A substantial share of these respondents addressed the query we posed about the future of credentialing. They generally expect a burst of activity on this front and think that a major catalyst will be the growing numbers of workers who teach themselves new job-related skills in self-administered online programs.

While the traditional college degree will still hold sway in 2026, more employers may accept alternate credentialing systems as learning options and their measures evolve

The respondents with the most optimism for advances in training opportunities in the next decade are also the most hopeful about the acceptance of alternate credentials as proof of job candidates’ training.

The range of free learning materials available today are breathtaking; anyone who can read and has an internet connection can learn about just about any imaginable topic free of charge from excellent teachers for the first time in human history.Marti Hearst

Matt Hamblen, senior editor at Computerworld, said, “Credentials for online training will gain value, and more young people will grow more and more skeptical of traditional four-year and grad programs, definitely.”

Micah Altman, director of research at MIT Libraries, wrote, “Over the last 15 years we have seen increasing success in making open course content available, followed by success teaching classes online at scale (e.g., Coursera, edX). The next part of this progression will be online credentialing. Starbucks’ partnership with Arizona State University to provide large numbers of its employees with the opportunity to earn a full degree online is indicative of this shift. Progress in online credentialing will be slower than progress in online delivery, because of the need to comply with or modify regulation, establish reputation, and overcome entrenched institutional interests in residential education. Notwithstanding, I am optimistic we will see substantial progress in the next decade – including more rigorous and widely accepted competency-based credentialing.”

Justin Reich, executive director at the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, commented, “New forms of for-profit certification, like programming boot camps and Code Academy, will present themselves as new and revolutionary, though they continue in a tradition of IT certification that goes back to Microsoft certificate programs and further back. New forms of certificates and credentialing will be accepted by employers in limited circumstances, especially those in which employers are involved in developing the certificate.”

Dmitry Strakovsky, a professor at University of Kentucky, wrote, “Nano-degrees are already a part of our vocabulary. They will thrive in the future job environment. These will be taught primarily online by for-profit certificate-granting institutions aligned with specific business or technology interests.” But, like many others, he sees universities surviving, noting: “The … [u]pper-management echelons will be primarily filled with people who completed four-year nontechnical degrees. Critical thinking skills and media analysis are nearly impossible to teach at scale, and these allow future workers to imagine new jobs and new cultural paradigms.”

Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research and StreamFuzion Corp., commented, “There will be those who continue to see traditional four-year and graduate programs as both prestigious and essential for creating a certain corporate culture. But new types of credentialing, and especially self-training in emerging fields, for example programming or penetration testing done by ethical hackers, will become exceptionally valuable in the next decade. IBM Corp.’s Chairman, CEO and president, Ginni Rometty, recently said that cybercrime may be the greatest threat to every company in the world. Juniper Research recently predicted that the rapid digitization of consumers’ lives and enterprise records will increase the cost of data breaches to $2.1 trillion globally by 2019, increasing to almost four times the estimated cost of breaches in 2015. So applicants will combine traditional credentialing systems – for example, a four- or six-year degree – with ongoing self-training.”

Ed Dodds, digital strategist at Conmergence, predicted, “Employers that do not [accept new credentials certification] will be shamed on Glassdoor and similar sites.”

Marti Hearst, a professor in the School of Information at University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “The range of free learning materials available today are breathtaking; anyone who can read and has an internet connection can learn about just about any imaginable topic free of charge from excellent teachers for the first time in human history. There are some drawbacks from the current technologies, however. They require learners to be self-motivated and able to work on their own. Most of the work is virtual. The feedback is not personalized to the student.

“There is great excitement and energy in the research community at the intersection of computer science and learning science. The existence of enormous communities of online learners makes it possible to experiment with new technologies and teaching methods, and measure their effects, in a scale never before possible. Top researchers are innovating with new methods of helping make online learning more social, helping blend the online with the in-person classroom, with teachers on the ground working with material in the cloud, personalizing the feedback, and integrating physical activities with the virtual instruction.

