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“Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.” - Charlie Munger

We focus our Lens on Educators a bit wider than usual today, as we digress into the realm of possibility. We take a blue-sky approach to consider what the future world of learning might look like if we borrowed a verification system the banking industry has been using since the days of the stage coach - and end up in a Web 3.0 hyper-connected Meta University. Here’s how it started...

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On a Zoom call recently, we were talking about digital credentials, learners, and educators. We were discussing how educators were the “bridge” between learners and employers. On a very basic level, educators impart knowledge and skills to learners who showcase the application of that knowledge and skill through some sort of testing. Then the institution the educator works for provides the learner with some sort of proof of learning.

That proof then becomes “employment currency” and the proxy for hiring. The learner can take that proof - in the form of a degree, certification or micro-credential for example - to a potential employer and declare: “Yes, I am qualified for this position. Here is one of the reasons why.”

Then one of us asked a simple question: “What if we had a SWIFT code for education?”

For a moment, we were all quiet as we considered the possibilities. And then our minds raced toward the future, and what that might hold. But before we get there, a little background, followed by a glimpse at the SWIFT code of the future: Web 3.0.

What’s a SWIFT Code?

We like to start with definitions, because while many people know what a SWIFT code is at a basic level, it’s helpful to know exactly what we are talking about. Essentially a SWIFT code is a Bank Identifier Code, or BIC. Where did they come from?

Well, firstly, wire transfers were born with the telegraph over 150 years ago. However, typically they were within any given country, and in the same currency. Essentially you paid one telegraph office, and that office sent a “wire” authorising the release of funds at another.

That system was replaced by telephones and then by the internet, but the process has essentially remained the same. Banks in the same country use a unique routing number, but international transfers use a SWIFT code. The acronym comes from the 239 banks in 15 European countries who came together in 1973 to create the first such system. Their organisation was called the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

Essentially they established a system whereby the sending and receiving banks could be identified by a number: that number reveals the bank, the country, location, and when applicable, the branch of the bank where the account is held. This number is a part of a system used to validate and route messages that must conform to a certain standard.

The number works as the address where the money is sent to ensure it reaches the right bank. When paired with the account number of the recipient, you now have a complete message.

Why are we comparing education and finance? Because we exist in a learning economy, and skills and education are the currency of this economy. So we ask ourselves, what if we applied this numbering system to education, and made transcripts, certifications, micro-credentials more easily accessible by a SWIFT code type numbering system?

The Argument for Mobility

Before wire transfers were born, to pay someone you had to essentially either go to them or send the funds through a trusted messenger via horseback or stage, and both could be intercepted, robbed, or worse, and your money would be lost. The idea of a wire transfer was built on a couple of principles:

  • Security - no one was carrying hundreds of dollars or less over several miles of rugged landscape. Not to mention the cost of the transportation (early bank fees, anyone?)
  • Mobility - a wire could transmit a message nearly instantaneously to areas the sender might not be able to reach for days, if at all. Now through instant payment services, you don’t even have to toss a tenner across the table to split drinks with your pals at the pub. Transfers are near instant.
  • Verification - very quickly, the idea of wire transfers moved from telegraph operators to direct communication with banks, and routing and other identifying numbers became common practice. That way, transactions could be verified as genuine before any money exchanged hands.

When we look at this through the lens of education, it used to be that to get your transcripts, you (or an employer) had to call the institution, and they would send an original copy in a sealed envelope that was invalid and considered “unofficial” if the student opened it first, thus invalidating the status.

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Now, many educational institutions use services like Parchment/Digitary to send transcripts digitally while still remaining within data privacy requirements, known as PCI DSS. This stands for Payment Card Information Data Security Standards, and must be in place for any vendor who stores and uses credit card information for online purchases. However, it is also used as a standard for data security for anyone storing any type of Personal Identifying Information (PII).

Why does all this matter? The simple answer is career mobility. We have discussed before how employees don’t stay in the same job for much more than four years on average. With the remote work revolution, they may switch jobs without ever moving geographically, or alternatively could take any job with a company based anywhere, and do that work from anywhere in the world. The “digital nomad” is becoming much more common.

This includes crossing country lines to work. For example, think of the impact Brexit has had on the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK, resulting in serious supply chain issues. In short, EU workers who went back to their home countries, whether due to COVID or other reasons, cannot return thanks to the new regulations under Brexit. It’s estimated by the Road Haulage Administration that they are short 100,000 truck drivers, and the average time to fill an open driver position is nearly 8 weeks on average.

