February 17, 2018

Credentialing to Establish the Library’s Presence | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellWhen it comes to providing employers with information about a student’s skill set, the college transcript does a poor job, yet it’s the current standard. New approaches to credentialing could change that—and create an opportunity for academic librarians.

Have you looked at a graduating college student’s transcript recently? It should be an accounting of what the student learned in college, but in actuality it merely documents the courses accumulated on the path to a diploma. It reflects nothing about a student’s interaction with the library. The transcript is a poor vehicle for giving employers or graduate programs an indicator of what college graduates accomplished when it comes to library-related research skills. Those academic libraries offering a credit-based course may fare better, but to what extent does that truly reflect what librarian-educators contribute to student learning? No matter how many hours our students spent in the library using the collections, attending library instruction sessions, having multiple consultations with librarians, or gaining database-search expertise, that effort and skill development rarely becomes a part of the student’s educational record. From the employer’s perspective, the academic library is a ghost library. It’s there, but it has no presence or visibility. When it comes to contributing to what students tangibly take away from their higher education, the academic library may as well not exist.

This Makes No Sense

It’s a true loss for students when they are unable to demonstrate an ability to go beyond Google cut-and-paste research. Based on what we know about the skills employers expect when they hire our graduates, that’s problematic because employers have no way of knowing which students can deliver on those desired research and communication competencies. College transcripts are increasingly recognized as a faulty and inadequate mechanism for reflecting the competencies students master on the path to a diploma. This is hardly a new problem. The weakness of transcripts was a factor in the growth of electronic portfolio adoption. In design fields the portfolio is a primary vehicle for creatives to give potential employers something beyond grades. Portfolios speak directly to acquired skills and competencies. Owing to advances in technology other disciplines, such as education and business, encouraged students to build portfolios of their projects to document the mastery of skills. It now appears that higher education is poised to do more to help students enter the job market with more than a transcript.

More Conversation on Credentials

Suddenly all the talk is about credentialing. A few pioneering institutions, particularly some providers of alt-higher ed, have experimented with and used credentialing systems such as badges to allow students to document their competencies. However, these limited efforts failed to convert more colleges and universities to credentialing. In “Whither Alternative (and Improved) Credentialing” Lloyd Armstrong states that this will change because demand from students, government, and employers will force higher education to put a better system into place. To succeed, that system must accurately capture student skills in three domains: subject mastery; higher order intellectual skills; and personal traits (e.g., perseverance, teamwork, etc.). This system would need to apply the same way across institutions so that employers know there are standards to assure all students acquiring a credential are able to demonstrate a particular set of skills. By comparison, an A or B grade is applied with such variability across institutions that it tells a prospective employer little about a student’s actual level of ability. Within the last few weeks the higher education media has taken a special interest in the potential of credentialing and how it could dramatically change the higher education landscape. Some experts reckon credentialing is a system whose time has come, but no one is exactly sure what optimal conditions must be set for a sustainable system.

An Experiment Worth Trying

Despite uncertainty about how to establish a national credentialing system, a national symposium on credentialing is set to explore the possibilities, and I find optimism in the conversation that higher education is beginning about how to create a system that works for students, educators, and employers. If our traditional colleges and universities fail to take action, more innovative competitors will work directly with employers to develop credentialing systems that more effectively communicate a learner’s skill set. Some may say the “credentials craze,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education termed it, is just another fad that is unlikely to change the current system. No doubt some resistance is owing to the likelihood that any new system will require more time, work, and energy—resources all in short supply. At a minimum, higher education needs to get more colleges and universities involved in experiments, along with employers and accreditors, that test the viability of a new system in which student earn credentials at any point along the alt–higher ed spectrum where they earn new competencies. It strikes me as a far more student-centered approach that enhances their learning and career prospects. That should motivate us to create a system that works best for our students.

Establishing a Library Presence

My interest in badging and alternate credentials for our students dates back several years because of the potential it gives academic librarians to capture the added value they provide to student learning. With a colleague in our information technology division, we presented a plan that would allow us to experiment with student badging for skills earned at the library and computer center. We described how other academic support units, such as the tutoring center and career services, could also participate. Despite some initial enthusiasm, no credentialing system emerged, owing to the hurdles that stood in the way, everything from administrators who balked at extra work to bean counters who feared the loss of tuition revenue. Academic librarians should hope that credentialing does catch on in a much bigger way in higher education this time around. It requires only a small stretch of the imagination to picture students receiving credentials when they master research-based competencies. Our holy grail is a systematic way to demonstrate the value libraries add to student learning and overall academic success. I am encouraged that the Association of College & Research Libraries is exploring the possibility of a national credentialing system for information literacy competencies. When it comes to establishing the academic library’s presence in higher education and student learning, the current transcript system is of little value. For all that we contribute, at the end of a student’s academic career, we simply don’t exist in any tangible way. Credentials may be our best opportunity to end our ghost status, and we should become stronger advocates for it at our institutions.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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