“This will lead to at least two revolutions in learning. The first will be an unprecedented understanding of how people learn and how to teach well. The second will be the opportunity for people around the world to get the education they need at an affordable price. In 10 years the issues around credentials and proof of learning will be worked out, and … there will be seamless blends between online and in-person learning. In today’s complex world, people want to be continually learning, and being able to take short courses when needed to fill in gaps, or longer sets of courses to learn a new topic or skill, without interrupting one’s life, will become a regular part of life.”

Timothy C. Mack, managing principal at AAI Foresight, said, “While by necessity the traditional postsecondary structures will have to adapt to changes in cultural and economic environment, the credibility and effectiveness of credentialing systems will always be in question, especially where they become vulnerable to ‘gaming’ by participants. In many settings, skill building will continue to be an experiential rather than a scholastic process.”

Alexander Halavais, director of the master’s degree of arts in social technologies program at Arizona State University, commented, “The key word here is ‘training.’ There will continue to be a differentiation between learning that happens best individually (and can therefore be scaled in an interactive/broadcast model), and those that are best learned in a community. The latter is also scalable, but the technologies for scaling learning communities are trailing technologies that allow for training. The growth of those online learning communities is going to be the more interesting story of the next 10 years. The success of these systems will rely on credentials that are transparent and demonstrate authentic learning. To the extent that such credentials emerge, they will complement (and sometimes replace) university degrees.”

John Howard, creative director at LOOOK, a mixed-reality design and development studio, wrote, “MOOCs and the availability of training materials, tutorials, user groups and easy access to experts already [provide] the tools necessary to acquire and build proficiency with a variety of skills. More [and] more we will see credentials diminish in value as workers can show a track record of accomplishment in the amateur-gig full-time economic spectrum. This is already happening across a number of creative fields, as the cost of access to tools has put them within the reach of almost everyone.”

Christine Maxwell, entrepreneur and program manager of learning technologies at the University of Texas-Dallas, said, “The most important skills are the ability to ask good questions, the ability to be flexible and work well with others – soft skills will be just as important as hard skills. Learning how to ask good questions can be taught online – but having a teacher who is not afraid to let his or her students follow their own curiosity will help greatly! Badging is already here – and employers will very definitely be accepting of these new credentialing systems, thank goodness.”

Dana Klisanin, psychologist/futurist at Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D, wrote, “Cognitive and analytical skills will continue to be important, but we will see a rise in emphasis on the capacity to collaborate and communicate. By the end of the decade, employers will be as accepting of applicants with these credentialing systems as they are of those from traditional institutions; however, they will not surpass the prestige of traditional campus experience. Online educational programs will influence the credentialing systems of traditional institutions, and online institutions will increasingly offer meet-ups and mingles such that a true hybrid educational approach emerges.”

Mike O’Connor, now retired, wrote, “Online classrooms have advanced a lot since the early days. And the good ones can do a great job of developing crucial online collaboration and learning skills. … Employers who only accept traditionally credentialed applicants are stupid. Speaking as an entrepreneur with several successes (and many failures) under his belt, I can testify that we hardly ever looked at traditional credentials when making key hires.”

David Banks, co-editor of The Society Pages of Cyborgology blog, commented, “Well-capitalized institutions and organizations will most likely offer certificate programs and other forms of credentialization as roles like social media manager and content developer become more standardized and social media companies become further entrenched in information gatekeeping systems. These will most likely supersede traditional universities that move too slowly for the interests of capital. This process will majorly follow Max Weber’s classic descriptions of bureaucracies and rationalized professional roles. Training will most likely be in-house (Facebook offering certified brand management courses) over the internet.”

