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Understanding the Need for Digital Credentials

Tanuja Sawant - Graduate Researcher

The Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is one of the founding members of the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC), whose mission is to create a trusted, distributed, and shared infrastructure that becomes the standard for issuing, storing, displaying, and verifying digital academic credentials.

During Spring 2020, C21U initiated a pilot study to explore the idea of awarding digital credentials to Georgia Tech students via Canvas, the current Learning Management System for the university. The need for universally recognized and accepted verifiable digital credentials arises from the gap between the skills that recruiters and admissions committees seek, and the academic proof that college transcripts offer. Currently, many academic credentials are non-indicative of a range of skills that students gain from the courses they undertake in college, thus making it difficult for recruiters and admissions committees to evaluate candidates. If digital credentials are widely recognized and accepted across universities and education providers, it would not only provide students with a one-stop solution for credentials but would also aid university students, faculty, admissions committees, and employers in holistically assessing students’ skills.

Introducing User Research

The pilot study that the team at C21U conducted was driven by a set of fundamental questions. Instead of awarding letter grades, how might instructors highlight students’ skills based on their performance? How can digital credentials be used to streamline the assessment of students’ accomplishments in learning management systems like Canvas? Which types of skills (hard or soft) can be better represented as academic credentials in learning management systems like Canvas? Could digital credentials, when implemented at scale, diminish the need for Letters of Recommendation from faculty?

We conducted 10 semi-structured interviews - six interviews with faculty across various departments and four interviews with undergraduate and graduate students across several majors at Georgia Tech. Some key questions that we asked to interviewees were:

  1. What do you think are some important skillsets that 3rd parties like employers and admissions committee would look for when evaluating a candidate?
  2. Do you think that a student’s hard skills [soft skills] are rightly reflected through a course grade in Canvas? If not, why not? What else can we add?
  3. What are some gradeable components for your courses?
  4. Which course components do you think we should assign the student credentials to?
  5. If there was a way to add these credentials to each student’s profile, where on Canvas would you access it? Could you show it to me on this Canvas account?
  6. How do you visualize a student credential on Canvas? What is your idea of a credential?
  7. Do you think the types of credentials offered should differ across the courses a student would take? If yes, how?
  8. Do you think that the credentials we talked about would cover all the student qualities that you would want to highlight in a recommendation letter? If not, what would you like to add?

Interviews helped our team grasp the perspective of faculty and students about the value of digital credentials. We also gained an understanding of how they visualize the incorporation of digital credentials on the Canvas platform. The following provides a summary of important takeaways and implications from our interview study findings:

Need for Digital Credentials

  • Faculty and students believe that course grades and often ambiguous course titles on transcripts do not rightly communicate what a student’s skills are, and that they do not specify the skills that the student has excelled at during the course.
  • Faculty and students expressed that there is a gap between what recruiters look for and how students are evaluated through coursework. In addition to hard skills, recruiters seek candidates with soft skills like leadership, communication, collaboration, etc. which are most often not a gradable component in courses.
  • Both hard skills and soft skills are not rightly reflected through course grades in Canvas. While it is possible to score and convey hard skills, soft skills can be difficult to measure and award credentials for. This is especially true for courses that do not evaluate students for soft skills.
  • Faculty and students felt that although credentials cannot fully replace letters of recommendation (LORs), they will certainly help faculty write LORs - faculty expressed that being able to refer to the student credentials that they had earlier assigned would help them write LORs.

Creating Digital Credentials

  • If digital credentials are to be incorporated in Canvas, faculty and students expressed the need for a rubric to be made available when a course starts. This rubric would detail the credentials that the course offers along with criteria for how students would be evaluated for those credentials.
  • Students wanted credentials to be separated into two categories - beginner and expert level unlike faculty who preferred to award credentials to only high achieving students, specifically those who secured an A grade.

Awarding Digital Credentials

  • While faculty preferred to award credentials to students after course completion, students wanted to receive credentials as they were being evaluated. Not having to wait to receive credentials till the end of coursework meant that students could use these credentials for internship/job applications early on.
  • Because of the busy schedules of the faculty, it would be best if awarding credentials is quick and easy. The best way to do this is to automate credentialing.
  • Because of how group projects and team assignments are currently structured, it is difficult to identify and evaluate each student’s contribution in group assignments. Therefore, there needs to be more research about how courses can be restructured for group work so as to award fair and accurate digital credentials.

Next Steps

The C21U team is actively conducting design and research iterations and we aim to arrive at final solutions for this study in Fall 2020. We hope that our current wireframes and future designs will be a first step towards addressing the needs and challenges that we have uncovered from our interviews. Upon completion, we look forward to sharing our findings with the Digital Credentials Consortium and universities that are in the process of introducing digital credentials to their campuses.

One key next step for this project is to explore how we can better design a user interface for establishing criteria to evaluate students. Furthermore, we plan to design an experience for students to view and access digital credentials in Canvas.

As part of the larger goal, we plan to address questions like: How can we establish consistency within the criteria of awarding credentials across courses taught by various faculty members and universities? How can we scale digital credentials to be universally accepted, so that students can use these credentials while applying to jobs or continued education? How can we bring in a cumulative nature to credentials so that multiple credentials addressing similar skills can be bundled together? How do we enable faculty to assign credentials when a student performs exceptionally in an area for which the course is not necessarily set to evaluate students?

Moving forward, we hope that our research paves the way to seamless experiences for viewing, awarding, and creating universally accepted digital credentials.

About the Researcher

Photo of Tanuja SawantTanuja Sawant is a graduate researcher and designer at Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, where she recently graduated with a master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction. Prior to graduate school, Tanuja completed double majors in Computer Science and Physics. She has industry experience as part of UX internships at ADP and Microsoft, and has been a teaching assistant for Georgia Tech’s Interactive Product Design class. Apart from designing for education, Tanuja is passionate about emerging technologies, accessibility, and information visualizations.