What if those borders were not a problem at all, and if training, certification, and even employment eligibility were recognised across borders? This is the work of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has set standards for education and work certifications to be transferable among ten nations. In effect, this makes employability mobile across international borders.

But what if that same level of portability was possible, well, everywhere? What if a single number could give an employer or another educator not only access to a learner's transcripts from a single institution, but a full record of their prior learning and experience? And what if that was secure, verifiable, and had no PII attached except a series of numbers as identifiers? Better yet, what if that information was in a unique, unalterable “vault” that included verifiable information from several sources?

The Types of Mobility

ASEAN deals with geographic mobility, but there are other desirable aspects of mobility as well. It’s about more than just the ability to move from place to place, but also in other ways as well. The types of mobility (related to our topic) are:

  • Geographic mobility - the ability to transfer skills from one country to another
  • Company mobility - the ability for certifications, education, and proof of skills to transfer from one company to another within the same industry
  • Career mobility - the ability to take transferable skills (and the proof of those skills) from one career field to another, and assign them equal or near-equal value in each
  • Mobility (and ideally consolidation) of prior learning - Essentially this would allow potential employees to hold all of their “employment currency” in a single place, like a “wallet” for instance

What would the ideal mobility for education-based credentials look like and how would that change the world? Underpinning this idea is the notion of self-sovereign identity. Although a universal definition of self-sovereign identity is difficult to find, the core notion is arguably that users are given control and autonomy over their identity data, how it is used and who it is used by (World Economic Forum, August 2021).

Here are some guiding principles;

  • Verifiable - each institution would be able to upload to the learner’s wallet (or the student could initiate the upload, either way) records (that perhaps using a SWIFT-like code) would indicate both achievements and skills, and could even link to a digital, unalterable but viewable transcript or record of learning
  • Decentralised - such a portable wallet would need to be decentralised so it could be accessed by multiple institutions, the learner, potential employers, and really anyone who needed access to the information
  • Secure - any PII would need to be hidden and secured in order to minimise risk to the learner
  • Mobile - for such a learning wallet to be useful, it would need to be portable and easily updated with employment data, certification data, anything a learner has learned and done that would be considered “employment currency”
  • Equitable - digital identity will become a social and economic imperative in the post- pandemic world.

Sound a bit pie-in-the-sky? Well, come back down to earth with us for a moment, and let’s look at what is already happening, what the future of the internet, and perhaps education might look like, and why it is still very much like the wild west of the United States in the 1800’s: filled with an equal mix of risk and opportunity.

The Education SWIFT Code

The idea of an education SWIFT Code begs the question: what would that SWIFT Code mean? To get an idea, let’s take a look at what the banking SWIFT code looks like, and how we could apply it to education.

As we stated, the Bank Identification Code reveals some key information about the bank on both ends, and is broken down into a number format of AAAABBCCDDD:

Bank Identification Code Potential Education Code
AAAA: Bank code AAAA: Educational Institution Code
BB: Country code BB: Country code
CC: Location code CC: Location code
DDD: (optional) Branch code DDD: (optional) Department or School code

This essentially gets the user to the right address. This same principle could be applied to employers or anywhere that a learner earns “currency” related to employability.

Understand that this specific application is at this point pure conjecture, but it isn’t as far off as you might think. Groningen Declaration Network is an “international, non-profit and voluntary network that supports academic and professional digital credential mobility so that citizens worldwide are able to consult and share their authentic educational data autonomously, with the expectation of fair recognition.” In a similar vein, the Internet of Education (IoE) is a global network with a vision to connect all humans on earth to education and economic opportunity.

It doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge the challenges ahead. One of the first things is a universal, decentralised framework to evaluate any certification, from micro-credentials to degrees, against, so that no matter where you are in the world or where you received your learning, it has equal or near equal meaning.

It starts with a universal definition of micro-credentials and can go from there. The exciting thing is that work is already being done that opens the door to broader, more universal discussions.

Okay. So we have our universal SWIFT code for the educational institution. Now, how do we find individual records within that address? Think of it this way: Google Maps took you to a neighbourhood, but you need to find a specific house. In that case, we simply add an account or routing number that narrows the address.

This could be a student number, and even proprietary to each institution. Since we have already reached the department level, we could then see a student account number that would follow a similar pattern of AAAABBCCCC, where:

  • AAAA: Student Number
  • BB: Degree Earned
  • CCCC: File code that opens the specific student transcript

WIth the right number, the “employment currency” from a given institution or employer could easily be accessed. So that is one institution or employer, but how does the learner add that to a portable “wallet” containing this currency?