Ansgar Koene, senior research fellow at the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute, wrote, “The skills required for the workplace are currently undergoing rapid change. The education system is struggling to keep up with this. There is a general sense that the traditional model in which people go to school/university at the start of their life and then apply this learning throughout the rest of their life is no longer applicable. Instead, society has to move towards a model of lifelong learning. Online nontraditional settings will be an important part of this and are likely to become something that employers will encourage their workforce to engage with. This will stimulate acceptance of nontraditional credentials. Some of the most successful online courses that are already beginning to gain acceptance [are] in areas such as programming skills, especially the acquisition of new programming languages by people who already have programming experience. We might think of this as a ‘top-up’ course to bring people up to date with new developments in an area that they already have training in. These kinds of skills are likely to be most amenable for self-directed learning. Learning of fundamentals of areas of expertise will likely remain difficult to transfer to setting[s] where there is no direct interaction between teachers and learners or peer groups of learners. The key skill will be ‘learning how to learn,’ and this itself is different depending on the topic area. One thing that is already happening is a decline in sharp discipline boundaries with employers, and research projects, increasingly looking for interdisciplinary people or teams. This trend will also strengthen the move towards nontraditional training.”

The idea that graduates of online programs are less qualified than those who have had face-to-face instruction is still current, but will eventually be proved wrong.Paula Hooper Mayhew

Mark Richmond, a systems engineer and educator, said, “While the availability of self-directed and self-paced training will continue to expand, the acceptance of such training as evidence of skill will become increasingly dependent on testing and demonstrated ability. The proliferation of certificates and online courses in general makes it difficult for anyone to assess their validity. Verifiable skills and work history will have an increased importance in making hiring decisions.”

Beth Corzo-Duchardt, an assistant professor at Muhlenberg College, replied, “The fast pace of technological innovation means that any educational program that successfully trains workers to succeed in future jobs must focus on fundamentals like critical thinking, self-directed learning, basic computer literacy and, in some fields, basic math, science and writing skills. In my opinion, the question prompt ‘Which of these skills can be taught effectively via online systems’ incorrectly equates online teaching with large-scale teaching. … Smaller-scale vocational schooling (online and/or in person) would be a better avenue. Fundamental critical thinking skills can be successfully taught online. They cannot be taught at scale, whether online or in a big lecture taught by one professor, because the assignments and assessment strategies for such skills must be flexible to be effective, and that is impossible at scale. Many STEM basics can be taught effectively via large-scale online (or offline) systems. Others need to provide for hands-on experience. It is difficult to scale up physics or chemistry labs, but a blended model involving smaller labs could be successful. If I were advising employers about what to look for in credentialing systems, I would tell them that, whether the programs are traditional or nontraditional, employers should look into whether they are teaching the fundamental critical thinking skills that will enable their employees to learn new skills as their profession evolves. Online platforms like Lynda.com are very useful for training large groups [of] students on particular computer programs, or how to use particular audiovisual devices, so workers using these tools can constantly go back to these services to maintain their edge in the field. Employers would be smart to be open to hiring employees with general, rather than specialized skills, and to provide them with (and pay them for) participation in periodic large-scale online training. The jobs of the future, like the jobs of today, will require dynamic learners, ready and able to learn new skills periodically.”

Frank Odasz, president of Lone Eagle Consulting, wrote, “Mining raw human potential is the new Gold Rush. Teaching the innovation process as open-mindedness, watching and learning from the booming socioeconomic innovations globally online, is the key skill, so that everyone functions as both learner and teacher, consumer and producer, all the time. … Learning to effectively use online systems requires ‘learning by doing’ online. Specifically, teaching the benefits of effective online collaboration must be hands-on, as well as growing one’s ability to be self-directed, which is a self-esteem and self-confidence issue. Learning how we can grow our own self-esteem and contribute to such growth in others is a fundamental dynamic for successful mutual-support networks, as well as individual success. Teaching open-mindedness online is a challenge as everyone is different, and personalized learning requires individualized tweaks in the learning dynamics. This is where innovation in what best motivates individuals is a key variable. Example: Having taught teachers online for 30 years, Winston Churchill’s quote rings true, ‘We’re always ready to learn, never to be taught.’ … Those without a predilection toward self-directed learning won’t engage freely in self-directed online lessons or actively explore global innovations for what’s already working for others like them. So, we start with teaching the love of learning hands-on, with lots of encouragement and tangible digital creation and collaborative-sharing outcomes. In a world where everything changes, how we can all keep up to the same instant of progress is the challenge, made possible once we’re all online. Example: Airbnb.org quickly created millions of new home-based income streams without overt entrepreneurial risk-taking or requisite abilities for innovation. As millions of jobs will be replaced with smarter technologies, the need for ongoing peer support will increase, begging the creation of new metrics to mirror back what’s working best.”

