A Fresh Take on Ethical and Machine Learning Imperatives to Create Truly Learner-Centric Micro-Credentials

In this conversation style interview, Dan McFadyen and Mark Keough, Chief Operating Officer of Intrinsic Learning, explore a fresh take on ethical and machine learning imperatives to create truly learner-centric micro-credentials.

Watch on Channel Edalex (YouTube)


0:00 – Introduction
1:26 – Micro-Credentials in the Vocational Sector and the Relevancy of Existing Education and Jobs Descriptions
6:53 – The Importance of Helping Learners From all Education Backgrounds Identify and Talk to Their Skills
11:19 – Recognition of Prior Learning and Tracking Capability Progression of Lifelong Learners
17:26 – Exploring Rich Skills Descriptors and Machine Learning Through OSN Skill Collaboratives
21:05 – The Ethical Framework Imperative When Using Machine-Readable Skills Data
30:13 – Intrinsic Learning’s Current and Future Projects and Global Efforts in Support of the Future of Work

Chapter videos

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)

Dan McFadyen (DM) – Hi I’m Dan McFadyen – Managing Director of Edalex and I’m thrilled to be joined today by Mark Keough. Mark, you have quite the storied history – you were the founder of one of Australia’s earliest and most influential learning management systems Tech Works, now known as WorldLearn and you’re implementing projects – successful global projects, back in the mid 90s with organisations like Qantas and ANZ bank as well as supporting two Olympic games. Mark was also the founding Vice-president for Monster Learning at jobs giant monster.com in the early 2000s. He’s the current CEO of Intrinsic Learning, the Founder of shortguides.com and an adjunct Academic at Flinders University. So thank you so much for joining me today Mark.

Mark Keough (MK) – That just means I’m old Dan… [laughters]

DM – No, no – storied history. Great experience, and speaking of experience, you obviously have a lot of great experience that spans the commercial sector, vocational as well as the university sector; I’d love to explore topics that may touch on any of those or all three of those and really some of the some of the topics I think are truly global.

MK – Yeah

DM – But why don’t we kick off today by first exploring the vocational sector. It’s clearly a sector that’s undergoing fairly dramatic transformation – so, where do you see those changes heading over the next five years and then in particular I guess an add-on question: how do you see micro-credentials fitting into that space as well?

MK – It’s a really good question Dan and a timely question. The current vocational sector in its major format – you know the way it’s structured, really goes back to the 70s and 80s when the notion of competency-based learning was introduced and then made, dissipated through both government and private providers in the 80s and 90s so there’s a long history of competency-based learning on a national basis in Australia, which is a bit rare in the world. There are other national systems like this and the systems in Britain and Germany and others operate in a similar way but Australia’s is a very comprehensive system and a very homogeneous system. Like, it’s used by everybody in both private and public settings – it’s a fantastic thing. But unfortunately, it’s now showing its age and there was a major reform in the early part of the last decade around 2011 and ‘12 trying to make sure it was relevant. One of the changes in the VET sector that happened – and I think most commentators would agree with it from any angle that – there was a move from valuing the education provided to a much more vocational education that has to be about jobs and jobs outcomes; and in some ways that’s understandable because Governments of any persuasion are trying to get job outcomes and they want to make sure that people are learning for their jobs. However, the downside is that: that assumes that the jobs market and the job definitions and job descriptions stay pretty static and bureaucratic institutions can rely on them. Nothing could be further from the truth. So what we’ve got now is some – I don’t know, 120+ qualifications in the Australian Quality Training Framework, the VET sector – as we know it the TAFE sector … dozens and dozens of those qualifications aren’t taught by anybody because there isn’t a viable cohort to justify being a training provider. And increasingly, the public sector and the private sector are paid for the assessed outcomes rather than the delivery of learning, so, there’s a big gap in the recognition of learning in this. And a disproportionate focus on the avoidance of fraud in the gaining of assessed qualifications and I think that like going backwards – it’s becoming more 19th century in its kind of operation when in fact, the 21st century is going the other way. People need to learn things quickly, have them recognised today, use them tomorrow and may not need them again for another year or two. And, so we’ve got a big problem I think – a really deep disconnect between what’s really going on for people, for learners and what’s being managed by the various authorities. I don’t think it’s a political issue. I think it’s a question of the way the institutions and government operates overall.

DM – Yes I totally agree and that makes sense, and then as micro-credentials is a piece that fits into that – so, does that enable those organisations to get around some of that bureaucracy and get right to the heart of that?