The Ultimate Wallet

This is where the rubber really hits the road, so to speak. The ultimate wallet would contain all the various SWIFT codes a learner has obtained in a single, accessible record. Enter Web 3.0 or as it is commonly known, the blockchain.

Most of the time when we think of digital wallets, we think of crypto currency, and that annoying friend you have who talks about Bitcoin, Etherium, and how blockchain will save the world. The thing is, that friend might not be as far off as you think. Because the blockchain may not save the world: instead, it is creating the next variation of the internet, known as Web 3.0.

This is where things get exciting and a bit risky and scary at the same time. We are going to focus on a small part of it, the learning economy, and what are called digi-physical assets. In short, this is when something that is created or stored on the chain has an application in the real, physical world rather than the online one.

You see, a digital wallet is really just a user ID and password that you use to access and control any on chain assets that you own. For a big picture idea of what this might look like we turn to Malaysia: the island nation that in 2019 began to institute blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT, the principle blockchain is based on) for everything, from identification to banking to education and medical records.

The result? In countries with volatile currency, or countries like El Salvador, who don’t have their own currency, are adopting Bitcoin as a national currency. What started as a whitepaper in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto (whose true identity is still unknown) Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System has become a reality.

So it’s not too far a stretch to say that micro-credentials, degrees, and other proof of learning documents could migrate to the blockchain, and literally change the world through being part of the next version of the internet. Malta is already doing it!

Think of the implications for employers. Recruitment could be forever changed. Employers could look at specific tokens or non-fungible tokens (NFTs) issued by educational platforms or other certifying institutions as the basis for hiring.

For example, a learner completes certain tasks for an employer or successfully passes a certain certification course. If they are then issued a “badge” on the blockchain, that skill is instantly “certified” and added to their online wallet.

In theory, an employer could automatically pre-screen candidates for a job based on provable, associated accreditations that must exist in their wallet before they can even apply. Taking it a step further, hiring of freelancers and others could be automated: if the applicant’s wallet meets certain given requirements, they could be offered the job automatically, accept and complete it, and get paid all without a single HR professional overseeing the process.

Before we leave this SWIFT code-inspired dream we’re having, let’s take this digi-physical thing one step further.

The Meta University

Finally, we’re going to talk about the ultimate in portability. First, let’s talk about Fortnite, a game with 350 million users, nearly equal to the population of the United States and growing at nearly the same rate. It’s a world and an economy all on its own, and it translates to real-world money as well. But where it comes to our education application, it can get even cooler. You see, Fortnite players engage in the universe of the game from all over the world on a wide variety of devices.

But what if instead of a game, the user could enter a classroom, a virtual university housed on the blockchain and filled with interactive courses, actual lectures and lessons, and gamified learning? What if the completion of each course automatically triggered a digital badge that would be added to the learner’s learning wallet?

The learner could also then select the level of learning they actually need. It’s already been proven that you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to get a good paying job. In fact, once you have a certain level of competency, many employers offer certification programs of their own, something we’ve talked about here before.

The implications are staggering. From payments to transcripts, skills tests to learning outcomes, much of the framework processes we undertake now could be automated, streamlined, and improved. There is a long way to go before the meta verse is thriving, and before meta universities are even possible. From regulations to frameworks, from funding to course layouts, there would be a long road ahead.

However, much like the first settlers of any new land, while there are perils and challenges ahead, there are rewards commensurate with the risk. As the oversimplified Charlie Munger statement implies, “Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the outcome.”

Because “history clearly demonstrates that while people might tolerate a certain degree of behavioural sticks – they’ll build their lives around the right carrot.” The incentive, truly transferable skills, true educational mobility, and employability related currency that is truly meaningful and makes a difference in the lives of learners is one of the greatest we can ever propose.

And in the end, it’s a win, win, win for learners, educators, and employers. And when everyone wins, that’s a carrot that’s impossible to resist.

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Credentialate is the world's first Credential Evidence Platform that helps you discover and share evidence workplace skills and is the first to introduce Skills-First Evidence Alignment. Credentialate is the only digital badging platform that includes a personalised qualitative and quantitative evidence record verified direct from within the digital badge. For institutions, educators can map and manage their skills infrastructure and track skills attainment across the institution and against existing frameworks.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.


Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

In this blog series, we focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace - who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face:

  • Final-Stakeholders-Modern-Credential-Marketplace-1200x685Lens on Learners - how can micro-credentials help today's learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators - if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?  
  • Lens on Employers - how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?
  • Lens on Associations - how are professional bodies taking action to address the skills gap and what role does micro-credentialing play in with their plans?
  • Lens on Governments - what regulations and standards are being set by Governments to keep pace with the rise of micro-credentials?

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