In this conversation style interview, Dan McFadyen and Martin Bean, Founder and CEO of the Bean Centre, explore a how education, industry, society and technology are converging to embrace and empower alternative credentials.
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0:00 – Introduction
1:26 – The Intersection of Factors Making Lifelong Learning an Imperative
4:35 -The Importance of Aligning Multi-Sector Initiatives to Maximise the Power of Alternative Credentials
10:14 – How Rich Skills Descriptors are Providing the Common Language Needed in the New Global Economy
14:50 – Strengthening Cross-Sector Connections to Enable Integrated and Flexible Learning Pathways
18:33 – How Highly Mobile Digital Badges are Delivering Rich Verification and Evidence of Skills
21:21 – Blending Real-World Experiences Into Traditional Education and the Impact on Graduate Employability
28:14 – Australia’s Position in the Global Knowledge Economy and the Vision of The Bean Centre
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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 am joined today by Martin Bean. Martin is the Founder and CEO of The Bean Center. Previously Martin was the Vice Chancellor and President of RMIT University from February 2015 through July 2021. He previously held the position of Vice Chancellor of the Open University – the UK’s largest academic institution and separately as General Manager of Microsoft’s Education Products group. He has held various executive leadership roles at Novell and other companies integrating technology and learning systems. In 2012 he launched FutureLearn – the UK’s first at-scale provider of MOOCs, and in 2014 he was named one of the UK Prime Minister’s business ambassadors. His career has focused on the intersection of education and technology. Martin – Thank you so much for your time today, lovely to talk to you again.
Martin Bean (MB) – Hello Dan and hello to everybody listening in today. It’s a real pleasure to be here and can I just say – Dan, I’m just such an admirer of the work that you and your colleagues are doing in this sort of amazing new world of alternative credentials and the future of work. It’s just a pleasure being a fellow traveller with you.
DM – Well thank you Martin. It’s wonderful to hear those words, and likewise we admire you from afar and it’s been fantastic to get to know you over the previous years and months. Look – I want to come back to that intersection of education and technology. There’s so much to talk and discuss with you today so let’s dive into it. Late last year you co-authored a review of university / industry collaboration in teaching and learning for the Australian National Skills Commission. In that report you identified seven strong clear short-term initiatives or actions that could be taken as well as for longer term direction – reform directions that can make a strong impact if implemented. This is a fantastic opportunity but it’s complicated right? I might just feedback a brief snippet from that report where you identify that it involves aligning development of skills and education systems accelerating the use of the Australian Skills Classification, reforming the AQF (the Australians Qualifications Framework) and supporting the development of a unified credentials platform. So there is a lot to it and I want to unpack some of that with you; but I guess the first question is “Why now?” Why is now the best time or right time to tackle these?
MB – Yeah I think it’s not so much “now” episodically Dan – I think this is something that’s been sort of slowly building for decades now actually; it is this need for all of us to recognise that learning is no longer disproportionately from sort of the age of 5 to 24 and then we just get on with work and live our lives. We’ve been talking about lifelong learning for quite a long time but I think when you look at the pace of innovation, you look at how perishable hard skills are now; how quickly they become obsolete; how many changes in job that a 15-year-old will have now through their life – which can be 15 to 20, unlike sort of my era where perhaps you might have had three to five in your career. All of those things are coming together now with the pace of technology and innovation to no longer make it a ‘nice to have’ to learn for life, but to make it a ‘must-have’. I think that’s been accelerated by COVID where I think it became very clear that it is possible to be able to, not only deliver high quality learning – which I’ve known about for decades through digital media and forums and practices – but also to be able to give access and engage people at all stages of their lives in meaningful ways. So it’s a little bit long-winded to say the report might have come out in December but actually it’s really been building for quite some time.
DM – Fantastic – Despite all the clear negative impacts that COVID pandemic has had, it is creating a number of these new opportunities and silver linings to that very dark cloud, so that’s great to think about that context as well. So in order to implement these initiatives and direction, it’s going to require greater collaboration than we typically see between Higher Education, Government and Industry. So a couple of related questions on that: What are some of the obstacles we need to be aware of with that and then ultimately, more importantly, how can we be as successful as we can be?
MB – Let’s start maybe with the actors that you pointed out. So I think for the Government, it’s really about making sure that they do two or three really critical things. Can I just say Dan – the Department and the Minister commissioned this report and they’ve been incredibly welcoming of Peter’s and my recommendations. But if you look at some of the recommendations – the Noonan review on the reform of the AQF to enshrine micro-credentials and build a more connected system, that’s been out for quite some time now. So really our big shout-out to the government in our findings is: “OK and let’s get on with it. You’ve fully accepted the Noonan recommendations so let’s just get it done because that’s going to create the enabling framework”.