MK – Maybe, I mean one of the things is that when you look at the way competency and units of competence are written, they’re actually micro-credentials already – they’re broken down into three structures: performance criteria, performance evidence and knowledge evidence; and each of those ware written as clear criteria for almost as micro-credentials. The sad fact is though, because they’re written by committees rather than being formed from data, they’re duplicated, they are out of date, they’re not standardised and machine-readable that sort of… whoever was on the Committee and favoured one type of language over another or one important nuance over another, well they got their way on a vote, it doesn’t reflect real needs – it’s a kind of consultative process, the sort of joke we all make about… you know – a committee designing a horse comes up with a camel, unfortunately many of these competencies or skills – as we now tend to call them, are written in unhelpful ways. So, we already have micro-credentials – we’ve had them for 30 or 40 years. The question is: are they relevant? And how do we make them contextual? And I’m saying the old contextualisation system can’t keep up with what’s really going on.

DM – Right – I dare say there are many individuals – certainly from a wide variety of organisations, who would agree with you, and we’ve worked with organisations that are using micro-credentials as the way to fast track the skills that their industry partners and their learners are demanding. But that the frameworks just aren’t able to keep up with it.

MK – Well you allude there to another myth then, which is that what you learn at university is different to what you learn in a vocational institution, which you know – I think there’s a bit of a myth. I think the way the curriculum is formed is different. But, just take medical education, it’s a competency-based framework taught at universities for really traditional reasons – I can’t imagine a doctor wanting to go to TAFE to become a doctor. There’s something socially about that that I think is okay but I know a lot of people would have trouble with – I’m being humorous about that really but it is just a reflection that many of decisions we’ve made are cultural rather than being based on need and when you examine learning objectives in a university course which is another source of micro-credential if you like and I know more in the area you’ve worked in, and if you examine a learning objective in a university course and compare it to a element in the unit of competency, sometimes it’s pretty hard to really see the difference. And, so I think there’s a myth that they are different.

DM – And I think that’s a great thread for us to pull on a little bit more there Mark. I think you’re right, I mean the vocational (VET) sector has traditionally been about “competencies” whereas a university might use the word “mastery” but conceptually very similar and skills seem to be the words or the concept that maybe is that universal language pulling all those sectors together…
MK – The common ground with this is the work of Bloom’s of course, who really developed the notion of “mastery”. We did spend a lot of time 20, 30, 40 years ago looking at Malcolm Knowles and the notion of what it means to learn as an adult, and a lot of what we’ve got in the VET sector comes from that line of thinking but really I think the common denominator where you can look at things and start to get data-driven approaches to skills design and skills development; where… which perhaps are more flexible and more able to keep more current, when you look at that the work of Bloom’s becomes more useful and Bloom’s various updated taxonomies tend to be the common ground I think where all educators can sort of start from that point and I think that’s where we’re heading, is trying to find, trying to use the Bloom’s structure, which so many people are familiar with and basically thinking on as a starting point for data-driven, skills definitions data-driven “mastery” definitions, “capability” definitions. And really who cares where you learn it, right?
DM – Well, that’s right. And ultimately it is about being able to provide evidence that you have that skill, that mastery, that competency. Use whatever word you want, that is still the ultimate proof and for years you know a transcript provides no meaning in terms of: first, you often can’t interpret what all the abbreviations are on the transcript but it doesn’t translate into who that person is, what skills they possess and it doesn’t, nor does it help give them a voice to be able to share their own skills.


MK – Yeah, it’s interesting, neither a resume or a job description are very accurate. The job description is never an accurate portrayal of the job, or rarely. And the resume is rarely an accurate portrayal of your skills. If we wrote down everything we knew, it would be pages and pages and pages and pages long. Yet, sometimes, some of those details are what you really need for a job, so one of the tricky things is how do you deal with very large amounts of skills? You know, they would deal with thousands and thousands of skills we all have as human beings and acquire over a lifetime and perhaps even lose too over a lifetime – really tricky.

DM – That’s right. Building on that, and you mentioned it – recognition of prior learning (RPL) earlier. That is another way that micro-credentials and skills as well, can help capture and define that.

MK – Yeah, again, unfortunately RPL is avoided by institutions. It’s acknowledged as needed on the one hand but then there are no good systems for RPL in operation in any university or TAFE college or RTO that I know of – if you know of one, let me know; but I don’t know anyone who’s doing a really great job of recognition of prior learning. And, in that institutional sense, what I think is we need to get people more comfortable as individuals in recognising their own learning. Perhaps what we’re missing there for is a shift in locus from… you know people have always talked about becoming more student-centered but that’s often rhetoric. So we’re a student-centered organisation in other words and we have apple pie and ice cream at lunchtime and you know like it’s kind of rhetorical – I think what “student-centered” really means is we let learners have the tools to recognise their own learning and there’s a radical idea. And yet I reckon it’s a much closer idea philosophically to the way we live. If you want to ask me whether I can do something, I’ll tell you. And you’ll pretty much trust me…

DM – True

MK – You know the proof will be in the pudding, but you know, you’ll pretty much trust me that if I say I can do something yeah I can do that.

