralized (harmonized) set of data standards to ensure interoperability. However, in order to succeed, it will require legislative and policy changes focused on standardization, data security, and regulation (e.g., quality assurance) at a level that some stakeholders, especially employers in the private sector, often are unwilling to get behind. Standardization and clear rules will be necessary for LERs to produce data that are useful across states and localities, as well as to ensure that the data and signals that LERs produce are consistently meaningful and trustworthy. Without an explicit conversation about the roles of the public and private sectors, as well as the need for redesigning authority structures, LERs will be very difficult to scale and will struggle to gain a foothold.

Second, the development of LERs should be considered alongside the growing evidence that the blockchain technologies needed for using the digital records use tremendous amounts of energy. The impacts of climate change disproportionately burden the same communities that are structurally excluded from access to quality education and formal higher education. Given the climate emergency, any effort to plan for LER implementation should simultaneously be paired with an effort to incentivize and make commitments to align it with a clean energy transition in the power grid.

Overall, this is just the beginning of a longstanding conversation about the potential for LERs to address structural and signaling problems in the US labor market and close the opportunity gap. I agree with the authors that a technical fix alone is probably not enough.

Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program

Brookings Institution

Cite this Article

“Digital Learning and Employment Records.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021