The second area is for all of this to work, we need a common skills currency. What I talk about in the report is Rich Skill Descriptors (RSDs) to be used by employers, to be used by individuals, to be used by education organisations and by the government so we’re all speaking the same language. The Skills Commission has done a terrific job of taking their first few steps with project JEDI in the vocational area; but our recommendation is that they be funded and allowed to extend that into tertiary education and beyond them so that Australia has a well understood rich library of skill descriptors that we can all use.
And then the third area Dan, is there’s a lot of initiatives being funded right now – you’ve got the national micro-credentials marketplace; you’ve got the national credentials platform; you’ve got the national careers institutes; you’ve got the national skills initiative that I’ve done with the commission that I’ve already talked about. We need to bring these initiatives together Dan – Interoperability, open standards, transparent and effective, APIs so that data can be written from a variety of sources. All of those things really need to be pulled together in these funded initiatives from the Commonwealth Government. I’m working with them and they are certainly putting a lot of time and effort into making sure that we do just that. So that’s the important part there. I think for industry Dan, they’re up for it, but they would be the first to say, they have to be part of the curriculum design process, the program design process – and they want to be.
When we start talking about alternative credentials and wanting them to have immediate labour market impact – the more we can get industry working right alongside us to develop them, to teach them, to provide mentors for them, the more valuable those alternative credentials are going to be to individuals.
Then when it comes to education providers: universities – TAFEs, higher education providers of any type – I think an openness and a willingness to recognise that they have a role to play for the lifelong learner, that even though they may have traditionally focused on … sort of a younger profile of learner. Government wants them to do it, the industry wants them to do it, we want them to do it – you and I Dan, but they’ve got to have some openness to doing things in different ways. Industry wants shorter, they want sharper, they want more industry enabled, they want them to have more direct link between what’s being taught with the skills and the skills gaps and deficits that they have, to be able to drive their organisations forward to innovate and remain competitive. And so it is going to require us as the education providers to engage with them in ways that perhaps we haven’t done as much of in the past then.
DM – Fascinating points there – and on your comment around the interaction and engagement with industry I think traditionally – as you said, this is not just all starting from nothing today but traditionally that the industry involvement perhaps has been more visible on the vocational side, but certainly over the recent years we’ve seen much more focus within the university sector on engaging that industry sector and really getting their input…
MB – And even on the vocational side Dan – the feedback that we had through the consultations is that we’ve got to speed up. These skills are becoming perishable faster, technology is changing at such a rapid rate that we can’t build programs together and then let them have a shelf life that is too long. Because then what ends up happening is the graduates from those programs are again not as valuable in the labour market as we all would want them to be. So even in the vocational areas it’s about ‘How can we speed up the review and adaptation of those programs?’ is what we heard loud and clear.
DM – Fantastic, interesting – now you mentioned RSDs. So it is a topic near and dear to my heart – we’re currently involved in two different skills initiatives through the Open Skills Network. We’re really learning a lot, sharing and collaborating. So, on the subject of RSDs and skills more broadly, why are those so important both nationally and internationally?
MB – First of all Dan, can I just say thanks for waving the Australian flag in those global initiatives – the Open Skills Network and the fact that you have been invited and accepted to be part of their pilot programs I think is just a credit to you; but I’m so glad Australia is involved because when we talk about these Rich Skill Descriptors, they can’t be bound to a single state or a nation. The more global they are, the more valuable they’ll be for the individuals. That’s why you and I are both very interested in the open standards that are emerging out there. But the reason why it’s so important – as I touched on before Dan – is, absent of really well-defined skill descriptors, we’re left with really unhelpful labels like ‘communication’. So if you just say the skill is ‘communication’ – oh my goodness that could be interpreted as literally thousands of different skills depending upon what job we’re talking about, what area we’re talking about, what nation we’re in you know – it’s a starting point, let me put it that way. But it’s nowhere near what we’re going to need to take the friction out of the ability for the individual to acquire the skills they need, have those skills validated, have them, express them to the labour market and have the labour market do a good job of being able to verify that individual actually has the skills that they’re looking for; to be able to do that you need a common language – as I touched on. That common language, each of the skills needs to be able to be tagged against a unique identifier – so that we can start using technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data to be able to do a good job in individuals being able to express the skills that they’ve got in more nuanced ways – and for employers to be able to find them and, quite frankly, for we as education providers to do a better job of telegraphing what skills are actually being taught in the programs that we’re offering. So think of it as the glue that really knits everything together or the grease that takes all the grit out of the cogs – you can look at it either way but that’s why they’re important.