Emmanuel Edet, legal adviser at the National Information Technology Development Agency of Nigeria, replied, “The most important skill for workers of the future is the ability to apply information technology in performing their duties. The skills that can be taught effectively in a large scale are basic self-taught courses that do not require practicals. Employers will accept these kinds of credentialing systems as they do today, except where the issue affects practical applications such as engineering.”

Paula Hooper Mayhew, professor of English and humanities at Fairleigh Dickinson University, commented, “The most important skill needed in the workforce of the future is reading literacy, followed closely by mathematical and information literacy skills, as well. As the global population grows and lives longer, women continue to lag behind men in literacy, although women’s lives are longer. Online programs that teach literacy skills are even now highly successful, but their use by men exceeds use by women, many of whom do not have access to a computer at home. Special programs are needed to put computers in areas largely restricted to women, areas like churches and synagogues, as well as in places where Muslim women congregate. The idea that graduates of online programs are less qualified than those who have had face-to-face instruction is still current, but will eventually be proved wrong. Over time, online higher educational programs and degrees will become distinguished from one another in terms of their proven value in the workplace. Needless to say, not all online instruction is good or even adequate, but the market will inevitably react by vying to hire those with proven skills in higher educational areas of mastery.”

Fredric Litto, a professor emeritus of communications and longtime distance-learning expert from the University of São Paulo, replied, “The ‘less-qualified’ label will gradually fade away, as experience reveals the truth – much as always occurred with the introduction of new technologies and forms of work. It took a generation for health workers to realize they had to wash their hands before touching a new patient, so as to avoid passing on the previous patient’s problems.”

Chris Kutarna, fellow at the Oxford Martin School and author of “Age of Discovery,” wrote, “It makes sense to assume that, as new jobs emerge, new educational and training programs will appear to help people fill them. The larger questions are whether, as large segments of the service industry are automated, sufficient new jobs will appear to maintain full employment; and whether workers whose jobs are destroyed by this wrenching retooling are able to shift mid-career. If instead it takes a generation to accomplish the labor market’s shift into new industries, society will bear heavy adjustment costs. A transition beyond traditional credentialing systems is already well underway. Startups, and many small and medium businesses, are already finding that an applicant’s online reputation (for example in the coding community) is a more precise indicator of the roles and tasks he/she can successfully perform than formal degrees held. At the same time, complex organizations are going to rediscover the importance of broad intellectual development to enable good management-level decision-making and coping skills in increasingly complex and uncertain environments.”

An anonymous respondent whose research career was spent at a major U.S. university replied, “It’s the rare parent of an athletically gifted child who would be disappointed if their son or daughter left college at the end of their freshman year to become a first-round draft pick for an NBA or WNBA team. To use the phrase of your question, that year spent in college ‘trained the student in the skills they need to perform a job’ – and the pro draft selection indicates that the training is complete. The ‘nontraditional’ prediction I would make for the next 10 years is that many STEM professions will follow the lead of the NBA in this way, and the college experience will evolve to support it, on both the undergraduate and graduate level. How long each student stays in school, and how they learn during their stay, will be customized for each student, and for each employer that recruits from the school. To keep the grandparents happy, new names for degrees of different lengths will be invented, and we’ll still have caps and gowns and commencement speeches. But for vocationally focused majors, I believe that in 10 years, only a fraction of those diplomas will be for today’s standard degree types.”