DM – Right and it’s interesting that the statistics back up what you’re saying. Last July, we conducted some market research of more than a thousand graduates and only 33 percent felt comfortable voicing their skills for their first job search. So again, even having that ability, that meta-cognition, the awareness of what skills that I have – they can often more easily say what they’ve done, but what does that mean? What skills do they have? So I think that’s an area that so many of us and so many organisations are focused on building, that self-awareness but also the systems and processes to identify it.

MK – That’s it and I think moving forward, that’s the work we have to do as a society is to reinvent education as a self-awareness tool, as a self-recognition tool. There’s going to be a lot of people who say to me: well, how can you self-recognise as a surgeon – you know, as a brain surgeon – well, no. Of course you need appropriate measures and checks and balances about those skills. But… that’s like, not all of us are going to be brain surgeons right? But a lot of what we’re doing, are more fundamental life skills – you know, let’s call them now – there’s a nice jargon term: 21st century skills, critical reasoning and problem solving, there are ways in which we can build our own portfolio of evidence around those and show our own progress, which is the other thing that’s not done very well, is, I learn something new every day – I don’t know about you, I hope you do – and I get better at everything I do every day.

DM – I can tell you I may learn something every day, I don’t get better at everything, but something every day.

MK – I was going to say some things are in decline. I’m not as good a tennis player as I used to be, I can tell you that for sure. But I think that this movement, this notion of progress and movement in our capability – we don’t have any institutions or ways of recognising that, it’s all hearsay, you know. And so I think we’ve got a lot of work to do to get our education tools up-to-date and useful in the 21st century. They’re just not useful right now and our institutions of recognition – there might as well be… you know – the 18th century British post office in terms of how close they are to the current environment of where we’re working in, they’re just not close, and…

DM – Fortunately, there are lots of fantastic groups such as Education Design Lab, the Council for Aid to Education who are really focused on helping define and architect what those 21st century skills are and how you assess against those skills. But yes – still the big question then is: how do we embed those frameworks, those structures into education and then assess against those.

MK – There’s a lot of talk about web 2.0 and web 3.0 and notions of identity going forward and how do I prove that I can do something and how can that proof be relied on. I think it’s a very nuanced area and sadly not enough people, not enough money being invested in this. If it is, it’s all opportunistic, it’s all about: “Did that investment in vocational research get more jobs?” – you know, it’s not about: “Are we equipping people to work better in their global gig economy?” – No, no one’s thinking like that, too few people are thinking like that. What they’re mostly thinking about is investing in simple economic measures, and not enough in social measures of progress and growth I think. That is a bit of a political statement but I think it’s globally, universally true – not party politics, it’s just universally true. We’ve got some work to do as a society, to get back to these kinds of values of progressive education.

DM – Interesting – very thought-provoking and I like it. Maybe pivoting our discussion a little bit but still building on skills, so both of our organisations are involved with the Open Skills Network: Skills Collaborative, involving Rich Skills Descriptors or RSDs. What excites you about RSDs and what do you hope to see from your collaboration?

MK – Well, this great investment based out of Western Governors University in Utah, funded by, and let’s acknowledge that, funded by the Walmart foundation – a real attempt in the US where there is no equivalent of the AQTF (Australian Quality Training Framework). There’s a real attempt in the US to create a standardised model of skills descriptions or competency descriptions and they’re taking the approach of making them machine-readable from the beginning. What does machine-readable mean? Well that means if you gain your evidence through some activity that can be observed or recorded by a machine, then you can match that using some version of machine language, artificial intelligence, to a skills database. So you can automate the matching of what you learned to a standardised taxonomy or a way of speaking it: if the Australian Quality Training Framework – all the training packages in Australia – were machine-readable, then you’d be able to do a lot more recognition in workplace learning settings, a lot more automated recognition by use of machinery, so on and so forth.

So, that process needs to start with a machine-readable taxonomy and so what’s exciting about the Open Skills Network and their interest there. But it’s just at the beginning and it’s interesting because there are other initiatives like this around the world. What’s different about it, which excites me is, a lot of the other initiatives are trying to go from the current system to a new system whereas, because in the United States there is no national system, they’re starting from scratch and I find that a lot better and as you and I know, part of our project we’re working with is to take a couple of Australian Quality Training Framework packages which as I understand it are Creative Commons’, open definitions and map them to the Rich Skills Network Descriptor model, which means we can theoretically create a bit of a conversion model for the Australian skills framework to a machine-readable form.