DM – Whatever way works. For me as a dual American-Australian citizen maybe I do speak both languages – American English and Australian English, but actually going through that process has been incredibly enlightening – both for us, but hopefully for the Open Skills Network team as well and recognising that, one, Australia has decades of experience with skills and the classification/categorisation of skills but two, it’s imperative to recognise that. It’s a big world and there are different standards, different taxonomies that are very much adopted in different areas, so we need to be able to support those but again build that glue to bring everything together.
MB – And Dan I think you’d agree with me, that if people want to sort of play a little bit in this space – hats off to the work that Emsi Skills have done over the last few years as well, in terms of trying to bring some open skills taxonomies to bear, so there’s a number of different initiatives going on here. I think what we all want at the end of the day though are these really rich libraries of skill descriptors that we can draw on and build and modify and deposit back into for others to be able to use as well.
DM – Absolutely and it’s great you flag them. We connect in with Emsi Skills database and they are having more than 30,000 defined skills at your fingertips – job data tied to that as well so really, really insightful and again for all the stakeholders involved – for the learners critically, but for the institutions to think about their curriculum and very importantly from employer’s perspective to get a sense of what is ‘communication’ in a medical sense, or in a technical sense, or in retail – it differs in so many, so many different contexts.
Let’s pivot a little and talk a bit about flexible learning pathways. I’d love to get your perspective on those. That was one of the report’s longer-term directions with a goal moving toward a more integrated tertiary education sector. We’re fortunate here in Australia to have dual sector universities such as RMIT that are already serving a broader need and cohort of learners. What’s your take on the sector more widely? Are they ready and how do we make that happen?
MB – Yeah I think that the sector is absolutely ready for us to start breaking down some of these unhelpful disconnects between the various elements of the post-secondary education system. Many think of it as sort of – you know, the TAFE system to the left, the university or higher education provider system to the right, which is actually very unhelpful. So this notion of being able to connect the dots in the system – to be able to build much more free-flowing pathways between vocational education and higher education where we can signal to the individual what those various pathways might look like; but also make sure they don’t hit any dead ends – we don’t sell them a hollow promise that if they go and exceed and do very well in one area that the door will be shut to them as they try to bring that prior learning to another part of the system. As you mentioned Dan – RMIT is a dual sector university so we have a very vibrant TAFE or vocational education environment, as well as the higher education environment and we’ve for years sort of had those connected pathways between vocational and higher education.
The other thing that I think we need to be open-minded to, is that right now the system sort of walks you up a ladder where you start in vocational education and you walk up into higher education; but if you turn around and you want to go back down there’s no funding available to you – which just really isn’t a very fair system. So many of our engineering graduates at RMIT turned around and did the vocational refrigeration certificate because that’s what got them their first job Dan. Now they later go on and use all that they’ve learned for their engineering degree but the ticket into the first job was actually the certificate because the labour market immediately recognised that and needed that.
So I think that the system is ready and the actors, to a large degree, are ready, but there still are some structural impediments which is why we recommended the Noonan review around the AQF get immediately adopted. We’ve talked at length to the government about the need to harmonise the funding but also these alternative pathways Dan – the funding that was put in place by Minister Tian around short courses. When we did the consultation for universities it was fascinating to me how many of the universities use these short courses and micro-credentials as alternative on-ramps into higher education. They used it for people to be able to test the waters or find a way in without going through traditional ATAR or mature age sort of admission practices. So I think it’s a good example of where people are willing but we’ve still got some work to do just to connect all of the pieces of the puzzle.
DM – Yeah you’ve referenced alternative credentials, micro-credentials and digital badges. That certainly seems to be a key aspect of it and the usage has certainly exploded across the industry – any further insights there?
MB – Yeah so let’s talk a little bit about digital badges that are typically the currency that are used once somebody has studied an alternative credential or is increasingly becoming that case. The fascinating thing for me Dan, is how overly focused people are on the image file of a digital badge instead of actually where the magic really happens – which is the structured JSON data that sits inside the image file. The only reason why we chose image files was because they’re so readily transportable around the internet and readily depositable in different areas of the internet. But the real value of a digital badge is that structured data that sits inside the badge and the ability, if somebody expresses that badge to the world – to an employer to their LinkedIn profile, to their Facebook page – people can click on it and come back to the source of where that badge was issued from. That’s pretty powerful because if the badge has been designed well, you can see who the issuing organisation was, you can see a description of the badge itself and you can see how it was earned and what was required to be able to earn the badge. If there are attachments to the badge, you can go out and you can see other documents that actually are proof or evidence of what the individual learned to acquire the badge.
