Five Questions With: Damian Ewens

President and CEO of Achievery discusses his work with the digital credential and badge platform. More

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Five Questions With: Damian Ewens

COURTESY ACHIEVERY/STEPHANIE EWENS
“The nontraditional learner is better off now than ever before because there are more places for them to gain new skills. However they need a better way to get recognized and verified for their skills.”
Posted 10/30/13

Damian Ewens is the president and CEO of Achievery, a digital credential and badge platform that encourages individuals to recognize nontraditional and emerging skills. After Achievery’s launch into open beta last weekend at Mozilla Festival in London, Ewens talked with PBN about the changing face of education and his vision for Achievery going forward.

Ewens holds a master’s degree in the education of mathematics from Stanford University, and has taught grades 6-12 in public schools across the country. He now lives in Rhode Island with his wife and their two daughters.

PBN: What is a “non-traditional learner,” and in what ways is a non-traditional learner disadvantaged in a traditional education system or workplace environment?

EWENS: First, we see non-traditional learners as those who gain life skills through experience and who are in need of proving their unique skills. This could be a successful businesswoman returning to earn an MBA after running her own company, or a college student who left before graduating and is gaining skills in an internship or free online course.

Our dominant educational systems are poorly designed for diverse learning styles and can’t keep up to speed with current skills and technologies. So many “non-traditional” learners are going elsewhere to gain skills relevant to them. Some of today’s high school graduates are faced with a new question: Do I spend the next four years – and however many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars – getting a computer science degree? Or do I take a bunch of free, open, online courses given by the best professors in the world, and learn how to get my software app in the app store?

There are plenty of very strong arguments to get a college degree but with college debt outpacing credit-card debt, the colleges themselves are forcing this new equation.

PBN: How does Achievery aim to close the gap between traditional and non-traditional learners?

EWENS: The non-traditional learner is better off now than ever before because there are more places for them to gain new skills. However they need a better way to get recognized and verified for their skills.

We’ve built a digital credentialing platform, Achievery.com, that recognizes and verifies skills earned anywhere. Working with Mozilla and their “Open Badges” standard, our platform lets anyone build a better, digital credential that tells a much richer story of the person’s achievements. These digital credentials, or digital badges, are verifiable and tied to criteria, evidence and existing standards, and are portable anywhere on the web. They make connections to traditional education institutions through standards alignment, content tagging and endorsements. This makes it very easy for a college or employer to validate an experience or skill, and enables traditional education organizations to adopt new and emerging skills and technologies.

PBN: It’s often said that in today’s rapidly evolving, globalized world, students are preparing for careers that don’t even exist yet. Given the unique demands of such a world, do you believe non-traditional learning will begin to play a bigger role in education?

EWENS: Absolutely. In America, we’ve all been taking the same core classes for over a century. In high school that means four years of English, four years of mathematics, three years of science, etc. Meanwhile, arguably the most employable skill you could have right now, web development or coding, is unavailable in just about every public high school in the country.

And we all take the same tests on the same content. And if you pass you get a paper certificate or diploma that communicates very little about your real skills and abilities.

Now, this simplifies things a bit but here’s where this strategy has gotten us:

  • Most of our largest cities have high school graduation rates that are just over 50 percent.

  • Half of all students who start at a four-year college do not finish in 6 years.

  • Of the half of college students that do graduate, 50 percent are either underemployed, or in need of additional job skills training.

    So it’s not as if our traditional education institutions are doing an exemplary job here.

    With all of these disruptions happening at once, we believe the big disruptions will come from outside of traditional places so we’re focused on providing a better tool to verify and recognize new skills, standards and technologies that occur anywhere. But, it’s important to understand that this is a pulse in a tidal wave that’s been coming for decades.

    PBN: Does Achievery’s digital badge system certify that an individual has actually mastered a certain skill, or just provide a platform for individuals to showcase their achievements and experiences outside the classroom or office?

    EWENS: Achievery is not the assessor or the certifier. Every digital credential, or digital badge, made on Achievery has several components that help to provide verification. Every badge is associated with a verified issuer so you know who made the badge. There is criteria so you know what one has to do to earn the badge. There is evidence that demonstrates proof of earning the badge and that provides an artifact for assessment. And soon, the assessment and ratings will be baked right into the badge as well. Finally, external organizations can endorse a badge or badge system that provides an additional layer of validation.

    PBN: Now that Achievery is in a live beta, what do you see as your top priorities?

    EWENS: We believe we’re seeing the beginning of a global, skills-based ecosystem so we’re focused on making a platform that supports people and organizations that are going after emerging skills, standards and technologies. Our priorities are large-scale growth in users on the platform, integration with systems-level users like open, online courses and functional improvements for version 1.0.

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