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Private Companies Are Finding Innovative New Ways to Educate Workers – the Public Sector Can Make Sure Innovation is Equitable

Google made big news when it announced that it will expand its career and technology certification program, adding 100,000 scholarships and a network of hiring partners — but it wasn’t alone. IBM has been growing a digital badging program for over seven years. Hubspot issues its own certifications. The list goes on: Credly, a digital credentialing platform, has seen an 83 percent increase in the number of organization issuing industry credentials since the pandemic began. It’s reached the point that a recent article in EdSurge suggested that employer awarded credentials are becoming a “parallel higher education system.”

The idea of giving people looking to upskill for new careers valuable industry certifications is a good one — here at Calbright we’re committed to it — so this is an encouraging trend. The more ways people can get new skills to connect them to the 21st century economy, the better. 

Private industry “parallel higher education systems” may be enough for some, but is it the whole picture? Will these programs achieve the goals that we want from a career-focused education system?  There are reasons to be optimistic, but cautious. Some private, for-profit, educational institutions have a poor track record of supporting students … and historically some are leaving adult students worse off than they were before they enrolled. We must also be cautious of well intentioned companies dealing in new educational technologies that are often over-hyping what they can offer. We can’t let students down.

Right now, the authors of the EdSurge piece note, there is very little data to show what kind of private credentialing systems work for students, and why. 

“(B)asic data on how many companies and organizations are issuing credentials to the public is not available—and virtually no research has focused on this topic,” they write. 

“It would be helpful for stakeholders to understand more about the range of professional areas, the types of business and partnership models, and the scope of employer motivations. Understanding where this trend is headed is especially important for gauging the potential impacts on worker mobility, equity and the market for degrees and other types of valuable credentials. The emerging employer-issued credentialing ecosystem requires guidance and infrastructure (including checks and balances) in the same way that other segments of the postsecondary education market do. It may take, for example, a network or coalition of employers willing to consider these credentials alongside degrees in their hiring practices, as well as academic institutions willing to weave them into their programming.”

Perhaps most important to focus on is one of the most underappreciated aspects of education technology: one size does not fit all. Offering credentials can do great good, but by itself does not support every population or provide equity of access. Different populations have different needs, and if we’re not careful new approaches to education and education technologies tend to further marginalize the populations that need them most

It’s great that companies are offering new options for career advancement — and we want to make sure that there is equity of access, and that the specific needs of specific populations be taken into account. We still need a public option for education: a public sector effort to be just as innovative as the private sector, with a mission to increase equity and access for everyone. Those needs aren’t going away as long as there are populations which are unjustly underserved, and it doesn’t take anything away from private sector efforts to say as a society that we’re going to make sure that innovation in education reaches those who are often hardest to serve, but need it most.