Online Learning 20 Years Later: Five Observations

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Educom NLII Instructional Management Systems (IMS) retreat in March 1997 at Sonoma State University, and the founding of Blackboard LLC in June 1997, Blackboard co-founder and Parchment CEO Matthew Pittinsky shares five observations about the state of eLearning 20 years later.  In an earlier blog (Part 1), Matthew shared lessons learned founding and scaling a global education technology platform.

When most (normal) people think of Autumn, their minds turn to Halloween and Thanksgiving.  For those of us in higher education technology, however, Autumn means a third annual event is upon us … the annual higher education technology meeting of EDUCAUSE!  

This year’s meeting in Philadelphia is a special one, marking the 20th anniversary of one of the most impactful initiatives ever launched by a higher education association.  Originally dubbed the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) project, it was the brainchild of visionary leaders Carol Twigg, Bill Graves, and Carl Berger (to name a few) and led by Carol Twigg, Mark Resmer and Steve Griffin.

Their goal?  To ensure that a marketplace of learning technologies — learning management systems (LMSs) first and foremost — would emerge to support the delivery of high-quality learning in a networked age.  More precisely, a marketplace of standards-based learning technologies.  At a time when academic computing played second fiddle to administrative computing, and just three years after the launch of Netscape, the idea that higher education needed to proactively catalyze a learning technology market, while simultaneously ensuring openness and interoperability, was a big and prescient one.  

I’ll keep the history brief.  While IMS was organized under Educom’s National Learning Infrastructure Initiative a year earlier, it was March 1997 when the project fully kicked-off with a month-long convening.  Held on the campus of Sonoma State University, participants from UNC Chapel Hill, Michigan, Maricopa Community College, Penn State, Cal State, Buena Vista University and others, joined with representatives from Apple, IBM, Sun, Thomson Learning and KPMG Consulting (my employer and ticket into the room), to identify the key enabling standards required to support interoperability and reduce friction in the adoption of learning technologies by faculty and institutions. In short, our work was to begin the design of an open architecture for online learning; one that could transform the Internet into a more powerful environment for teaching and learning.

It’s now 20 years later and safe to say the marketplace imagined in 1997 has by and large developed, centered around the widespread adoption of the LMS.  IMS was critical to this development. I will leave it to others who work every day with tools and content to judge the degree to which the goal of openness and interoperability has been realized.  The IMS project of 1997 has evolved into the IMS Global Learning Consortium, home to such critical standards as LTI and Common Cartridge.

Anniversaries are an opportunity to reflect on time gone by and I’ve been thinking about the state of online learning 20 years later.  In various talks on the topic I’ve made five observations that have garnered particularly strong reactions – heated disagreement, as much as support.  Here they are:

  1. The LMS experience of 2017 is surprisingly similar to 1997.  I left Blackboard in 2007 to finish my doctoral studies and take a tenure-track position in the sociology program at Arizona State University.  I rejoined the edtech market with Parchment in 2011.  Perhaps four years falls short of “Rip Van Winkle” status, but I was surprised to walk the 2011 EDUCAUSE exhibit hall and see how much the major LMS systems looked like each other, and more importantly, looked like the WebCT, Blackboard CourseInfo and Web Course in a Box systems of old.  When you consider the major technology shifts that have occurred since 1997 – social, mobile, Big Data, SaaS, etc. – it’s remarkable that a course web site today is not so different as one of yesteryear.  Similarly, the continued bright line between “front office” and “back office” – between LMS and SIS – is as bright as ever; noteworthy and a barrier to innovation.
  1. We need to flip 80-20 to 20-80.  The key to a fundamentally different and more effective online learning environment lies in the degree to which platforms support pedagogical and discipline differentiation in those learning environments.  I always thought of Blackboard as an operating system for education.  Yes, that’s a presumptive and ambitious thought from a business perspective.  But for me, the point was that Blackboard’s value lay in the apps you ran on it, not the system itself.  

LMSs provide the 20% of tools that 80% of learning environments need: gradebook, discussion tools, content management, etc.  Impactful learning environments are about the 80% of tools that only 20% of learning environments may need because they are specific to that instructional approach and subject.  It’s no surprise that the platforms most different from 20 years ago – Minerva, MOOCs, 2U – have all developed in the context of a specific set of programs and with a specific pedagogy.  

  1. The learning technology marketplace remains a fresh palate.  Whenever I am pitched by an edtech entrepreneur or learn about a new company, I use a simple matrix to help classify their product.  The matrix is pretty high level, but I think it serves its purpose of illustrating how fresh the palate is for edtech innovation.  

