Digital age challenges of recognising qualifications

Digitisation affects the recognition of qualifications in two ways. First, it changes the ‘subject’ of recognition: qualifications. New forms of learning are emerging and changing the education landscape, making it more flexible. One example is massive open online courses (MOOCs). These allow people to study without enrolling on an official study programme.

Stand-alone MOOCs can be stacked to create an individual study programme that, in turn, may sometimes be recognised for admission or exemption in (formal) higher education.

Another issue is the ‘unbundling’ of content development, assessment and certification. Whereas traditionally this is all done within one higher education institution, online courses and the use of open educational resources (OERs) make it possible to break apart the different steps in the teaching process.

For learners, the above-mentioned developments have clear advantages. Flexible education, with the possibility to follow courses in one’s own time and at one’s own place, caters for professionals who need lifelong learning.

Online learning is also expected to make higher education more inclusive as it opens up new learning possibilities to groups that traditionally have little access, such as refugees.

But this is only the case when MOOC certificates and online badges are recognised for employment and-or for further study.

When assessing MOOC certificates, a complicating factor is that information about the contents of a course is not always provided in a structured, transparent and verifiable manner. This makes it difficult and time intensive to evaluate it.

Another observation is that where Bologna tools such as quality frameworks help recognition of foreign qualifications in the European area, these tools are not routinely used for MOOCs produced by European institutions.

In all cases, a serious problem is that e-learning often falls outside the scope of quality assurance in higher education, making it difficult to establish the quality of the MOOC, which is a key part of a credential evaluation.

Despite these restrictions, recognition professionals indicate they are open and willing to recognise new forms of online learning. For them, it is important to develop guidance and common practice and to provide more clarity about the content and quality of MOOCs and other forms of e-learning.

Digital student data and evaluations

The second change brought by digitisation concerns the credential evaluation process itself. While qualifications and student data from the pre-digital age will continue to exist, today’s student data (diplomas, transcripts, etc) are increasingly offered in digital formats. A good example is data that are only offered in digital format, such as diplomas issued in a blockchain.

At the same time, competent authorities are increasingly using digital solutions (ie smart databases) to make credential evaluations. Obviously these developments – digital student data on the one hand and digitisation of the credential evaluation process on the other – reinforce each other.

Digitisation has the potential to enormously benefit recognition of qualifications, in terms of processing time (it makes it faster), consistency of decisions (it makes it fairer), automatic recognition, fraud prevention and security of data.

It has the ability to strengthen national recognition infrastructures, support further implementation of the Lisbon Recognition Convention and contribute to the portability of recognition decisions.

However, digitisation also poses serious challenges to fast and fair recognition as laid down in the Convention. First, some falsely assume that because of digitisation all recognition problems are automatically solved. This, of course, depends on how the data is ‘processed’ as there is still a need to align it with good practice as set down in the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

On a practical level there are many actors, both for- and non-profit, providing different types of solutions with reference to digital student data. The multitude of formats are not always easy for competent authorities to deal with in terms of accessibility of data (some companies charge a fee and-or provide access for only a limited time) and information provided.

Desk research as part of the DigiRec project shows there is major concern among credential evaluators about the public access of data, archiving, trusted sources and secure solutions. These also apply on the ‘processing’ side: what are secure and trustworthy solutions for issuing digital credential evaluations?

Cooperation is key

Clearly, these issues need to be addressed at an international level in order for digital solutions to be beneficial. One initiative in the European area is the DigiRec project, where ENIC-NARIC networks are currently collaborating to fully capitalise on the potential of digital student data and digitisation of credential evaluation for the fast and fair recognition of foreign qualifications, resulting in a White Paper.

Another joint initiative is the e-Valuate project which aims to contribute to more effective policies for the recognition of new forms of online learning in the European Higher Education Area.

Katrien Bardoel and Jenneke Lokhoff are senior policy officers at Nuffic’s Team International Recognition (Dutch ENIC-NARIC) and coordinators of, respectively, the e-Valuate and DigiRec projects. Lokhoff serves as a member of the NARIC Advisory Board.