Now that might all be gobbledygook but if you understood anything about what I just said and some people of course understand it a lot better than I do, what we’re moving to is making more use of what we have already but in the workplace, in the individual’s hands, in the hands of a person who has the need, rather than in the hands of an institution and that’s really where we’re heading with that; so that’s what excites me – the idea that we could teach a bunch of people how to manage their own recognition going forward and argue for their own capability at any point in time – and I think that’s the holy grail here. It’s a bit of a dream and maybe an ideology or an idealistic dream but nonetheless, it’s a vision – you know, it’s a place to go where people can own their own data in that sense.

DM – Agreed and certainly a dream and a vision that we share. So recognising that, so many – the majority of resumes never see a human, they go through systems, so any initiative in this way has to be machine-readable. But then as you said, ultimately putting that context “in the hands of the learner,” helping them with that transition from learner to lifelong learner.

MK – It is tricky because there’s a big brother problem here too of course that we have to recognise ethically. I’ve written an opinion paper which kind of goes with this interview and will probably appear on my LinkedIn or somewhere; but in the opinion paper, I talk about the notion that what if I was recognised that for walking at 14 months and let’s say you were recognised for walking at 9 months so we had a micro-credential that says Dan walked at 9 months and I have a machine-readable micro-credential that says Mark walked at 14 months. What if some smart employer does some kind of algorithm and works out that the best employees walked before they were 12 months old – for the rest of your life, no matter what else you or I could do, you would get the interview and I wouldn’t, right? So there’s a chance that if we get this wrong, we can give people – if we get the use of data wrong, we could get it really wrong for a lot of people and sentence people to a lifetime of inadequacy, not just adequacy so we do have to be very careful and take a positivist view of this.

In other words, we need to build an ethical framework around this future of machine-readable skills and individual skills recognition as well; and like anything you know, there’s the risk of fraud and all that but if we stop any development because of the risks of misuse, then we’d never develop anything. So, and there’s plenty of examples of that kind of thinking so what I think we need to do is put all of this work in the context of how we’re favouring humanity – you know, humankind. What we are doing that is improving things for ourselves and in that sense, empowering people I think, is a noble motive.

DM – Right – now you raise some really interesting points there Mark and I would say the flip side is that this approach will hopefully increase the diversity in equity so that, building on your example of when you walk, well, it will no longer be judged based on the color of your skin or the color of your eyes or socio-economic that it should just be: you have the skill of walking and that’s that is the most important thing.

MK – To that end, we’re going to need ethical frameworks so I think the institutions will belong in the future but what they’ll be doing is defending ethical frameworks rather than dealing with the mechanics; so instead of being like the rubber stamp that says: you did it, it’ll be more like all of the data, all of the things that happened were ethically framed and the use of these recognitions are being done in an ethical manner and that’s what the future of institutional work should be. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s where the institutions are heading and so I think we’ve got those of us, who’ve been around a while, got some work to turn that around and make our leaders aware of these issues – they tend to have a very simplistic view. I’ll give you an example from recent interviews I’ve heard of – if you talk to the current Government about the future of the Government, about the future of vocational education, they want to favour private provision and a less fair market and that they’ve got some good arguments for that. If you talk to the opposition about it, they just want to move everything back under the public banner and have it delivered by TAFE and fund TAFE as a public provider. They’re very simplistic discussions. The sort of stuff we’re talking about is at a much higher order level and at a policy level, I just don’t see enough people talking about it at this level and I think it’s time to promote a higher order discussion around… doesn’t matter where you learn it, or how you learn it, or who paid – what matters is knowing what you learned and how to apply it.

DM – Agreed and for the learners to have sovereignty over that data – privacy reasons, but – and that’s where things like micro-credentials and short-form courses and really, you know, we’re increasingly blurring the lines between informal, non-formal and formal learning and looking to aggregate people’s skills from all of those and again – coming back to recognition of prior learning being so critical for this to enable learners at any stage of their life, we’re all learners – to be able to assemble the view or multitude of views that they want to present to the world for a particular job or for a particular volunteer opportunity, whatever it might be.

