Future of credential evaluation – Digital data, networks

With nearly five million study abroad students worldwide and millions of refugees escaping conflict or in search of a better life, international credential evaluation has never been more important, says evaluation expert Margaret Wenger. Today digital data is transforming the field, speeding up evaluation and supporting student mobility – but there are challenges.

Last year the international Groningen Declaration Network was created in the hope that digital data and depositories could help facilitate student mobility and assist universities, employers and academic recognition authorities.

“The goal is that digital student data becomes the norm for the admission process of educational institutions,” said Wenger.

She was speaking on “The Future of Credential Evaluation: Electronic data transfer and authentication” in a session at the Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education, held from 22-24 August at Kruger National Park and hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa, IEASA.

Wenger is senior director of evaluation at Educational Credential Evaluators Inc in the United States. Her countries of specialisation include China, Francophone African nations, India, the Middle East and North Africa, and New Zealand.

A transforming field

Credential evaluators, Wenger said, determine: the level of an institution or programme; if the institution is officially recognised; whether credential documents are authentic; whether the credential represents completion of a degree course; if academic work was successfully completed; overall equivalency; and grade and weighting conversions.

While the basic principles that have guided international credential evaluation have remained the same over the decades, the documentation and tools used for evaluation have transformed.

Traditionally, original documents in a sealed envelope from an issuing institution were the gold standard and the verification process often included sending copies of documents to the institution that issued them for verification of authenticity.

“I remember smelling documents to make sure they smelled right,” laughed Wenger. “I’d feel the raised seal, and hold the document up to the light and so on.”

Electronic data promises greater convenience, accuracy and authenticity.

Mass migrations include people who have achieved academic credentials – but don’t have the papers to prove this – and this has infused urgency into efforts to set up paperless credential systems.

“Documents stored in ‘the cloud’ or other depositories allow for retrieval and continued use even if the original documents have been destroyed or lost,” Wenger pointed out.

Today there are several organisations worldwide committed to digital data portability, and there are national, regional and international bodies as well as government agencies, private groups and education institutions developing data depositories or verification services.

Data transfers kick up issues such as student privacy, access constraints, acceptance, security, technical compatibility, communications and the development of ‘universal’ best practices, Wenger said.

Groningen Declaration Network

As it became increasingly common for student data to be stored digitally, and in particular with the creation of the Dutch Diplomaregister – an online portal used by graduates from universities in the Netherlands to securely access and share proof of educational achievements – stakeholders launched the Groningen Declaration Network or GDN in 2012.

“The idea behind the network was that digital data could function to promote student mobility to benefit students themselves, higher education institutions, employers, recognition authorities, funding authorities and others,” said Wenger.

The purpose of the GDN is to make digital student data stored around the world accessible, and also to make the data a more accepted format for credentials.

The founding members came from the European Association for International Education, and in the United States the National Student Clearinghouse, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and Stanford University.

Today nearly 40 organisations from 19 countries are signatories to the Groningen Declaration. Early signatories included the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, China Higher Education Student Information and Career Center or CHESICC, Indian Central Depository Services Limited or CDSL, South African National Learners Records Database and the Norwegian Common Student System.

Currently, paper documents remain favoured over digital data sets for credential evaluation. But Wenger and colleagues believe that as more stakeholders begin using student digital data, it will come to be accepted and viewed as ‘legal tender’ to certify educational attainment.

To propel this agenda forward, the GDN executive committee set up a task force to engage with verification practice and process issues, determine and share best practices worldwide, identify challenges and explore solutions, and disseminate information to a wide audience.

The task force is exploring the importance and status of verifications globally, drawing up a list of student data depositories, identifying verification approaches, systems and methods, assisting in developing user manuals and standard operating procedures, and looking into qualification fraud, bogus institutions and degree mills.

Networks and the future

Wenger believes a possible model for international verification systems is the African Qualifications Verification Network or AQVN, with which the GDN is linking.

In 2015, representatives from African qualifications and quality assurance bodies, education institutions and national higher education departments met in Pretoria in South Africa to discuss ways to combat fraud in Africa.

The AQVN was created to build a network for the verification of qualifications, with goals to strengthen relationships, develop networks and digital depositories, and work together to forge national and regional qualifications frameworks, Wenger explained.

Fourteen countries were original signatories – Botswana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – and the network launched in Cape Town in May 2016.

Discussions were around the roles of national bodies in documenting verification and institutional recognition, private groups and government agencies providing verifications, developing a ‘fraud register’, consequences for committing fraud and developing an 'African Area of Recognition' manual for student mobility.

In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Degree Datacheck or HEDD was launched in 2011 and is the official service for candidate verification and university authentication.

Other national and regional initiatives are Europe’s EMREX Project, Universities Australia’s National Digital Student Academic Record Data Management Solution, partnerships with CHESICC in China and CDSL in India, and projects in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the United States.

Some challenges

Wenger said some challenges had to be overcome if electronic data transfer was to become the future of credential evaluation.

“Among them are the various levels of adaption of technology and acceptance of digital data rather than paper documentation, differing technical standards applied around the world, and ongoing data security challenges faced by organisations. Work is being done to standardise technology and develop best practices in verification processes.”

There were numerous third party, for-profit organisations trying to get into the credentials evaluation game, and learning who to trust could be difficult. A further challenge was that currently some data is digital, “but not a lot”.

Credential evaluators in future will need not only expertise in formal credentials but also familiarity with Open Badges, massive open online courses or MOOCs, competency-based credentials and other non-traditional ways of representing knowledge or other achievements.

Finally, said Wenger, in a world of upheaval caused by wars and natural disasters, “the opportunity and motivation to falsify credentials becomes great".

“As a profession, we must be open to changes in the way we practise and work with other stakeholders in educational mobility.”