That’s all really important, because the currency of old was our testimony which hangs on our wall – I’ve still got mine, my grandma loves looking at them and they’re still really important. But it’s just a static piece of parchment right? Whereas, as I curate my digital portfolio by leveraging things like My eQuals and the future of the national credential platform and my micro and alternative credentials, I unlock then a much richer set of resources for would-be employers, or universities from an admissions standpoint etc. to be able to get a real sense of the skills that I’ve developed and the evidence to go along with it. That’s really what gets me excited about digital badging. Not the image file or the sticker – as pretty as that can be – it’s really about the ability for me to express to the world a richer portfolio of who I am and what skills I’ve acquired.
DM – Perfect – now definitely kindred spirits on that, and for us that the importance of evidence, the imperative of personalised and meaningful evidence to help bring that credential to life and full context is so essential. I want to build on that and actually weave together a couple of other threads and comments that you made. At the beginning you said that you know we’re on this journey together and I recently took a journey back to America for the first time in two years which – was a wonderful experience, a bit surreal to be travelling internationally again – but I was fortunate enough to attend the IMS Global Digital Credentials Summit in Atlanta. There was fascinating research, studies and initiatives that are coming out of that and a number of them flagged a challenge – and you touched on it already – around the challenge of getting that first job out of university, out of TAFE, community college.
They flagged that the challenge is that so many companies are looking for 2+ years of experience, and that’s something that’s certainly true for us at Edalex, that we were recently searching for a software developer and we put just like everyone else – 2+ years of experience. So we wanted to ensure that they had that real world experience that they would be able to ramp up to speed quickly and jump right in. So how do we help learners get across that chasm, target the employability challenges that they have? Yeah, interested in your thoughts on that and boot camps, hire / train / deploy models, lots of different innovative models that are coming out.
MB – Look, in Peter’s and my review that we’ve referenced a couple of times that came out in December, we talked quite a lot around the concept in higher education that will be familiar to everybody listening – around work integrated learning – and we actually turn that a little bit on its head and talk about ‘learning integrated work’ in the report a little bit as well. We talk about cadetships. We talk about the ability to bring the voice and experience of industry right inside the programs themselves. I think if you really cut to the chase Dan – it’s about education providers needing to do a much, much better job of bringing the real world of work into their programs, or structuring the programs in a way where people can actually develop the experience that they need and to have the university be able to assess that, credential that, and write that into the transcript so that employers can actually verify it and be comfortable that individual did actually have the experience to go along with the formal learning or the classroom or digital learning that they did.
It sounds really simple. In actual fact, for many higher education providers it’s a particularly scaled one, it’s an incredibly complex set of challenges to do it but it’s got to be done. If you really think about the most employable graduate then it will be somebody that has studied something that is, you know, really valuable in the labour market, that has been well designed and well put together, coupled with the ability whilst doing the study for that program to develop human or enduring – or often gets described as soft skills – and have those verified by the university and have micro-credentials issued against those and then to be able to, with confidence, demonstrate that they’ve had some experience in the real world of work. That from an industry perspective suddenly makes the graduates coming out of our TAFEs and our universities and our higher education providers much more valuable as they leave. They leave day one and they’re not feeling that way Dan.
It might be a harsh critique, and for those of us on the education provision side, we don’t like hearing it. But the employers that we spoke with through the consultations, and the work that I do with the Bean Centre now, I increasingly hear that employers just don’t feel that the graduates that they’re getting from our universities particularly are fitting their needs day one as they head into the workforce. It’s arguable they never did, but I am worried that I’m hearing that more and more.
DM – No look – I agree, and again, just coming from my own anecdotal experience, I received one CV from someone who was a recent graduate but had also done a boot camp attached to that Australian university, in this case. I got really excited to say there’s that blend of the university education plus it’s very practical, hands-on, you know, boot camp type experience. Do you see these alternate models as threats or opportunities or both?
MB – I think there are clearly opportunities, and again, you know, we need to be careful in sort of looking below the headline of a boot camp provider, like just you know, sort of ‘caveat emptor’ – let the buyer beware – not all boot camp providers necessarily do a good job of creating that real world experience either; but most do. So again, universities are increasingly in public / private partnerships embedding boot camp type programs – be they summer programs or semester break programs, or actually formally part of the credit bearing programs – to really bring the outside in, to be able to bring in those skills and competencies to append to what they’ve traditionally taught, which is often brilliant to create that more employable graduate. It gets described sometimes down as the “t-shaped graduate” where they’ve got more of the general education but then they’ve gone very deep in one or two areas, that are the skills that are immediately recognisable in the labour market that allow them to get that first job to then unlock the power of the more horizontal skills and capabilities that they’ve developed.
