Alternative Credentials


Alternative credentials typically refer to any type of credential other than traditional, credit-based degrees and diplomas offered by accredited secondary and postsecondary institutions. Alternative credentials include, but are not limited to, licenses, certificates, badges, professional/industry certifications, non-credit and competency-based education programs, boot camps, work-based learned programs such as apprenticeships, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and short and highly specific “micro-learning” programs.

Alternative credentials are awarded by a range of authorized entities, including educational institutions, professional and industry certifying bodies, and state licensure boards. They are awarded based on a range of criteria such as industry-validated required competencies and mastery levels. They often are subject to a range of quality-assurance processes.

There are no common definitions for alternative credentials, although many organizations and groups have been defining them. The result is a landscape of confusing terms that vary among institutions, organizations, and jurisdictions. For example, the OECD (Kato et al, 2020) defines alternative credentials as including micro-credentials, digital badges, and industry-recognized certificates. For others, badges refer to a technical standard applied to alternative credentials. In Canada, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) defines alternative credentials as offerings beyond traditional degrees, diplomas, and certificates (Johnson, 2019, p.21). For the ICDE (2020), credentials are based on competencies or learning accomplishments.

“Layered into this problem is an overlapping set of characteristics: MOOCs may or may not be open and may or may not result in a micro-credential.  A micro-credential may or may not be micro and may or may not result in a badge. Stackable credentials may or may not stack to a higher credential and may or may not result in a badge and may or may not be distinguishable from post-graduate certificates. Badges are sometimes referred to as technical standard, or represent a technical platform, but are also sometimes bundled with micro-credentials.” 

Inconsistencies abound in verifying alternative credentials and then storing them as a part of a traditional record of learning. Many groups are working to include alternative credentials in Comprehensive Learning Records (CLRs) and/or Learning and Employment Records (LERs). Doing so would allow all learning to be recognized in a digital, portable format.

Alternative Terminology


Non-degree credential 

Online credential

Relation to Learn & Work Ecosystem

Recognition of learning outside the traditional educational credentialing framework is vital to an effective ecosystem. Such recognition expands pathways to educational and economic success for diverse learners and makes credentialing more relevant and responsive to the needs of a dynamic economy.

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