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College has leapt outside the traditional campus and classroom: Everything about higher education has gone digital, and this trend won’t stop anytime soon.

Hundreds of thousands of students now pursue degrees entirely online. Top-tier institutions such as Harvard University and MIT offer free MOOCs, or massive open online courses, that garner huge followings.

Technology in higher education
David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer, higher education division, Educational Testing Service.

Even more common, students at traditional colleges and universities use digital platforms and materials to supplement classroom lectures. Professors use class time for discussions, and put their lectures online so students can take that information with them.

These trends — breakthroughs, some would say — bring tremendous possibilities for attracting more people to higher education. We need that.

Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist and the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, has clearly shown we need many more Americans to earn two- and four-year college degrees and various types of career credentials to stay internationally competitive. Sadly, in some states, fewer than one in four working-age adults hold a bachelor’s degree.

But as technology changes higher education — and as we thrust the doors to college open to many more students — we have to ensure we keep the quality in higher education in this fast-as-a-blur time of change.

I’d argue that we can maintain quality by offering students both the quality of learning experiences that is the hallmark of our universities, accompanied by new types of credentials.

“We can give students new ways to show what they can do.”

I’m talking about reliable student learning-outcomes assessments that provide colleges with proof that students are learning, and credentials tied to those assessments that students can use to demonstrate that they have acquired the knowledge and skills needed as they move into their careers.

If higher education officials are wise, they will take a leading role in applying these innovations in demonstrating student learning outcomes because demands are increasing from a host of stakeholders: Elected leaders and policymakers want to hold colleges more accountable for their use of state money. Parents and students are demanding better quality and high rankings as tuition and other costs soar.

It’s also in education officials’ best interest because institutions must continually renew their accreditation to keep their doors open. For years, colleges have tested groups of students to demonstrate learning across the curriculum. Colleges use these data for accreditation and to improve curriculum and programs. Now, by taking this a step further and awarding students who successfully complete specific assessments with valuable learning-outcome credentials, university officials can motivate students to take these tests seriously and show off their results (if they choose) beyond the classroom.

Colleges have long used tests such as the ETS Proficiency Profile, which my company offers, to meet accreditation requirements. Now we’re offering students individual certificates of achievement, in addition to their test scores, that detail their proficiency level and can be shared with potential employers or graduate schools.

What exactly are certificates or badges? They’re evidence of proficiency in a particular subject or skill. They’re likely to become well known to everyone in the future in the same way software or medical certifications are recognized currently.

Other innovations are on the way. Companies such as Coursera, edX and StraighterLine are helping colleges offer courses that students can complete by showing their competency — not in a physical classroom, but off-site by computer in their homes, at coffee shops or at testing centers.

Professors, the value that you bring to higher education is clear. We need you and your knowledge and expertise. We need classroom exams to show students learn the materials covered in your course.

Now, as technology inevitably changes higher education — and mark my word the changes have only just begun — let’s use this opportunity to offer students more for their money — an outstanding education, a degree with meaning, and new certificates or badges as another credential to further indicate what they’ve learned.

We can change higher education to meet the new demands of our age. We can give students new ways to show what they can do. We can open more opportunities for students to pursue higher learning.

This means moving swiftly, but it’s time. The U.S. has always led the world in higher-education innovation. In my view, we’re ready to lead in this effort as well.

David Payne is the vice president and chief operating officer of the higher education division at the nonprofit Educational Testing Service (ETS) based in Princeton, N.J.

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