So yeah I think we’re going to see more of that and some universities will develop that from within, others will partner for it. As I often say to the universities that I work with all around the world: the only option that really isn’t an option, is doing nothing. And those universities that are doing nothing to respond to, not the future of work, but the reality of work right now Dan, I think are going to … history is not going to judge them very kindly.
DM – I agree – great, great insights Martin. Just a couple more questions, we really appreciate all your time. I’m really interested in your perspective on Australia’s positioning in terms of the shift to the knowledge economy and really ensuring that we’re in that sweet spot?
MB – Yeah no, I’m very proud Dan. So when I talk to my American colleagues and my British colleagues and in Europe and Asia, Australia and New Zealand I must say, we’re way out ahead with initiatives like the national skills commission, the national careers institute, the national credentials platform, the national micro-credentials marketplace, the AQF enshrining micro-credentials and connected systems – all fantastic in terms of where we are from an enabling environment perspective. I think the challenge for Australia now, which has probably always been the case, is let’s not reinvent the wheel. So my life is spent now making sure that I find where the great innovation is going on in the world, that we touched on one, you know, with the Open Skills Network, or we touched on another which built on the back off the McArthur foundation and the Mozilla foundation, the work of Concentric Sky and Badgr and what they’re doing, and IMS right alongside them – you know, all of those.
The smart play for Australia now that we’ve got out ahead from an enabling environment perspective, is to sweep up all of the other wonderful open innovation that’s going on around the world and bring that to bear, rather than spending our time, our effort and our resources reinventing the wheel. We’ve got ourselves into a great position. What we need to do though is to just, to really keep at the forefront of our brains – open standards, interoperability, global – I think if we keep thinking that way we’ll continue to be in a fantastic position on a relative basis.
DM – Fantastic Martin, very inspiring and very insightful. I have a feeling you’ve already touched on this in a number of the different points you’ve made but can you tell us more about the Bean Centre? More aspirations and some of the initiatives you’re involved in now?
MB – I realised when I was sort of coming to the end of my time as a Vice Chancellor – you know, you get very reflective, and I looked back on my career and I realised there were probably three core narratives that were the red threads that ran through my working life. One you touched on which is, I’ve always been at the intersection of education and technology. I mean, my degree is in adult ed but I immediately started getting involved in how technology, back to the first PC days, really could be used as part of education. The second is that my whole career I’ve been actively involved at all levels of government and industry in skills. Because I came from the technology industry, there is always a skills deficit in technology. It’s just the nature of the fact that we just can never provide enough people with the skills we need to keep up with where the innovation is going. So skills have been a red thread. But then the third area that I realised was being a global traveller in my life having worked all over the world for my whole career. I was in this sort of really unique position to be able to unlock my network in the innovation space to be able to create what I described as a collaboration hub to be able to bring like-minded people to bear so that others can learn from them rapidly.
So the centre that I’ve started is really about just perpetuating that work – it’s making sure that I’m doing all that I can at a policy level and industry level and sector level to promote alternative credentials in the future of work. I’m doing all that I can for Australia and New Zealand to bring the innovation that I find happening all around the world back to us so that we can leverage it wherever we can. And then of course I just am thrilled to be able to give advice to open-minded people as I learn more about that on a daily basis to be able to help solve those challenges. What’s fun Dan, is that it’s increasingly in secondary schools, in TAFE systems, in government, in universities, in corporate universities which is the area that’s just on fire right now, so that’s where my centre is positioned and I call it the ‘performance stage’ of my lifetime. I only work on stuff that I prefer to work on, which is a lovely chapter of my life.
DM – Nice! That’s exciting. I heard you use that expression, which I never heard before, just last week actually and I thought what a fantastic expression. How fortunate we are that you are focused on that ‘performance stage’. I know you personally and professionally. I’ve gained so much from your insights along the way over the past months so really appreciate everything that you’ve done for me and our company Edalex, and much more importantly on that global scale and the impact that you’re having on so many organisations, which ultimately will translate down to individual learners and is why we’re all in this industry.
MB – What a nice place to wrap up too because that’s certainly why I’ve always been in it Dan, and it’s why you are as well. As a father of awesome young women, I want them to have the same career chances and opportunities in their lives, ideally living close to home in Australia rather than scattering all around the world. We’ll only do that if we make sure Australia stays at the forefront of these future of work initiatives so thanks for the opportunity today Dan, and thanks for all of your collegial friendship and support. It’s a real pleasure working with you.
DM – Likewise Mark, couldn’t have said it better, so thanks again for your time. We’ll wrap up here.
MB – You’re welcome.