There is a lot of talk about the value of microcredentials, Open Badges, digital credentials, LERs, wallets, and CLRs. Advocates for skills-based and competency-based learning embrace these credentials as more effective and efficient ways for everyone, including the learner, to understand an individual's knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Credentials come in all shapes and sizes, but those issued electronically as standards-based digital credentials have the potential to remove systemic barriers, facilitate recognition of KSAs, improve the hiring process, and recognize learning and achievements earned in traditional and non-traditional ways.
But what do all of these terms mean, and how does one differ from the other? It can get confusing, and no, they are not all different words for the same thing, so it is important to know the difference, especially for those considering creating their own skills-based credentialing program to provide the greatest value to their learners.
Start at the Beginning: LERs and Microcredentials
The generic, overreaching terms most used are Learning and Employment Records (LERs) and microcredentials.
An LER is a broad term to describe a collection of credentials and other artifacts that may be related to education or employment. These records can be anything from transcripts, licenses, certifications, and other credentials such as a resume or work history.
A microcredential is typically a type of competency or skills-based recognition that can be used to demonstrate mastery and is usually smaller than a traditional degree or certificate. Microcredentials are often (but not always) expressed as Open Badges, which I'll mention more about shortly. To avoid introducing additional complexity into this already muddy terrain, I'll lump badges in as microcredentials—for now.
How and where the LERs or microcredentials are created and stored can vary, and it makes a difference. As microcredentials gain popularity, interoperability of these records becomes more and more important. If your digital credentials aren't interoperable, your learners may be unable to easily share their achievements outside of your specific LMS, wallet supplier, or digital ecosystem, reducing their value to the learner or worker.
Getting More Specific: Verifiable Credentials, LER Wrappers, and Wallets
The broad categories of LERs and microcredentials don't necessarily follow specific technical specifications or standards. However, there are technical specifications that exist, including Open Badges, Comprehensive Learner Record Standard™ (CLR), and Verifiable Credentials (VCs), which I will further explain.
Verifiable Credentials are a specification developed by W3C to express claims made on the web in a specific structure while keeping them cryptographically secure, private, and machine-verifiable. A VC can be an LER, but it can also have broader uses outside the employment and educational records domain, such as a digital driver's license, passports, or health records.
LER wrappers specify a universal cross-standards container for LERs to provide guidance to implement an LER using the more secure W3C Verifiable Credential structure. Think of it like a zip file of your credentials stored in your desktop folder. You're packaging your files in a well-known format that the receiver knows how to unpack so they can see your data, though this is true for technical standards as a whole. Technical standards build on each other in layers, and one can think of the VC as the "transport" or "package" layer. But what's in the package?
Two Types of LERs (and VCs): CLR and Open Badges
1EdTech has two official standards that our member community has developed, emphasizing digital credentials issued by learning providers. These standards are the Comprehensive Learner Record Standard™ (CLR Standard™) and Open Badges. The latter was initially developed by the Mozilla Foundation and transferred to 1EdTech in 2016. To expand the usability and interoperability of these two standards, they were updated to be native Verifiable Credentials. Their interoperability ensures that credentials and the rich metadata within them can be read by both humans and machines, which allows the learners to showcase their KSAs through these credentials, and the receiving employers or organization have enough information to understand what those achievements mean—much more than a resume or job application can provide alone.
With the strong growth in the adoption of microcredentials and LERs, members of the 1EdTech community are working to make those credentials even more valuable to all by developing a classification framework designed to set a minimum expectation for the information that digital credentials need to contain to provide transparency of the skills, knowledge, and abilities that were assessed and achieved as well as the interoperability of the credentials themselves. The TrustEd Microcredential Coalition plans to release the framework at the 2024 Digital Credential Summit.
What to Do with Your Credentials: Achievement Portals and Wallets
Ultimately, the goal is for every learner and worker to tell their story and control their achievement-based credentials to reach their personal and professional goals. By providing data that can be automatically verified and easily transferred, individuals will be able to share credentials—LERs, CLRs, documents, microcredentials, and other information—with any employer, educational institution, or perhaps a talent marketplace that could proactively identify educational or career opportunities based on that individual's skills. All while protecting their privacy. The verifiable transparency and trust offered by verifiable credentials can transform the hiring process for everyone involved and help all learners and workers achieve success.
But What Do Learners Do with Their Records Before Then? Put Them in a Wallet.
Wallets, sometimes called backpacks, are software apps and tools to store credentials, just like a physical wallet does for our identifications, credit cards, etc. Many types of platforms, like LMSs, have some basic wallet functionality built in but are often controlled by the issuing organization. These hosted credentials allow learners to claim and share their credentials but not truly control them.
Some wallet providers are independent tools that allow users to collect, i.e., move, their LER type credentials, including CLRs and Open Badges, along with other VCs and even your digital driver's license from various issuers. These wallets can give learners an easy way to share their credentials directly or bundle them to share with employers, education institutions, and others. Even though the credential is now in an independent wallet and under the learner's control, the credentials themselves are still verifiable due to cryptographic signature techniques called proofs.
The ideal wallet is controlled by the learner, allowing them to collect or share credentials as they see fit and move to different wallet providers if desired. So, instead of needing to go back to the institution or employer that supplied the credential in the first place to request a copy of their credential, the individual always has it with them for a lifetime of learning and mobility. To achieve that goal, the transfer of credentials needs to be easy and secure.
There are credential exchange standards, like the 1EdTech BadgeConnect API, which specifically address moving credentials. The advantage of BadgeConnect is that it is a secure way to transmit credentials directly between wallets and platforms without relying on other services. The API also has enhanced verification for the sender of the credentials and features for updating profile information when needed. BadgeConnect supports learner-initiated credential movement, giving learners control over their data and allowing them the freedom to choose a wallet that best suits their needs.
The full ecosystem is still in progress. Ultimately, success depends on all stakeholders working together and building interoperable systems that talk to one another so credentials may be received, shared, and verified by learners, institutions, and employers anywhere worldwide. Having a shared understanding of the parts of the ecosystem and their definitions is a start. Additional definitions may be found on the AACRAO website.
For those interested in implementing CLR or OB standards, 1EdTech also provides a quality assurance process to the ecosystem. Using its certification testing services to make sure that the OB and CLR standards have been implemented as designed in products so that purchasers can make decisions with more confidence by referencing the TrustEd Apps Directory.
About the Author
As 1EdTech’s technical program manager for digital credentials, Rob Coyle is committed to expanding the success of microcredentials with Open Badges and the Comprehensive Learner Record Standard.
Rob brings his experience working with a wide variety of educators and edtech suppliers from K-12, higher education, and corporate training and development. Rob’s career as both a teacher and collaborator with other educators, allowed him to help learners acquire knowledge and develop new skills through meaningful learning experiences in a wide variety of disciplines. That experience made Rob an avid supporter of the open community, including open-source technologies and open education resources.
Rob graduated from Goucher College with a Master of Education degree focused on education administration and edtech administration.