MK – It raises another interesting question of course, of who are you, “who are you Dan?” – No, what I mean by the web 2.0 web 3.0 argument, who owns your identity right? Is it mygov.id or is it Microsoft you know Dan@exchange.com or is it Google, you know, is it Dan@gmail.com or is it Facebook or is it – who, who owns your identity? And the answer must be you. So again, we’ve got a lot of work to do around the ethics of identity management going forward, and it’s not just about who can steal your identity, it’s about who actually owns your identity. And so again, in this resume area and data area, I think we need other institutions than Microsoft or Google or Facebook or Apple; or even a government of any particular nation who owns, who enables your personal ownership of your identity and that’s a tricky space too – in other words, my identity meaning what my skills framework looks like, what I can do. There are other dimensions of identity I’ve talked about such as my health profile and so on and so forth. Traditional things is the Government is the place – you know, the national Government that you belong to; that’s reasonable. But how many of us work across many nations these days and so we find our Microsoft identity more useful on a global basis. I, look, I’ve lost count of how many Microsoft accounts I’ve got, how many digital accounts I’ve got and it drives me insane so there needs to be a move I think in this area towards the web 3.0 world where you have open identity and a clear understanding of your own identity and away from the web 2.0, which is the current circumstance where depending on the organisation we’re in as to whether a Microsoft or Google or whatever type of ID IBM used to be – so, I think we’ve got some work to do there about “who are we you?” and “who is our data?”, “where is our data stored?”

DM – That’s right and fortunately colleagues in the EU are really taking a lead on that globally so we have some examples to learn from them but it’s a very complex and merging the corporate interests with personal interests and governmental interests…
MK – … and educational interests, which is the point we’re addressing. So when you own a set of micro-credentials, what’s their context? Who owns them? How are they used? Do they expire? Are they progressive? Do they grow? You know, they’re really big questions that we’re only just starting to address. Micro-credentials sound very convenient and people have hopped onto the convenience of them. In the university context, for example, a micro-credential seems a great way of doing a mini degree; we can take our educational property and just teach it in little bits, but anybody – doesn’t take very smart things they go: “Well, what do those little bits mean?” You might know how to cut a scalpel cut in my head but I don’t necessarily want you to continue with the surgery [excuse me], so we have a lot of work to do on this. It’s not a simple area. It’s a very appealing area and unfortunately I feel like too many people get stuck at the surface and are not working at the deeper… mining to the deeper levels of issues we need to address.

DM – Now you’ve flagged a number of interesting topics and we really could explore anyone of them in greater depth but maybe my final question for you is – just in this context – I’d love to hear some more about other initiatives of Intrinsic Learning and the many other hats that you’re wearing – what are some of the other things?

MK – In my particular commercial interests I have shortguides.com which is a small catalogue of really good short guides to useful things to learn and so we had that out in the marketplace and Intrinsic Learning is about dealing with new evidence frameworks and we bring – of course that’s where we know each other because we use Credentialate as a business software, we also use WordLearn LMS and we bring a number of systems together to support our approach to framework development for micro-credentials so what we do is build new micro-credentialing approaches. Now it’s experimental in every situation and every case study calls for a different approach right now, but that’s what I do on a day-to-day basis. A number of friends – we’re starting to talk about the need for some other types of institutions and we’ve come up with the idea of having a skills build, which starts to look at the question of how you recognise credentials in a machine-readable form and in the 21st century work context – so, outside of the industrial frameworks of the 20th century and so on, which the current system is driven by but in the more like the gig economy context and looking to increase the sense of utility for micro-credentials usefulness. So we’ve got some people looking at could we form some kind of organisation that helped address those questions – very early days but that’s going to occupy me. People ask me when I am going to retire and the answer is a very firm: “Never” – you know, I love this stuff, and so I plan to stay healthy and keep working on this as long as I can. I really enjoy addressing some of these questions as far as into the future as I can.

DM – Brilliant, you’ve picked off some very, very important questions but big ones, big tough ones many people are struggling with and exploring at the same time you are around the world but it’s so much better to have your big brain added to that collective and really helping move society, helping move individual learners and as well as institutions.

MK – We’re all just happy to be part of the awareness group – that’s the point and as you say, terrific initiatives in the US and Europe and elsewhere in the world, I know of a great initiative in Scotland working with their military veterans; I know of other initiatives in the African continent working with people in remote settings and health and so on. So, you know there’s a lot of people working on this but we need to form up and collaborate and raise the voice I think and look forward to being part of that for sure.

DM – Fantastic – well thank you so much for your time today Mark. I really appreciate your insights and some points for further discussion and yes I do look forward to your paper when you publish that on LinkedIn or wherever that will be and looking forward to continuing to collaborate with you.

MK – Thank you Dan – the same.

DM – Great, thanks Mark

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