LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, recently started asking members in non-English speaking countries if they’d like to take the EF Standard English Test (EFSET) and share their scores on their profiles. The pilot program, which launched this spring, aims to help professionals around the world certify and promote their English language skills.
This collaboration seems to be the latest development in a trend we’re calling the “democratization of credentialing.” This has emerged in the past few years, as both major universities and new education startups have begun to offer more online services for people looking to learn and certify skills. These are making it easier to acquire, develop, and promote new skills, and they are transforming how job seekers – especially in technology – get noticed and how companies recruit. Ultimately, this will affect the value placed on traditional credentials, such as college degrees and English language certifications.
While credentials are meant to signal what someone is able to do, they can also limit opportunities for job-seekers who have taken less traditional career paths, are looking to switch careers, or simply want to upgrade their technical skills for career advancement. The old-fashioned credentialing system also penalizes people who can’t afford formal education or don’t have access to it.
We know that credentials tend to be expensive. For example, a traditional English proficiency test, such as the IELTS or TOEFL, can cost upwards of $300. A college degree, of course, costs tens of thousands more. That’s not to say that getting a bachelor’s degree or taking a traditional standardized test isn’t valuable. But acknowledging only these experiences makes it challenging for people who perhaps couldn’t pay for a traditional credential and instead acquired skills through a different route, such as on-the-job experience. Plus, many people around the world don’t have access to certain courses, test-taking centers, and other educational resources. And then there’s the question of relevance. A computer science degree doesn’t have an exclusive relationship with coding ability. While it’s certainly useful, coders who have degrees don’t seem to end up making more than coders who don’t.
The democratization of credentialing has the potential to get rid of these barriers. There’s no intrinsic reason that high-quality credentials also need to be expensive and hard to access. Top technology firms are hiring graduates of new coding-oriented programs like General Assembly and Hack Reactor. Many employers are beginning to trust Coursera certifications, and the online education platform recently formed partnerships with a number of tech companies, including Google and Instagram, in order to offer more intensive microdegree courses. Udacity partnered with Georgia Tech and AT&T to launch an online computer science master’s program that costs just $7,000.
These kinds of programs do face challenges that will need to be addressed. Certain subjects are easier to teach online than others. Student retention can be poor. And online credentialing introduces opportunities to cheat—I can have a friend take a test or complete a course in my name.
In the long run, though, things like English proficiency or programming expertise are hard to fake. So we can’t let these challenges distract us from the opportunities. Most employers would agree that in today’s increasingly tech-oriented economies, only the skills should matter. Platforms like Coursera, HBX, EFSET, and LinkedIn do have the potential to usher in new, democratic forms of credentialing. The education and certification tools they offer tend to be free or low-cost, and they’re all available online, which grants access to a large, and rapidly growing, chunk of the world’s population.
All of this is good news for job-seekers — especially those who have the skills but lack the formal credentials — who want to get employers’ attention or acquire new skills in a more flexible way. As this trend continues, they stand to benefit from:
A more level playing field. Online credentials are available to millions of people who cannot access more traditional routes. The reasons for this — whether they’re financial, geographical, etc. —have little to do with talent or ability. So when more value is placed on a person’s skills, as opposed to his or her background, more applicants will have opportunities to get noticed.
More career advancement opportunities. Traditional credentialing methods rarely let you target a specific skill, and the costs can make them risky. The expansion of free online learning and credentialing tools, like LinkedIn’s collaboration with EFSET, makes it easier for people to pick up new skills and adapt quickly to changes in employer demand. They are more conducive to exploration, because they can be tailored to very specific skills—such as proficiency in English or facility with Ruby on Rails or mastery of comma rules. And since they’re free or low-cost, you can try something out with little cost if you fail.
New and reliable credential sources. It can be confusing to keep track of all the programs that offer credentials, both online and off. But as more trusted organizations follow LinkedIn’s lead and partner with online credential providers, they’ll winnow out less useful online resources, helping job-seekers and employers identify the best tools.
Democratized credentials open up new pools of talent. For companies and for job-seekers alike, the ultimate goal isn’t to collect gold stars. It’s to reveal what an individual actually knows, and what she’s able to do. Ideally, a credential isn’t an arbitrary gateway, but an opportunity.