It will take a long time and a meaningful period of adjustment to align work, workers and employers, even as incremental changes – like employers accepting the differently credentialed and even instituting credentialing systems of their own – are made.Amy Zalman

An anonymous participant said the new environment will force schools to update their methods, writing, “This question is emergent from an even more fundamental sea change that we’ll see develop in the next 10 years: the concurrent valuation of competencies and devaluation of credentials. That is, modular training and education focused on competencies will eventually become the de facto currency in the future job market. I see this as perhaps the most positive change of all, because credentials were only ever proxy indicators of competencies, and often they are poor indicators at that. A job market tuned to this new paradigm will exert pressure on universities and postsecondary schools to change their teaching methods and encourage students to be more than just knowledge sponges. The sciences and maths already do this to some degree but even right now an undergraduate thesis is elective at most universities. I see that changing in the next 10 years.”

Amy Zalman, principal owner at the Strategic Narrative Institute and professor at Georgetown University, wrote, “Yes, new educational and training programs will emerge. But in the next 10 years, it seems unlikely that the expedience with which we typically treat education of all sorts (in the United States) will go away. It will take a long time and a meaningful period of adjustment to align work, workers and employers, even as incremental changes – like employers accepting the differently credentialed and even instituting credentialing systems of their own – are made.”

An anonymous digital media archivist commented, “I do believe the higher education system is crumbling and that non-‘traditional’ programs will be honored as appropriate certification if the program is provided by an accredited or otherwise reputable source.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, observed, “A cluster of factors all lead to the same conclusion that online education will grow: the high cost of higher education, desire to make education available to a broader number of people, development of increasingly sophisticated online courses. Since so many traditional (and respected) institutions of higher learning already incorporate online learning into their curricula, either as individual courses or entire certificate or degree programs, I don’t worry that such credentials will be viewed as somehow less legitimate. (Online programs from for-profit organizations are sometimes a different story.) The biggest challenge will be to figure out what kind of learning best takes place face-to-face, what kind is suited to online contexts, and what kind benefits from a hybrid model. The answer can’t simply be that of convenience. We need to think about both intellectual content and what our educational goals are. There is a growing tendency in higher education to focus on skills and jobs. Too many institutions are tending to forget that a major purpose of higher education (at least of the liberal arts variety) is to prepare people for living, not to make a living.”

Some respondents were not hopeful for much progress in alternative forms of credit for learning in the next decade. “Higher education is very resistant to developing flexible, inexpensive alternatives to the traditional models of credentialing,” wrote an anonymous director of an institute examining ethics and technology, “and the business world doesn’t … appear ready to accept badgification.”

An anonymous global consultant and computer scientist said credentials will have less value in future than ever before, arguing, “The educational system is essentially equipped to instill conformity and utility to a corporatist system, with the bare minimum of focus on citizenry and ‘deep’ life skills. The future belongs to autodidacts, as the value of credentials is diluted by over-adoption and rapid turnover of skills.”

The proof of competency may be in the real-world work portfolios

In answer to this study’s prompt asking for opinions about the future of credentialing, many respondents mentioned that the most-trusted new employee is one who is proven to be able to perform in a real-world setting. An anonymous respondent noted, “In the future, people will be assessed by what they’ve built and not solely by the prestige of their university.”

An anonymous professor at Florida State University commented, “The highest costs [in credentialing] will be in quality evaluation. The key skills in communication, analysis, critical thinking, collaborative and team work may require some kinds of project-based or experiential learning, along with professional supervision and evaluation. If credentials are focused on specific learning outcomes and this is documented over time, they should be credible.”

An anonymous respondent predicted, “Hiring in technology fields will become based more on ‘what have you done for me lately?’ and the ability to show proof of successful projects will become more important. This is made difficult by the more secretive inclinations of companies, making even job titles more closely guarded and denied, let alone for portfolios to be assembled. Individuals requiring structure or personal attention in their workplace or training are less likely to succeed in education, job hunting and careers.”

Peter Eckart, a respondent who did not share additional identifying details, commented, “There will be a rise in internships or probationary models of training and tryout, as employers take less and less responsibility for screening applicants and use the work itself as a final evaluative process.”

An anonymous principal scientist for Adobe Systems said, “You don’t get smart by taking a class.”