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What’s the Key to Building Learning and Employment Records? Interoperability

January 25, 2024

At A Glance

Shifting to skills-first hiring practices allows jobseekers to effectively communicate their abilities, but to boost widespread adoption, the technology must work across vendors and platforms. 

Contributors
Joan Lee Manager
Sharon Leu Senior Director
Practices & Centers

Whether by taking an online course or serving in the military, we all constantly gain new skills outside formal learning institutions. Traditional résumés and academic diplomas don’t capture the most comprehensive or up-to-date information about these skills. Digital wallets that hold verifiable credentials offer a solution and provide jobseekers a way of storing and sharing digital records of their skills, such as Learning and Employment Records (LERs).   

These digital wallets are critical technology infrastructure for shifting to skills-first hiring practices. They provide the infrastructure necessary to provide a fuller picture of a person’s abilities to employers and open the door for those traditionally and systematically excluded from the workforce.   

To boost widespread adoption of verifiable credentials in the hiring process, the technology that makes them work must be interoperable—meaning that they allow jobseekers to easily share and store their skills credentials, no matter which training provider, employer, or institution issues the credentials, and no matter which vendors or platforms they choose for their personal digital wallet. Open standards-based interoperability allows the credentials themselves, in addition to the skills information they contain, to flow freely between individuals, employers, and credential issuers—and with over 1 million different credentials a person can earn through non-academic programs, such as apprenticeships, military experiences, or workforce training, interoperability is key to allowing jobseekers to access and use these records as they pursue opportunity. 

From Standards to Sharing 

In collaboration with the National Governors Association, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) VC-EDU Task Force, the MIT Digital Credentials Consortium, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program, JFFLabs provided three opportunities for vendors to demonstrate interoperability by hosting a series of plugfests. Plugfests are a longstanding tradition in software and hardware engineering that allow vendors to test whether their products, developed according to a specific standard, can actually work with one another. 

In this case, our plugfests demonstrated that credentials issued using the W3C Verifiable Credentials (VC) standards can be held by learners and workers in different wallets and shared with potential employers. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is the main international standards organization for the world wide web, with responsibility for developing standards and guidelines to help build a web based on the principles of accessibility, internationalization, privacy, and security. The VC standard is the emerging global standard for expressing digital credentials and ensuring they are cryptographically secure, tamper-evident, and privacy-protecting, even as they are exchanged and shared.    

In our first plugfest, held in June 2022, participating digital wallets were required to show that they could hold a single digital record in the W3C VC format to demonstrate wallet-to-credential interoperability. The seemingly simple nature of this task reflected how important this emerging work is: Plugfest 1 accelerated the development of the Open Badge v3 standard, which was finalized a month after the plugfest concluded and included important corrections and refinements proposed by plugfest participants.  

Building on this work, the second plugfest in November 2022 focused on increasing the number and type of records that could be exchanged between credential issuers and digital wallets. Digital wallet providers showed they could receive more than one record from more than one issuer. Credential issuers, such as Instructure (Canvas Credentials) and the Arizona State University Trusted Learner Network, participated by showing that their credentials could be stored in multiple wallets. Plugfest 2 also led to the development of open source community resources, such as the VC playground, that enable future wallet developers and issuers to demonstrate that their tools are interoperable. 

The third plugfest in October 2023 simulated the job application process by focusing on whether jobseekers could receive a request for credentials, select and combine multiple records, and send them back to a requestor for verification.  

A System With Powerful Potential  

Overall, 39 organizations, including universities, large and small edtech companies, wallet developers, and credential issuers, both U.S.-based and international, participated in these plugfests.    

They provided the first demonstrations that a variety of credentials using the W3C VC standard—including Open Badges v3 (Obv3), the United States Permanent Resident Card, TruAge Age-Verification credential, the ASU course credential, European Learning Model (ELM) v3, and the ServSafe Certification—could be combined into a record and used by jobseekers such as those with credentials but no degrees, or new U.S. residents who studied overseas. The plugfests also resulted in the development of open source community resources for any organizations who might want to test these credentials or the interoperability of their products in the future.  

Engaging in the plugfest was a very valuable experience for us, especially as we were able to collaborate and test interoperability with numerous peers,” said Maarten Boender, co-founder of Sphereon Wallet, who participated in the second and third plugfests. “Despite following the same set of specifications, it became evident that small details—sometimes as simple as a misplaced semicolon or bracket—can be pivotal in determining the success of a true interoperable system.”  

These plugfests showed not only the utility of digital credentials in hiring processes, but also the range of use cases possible when a variety of records can be moved across institutions, systems, and nations: 

  • A collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security allowed vendors to familiarize themselves with using official U.S. identity documents in their wallets. 
  • Arizona State University’s Trusted Learner Network made their course credential available so that vendors could show how course-level work could be transferred among institutions.
  • Greek Universities Network, in partnership with MATTR, demonstrated both how an individual could apply for a job and how an academic transcript could move between a university in Greece and one in Canada. 

These capabilities show the potential for interoperability, based on W3C Verifiable credentials, to provide mobility for students and jobseekers in the U.S. and around the world. Interoperable credentials can ease the administrative burden of the job search process, increase the efficiency of academic transfer, and remove language or other barriers to international mobility. 

Through the progression of these three plugfests, JFF demonstrated the successful implementation of an open standards-based infrastructure for a skills-based ecosystem, which is the best foundation for digital LERs.  

JFFLabs will continue to support the adoption of W3C Verifiable credentials and the use of LERs. This year, we will be deploying surveys to include the perspective of jobseekers in the development of digital credential technologies, and build on the work of the digital wallets market scan by further exploring the qualities and features required to make the “best” digital wallet. W3C verifiable credentials play a critical role in internet identity, finance, supply chain management, and international trade. We have only begun to scratch the surface of their full potential to give learners and workers the vocabulary to express the full range of their skills as they pursue good jobs.  

If you work with jobseekers or employers and are interested in seeing how this technology can be used in your work, please connect with Sharon and her team by signing up for JFFLabs updates at https://www.jff.org/subscribe/  

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all.