The rows of the matrix are the four major challenges that characterize the historical development of education in the United States: access, quality, efficiency, equity.  As a country and industry, each of these challenges has risen and fallen in relative priority.  They are interrelated to be sure.  The columns of the matrix are the four major technologies that are being applied to those challenges: networks, interactive media, data, mobile.  Some definitions: By “interactive media” I mean the spectrum of learning resources from simulations to augmented reality.  We can teach American history by being at the Stonewall Inn in New York City during a seminal moment in the gay rights movement.  We can understand the electoral college by simulating marginal shifts in votes by states and see how they change who sits in the White House.  By “data” I mean Big Data, but more to the point, the application of Big Data through AI and algorithms, for example in the effort to personalize learning and identify retention risk.  When the four big challenges intersect with these four core technologies, the exponential nature of the opportunity space emerges.  This is especially true when you consider that the 16 cells of the matrix exist in multiple dimensions, taking on different qualities in the contexts of community college, liberal arts college, the big research university, the HBCU and so on.

Networks Interactive Media Data Mobile


  1. The measuring stick of “as good” remains a tricky one.  I struggle with this topic; hence it is the longest.  Carol Twigg has long argued that to measure online learning against the yardstick of classroom-based instruction is, well, dumb (my word).  First, it reifies classroom-based instruction in a way that ignores the poor learning outcomes and the isolation that exist in too many lecture halls across America. Second, it constrains the imagination of online learning, which should be about increasing quality and lowering costs to achieve breakthrough outcomes.  As much as I admire Carol, I am not fully there.  

The original problem Blackboard set out to solve was to augment a traditional classroom-based course with an additional context for learning: the course web site.  Discussions and reflections, formative assessments, interactive learning resources, and yes, administrative activities, could all be integrated and enhanced through the LMS.  While  “hybrid” courses and “flipped” classrooms are a new norm, for many institutions fully online distance learning has overtaken augmentation as their primary strategic focus.  

In that context I think it makes sense to ask whether online learning is as good as traditional classroom-centered and campus-based learning.  Surveys of employers suggest they don’t believe so, perceiving online degrees lower in terms of quality. Of course it’s foolish to judge all subjects, degree programs, education providers and learners with a single pronouncement. It’s foolish to make the statement that online education is not as good when there are examples of programs or providers that no doubt are better.

That said, I think we are way too uncritical in our acceptance of online education as a delivery method.  We should ask the question, Are online learning environments as good as high impact brick-and-mortar environments?  For me the answer is usually no, with only a few exceptions. I say this for three interrelated reasons.  First, I believe that nearly all instruction delivered by a college or university should embed in its design the principles of a liberal arts education.  As Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University and closing keynote at our latest Parchment Summit, argues, a liberal arts education is at its core about producing leaders and change agents with the capacity for innovation, judgement and productive risk taking. Second, I believe that education is fundamentally a social process rooted in experience:  instructor-to-student, student-to-student, in the context of instructor-led activities and outside of them.  Few online learning environments are social at their core, and the answer is not borrowing from the design principles of Facebook!  Third, I believe in the unofficial curriculum of a campus-based undergraduate education (and many graduate programs as well).  Learning is what happens in the quad, library, residence halls, student groups, lectures, faculty office hours, research projects … the list goes on.  Most online programs reflect a fraction of that richness.  Student life is higher education’s secret sauce.

Usually these observations generate three objections.  The first two are that there are institutions that prove me wrong, and there are instructional programs for which my objections are not as relevant.  Both are true.  The third objection is that I fail to acknowledge the barriers to access that are being broken down with online.  The typical learner is not 18-21 and living on campus. Students can earn degrees who might not otherwise.  And online can be delivered at a cost that can expand attainment.  

Here I stand my ground.  I believe that the goal of broad attainment of higher education is about more than just individual economic mobility.  I believe that the liberal arts principles and unofficial curriculum that characterize brick-and-mortar higher education (done well) are critical to both economic mobility and the broader purposes of a degree.  I also believe that historically our education system has proven to be remarkably good at sorting students by race and class in ways that perpetuate inequality.  We must be on guard and bring a critical eye.  There is a real risk that the sorting of who learns through online education and who learns on campus will become the 21st century postsecondary equivalent of the 20th century practice of tracking by secondary schools, which was not a happy story.

  1. Change happens incrementally. Most of us tend to speak of change happening in increments of five years and ten years.  Five years is something imminent, and ten years is something that will happen sooner rather than later.  My rule of thumb for change in the education is market is to take a forecast and triple it: near-term is 15 years, while sooner rather than later is more like 30. Take for example the “flipped classroom,” in which in-class time is repurposed for more instructor-student interaction, while lectures are presented online.  The idea of shifting from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” was coined in 1993, but it wasn’t until roughly 2007 when the practice gained broad attention. A second example is the MOOC. Seventeen years ago (2003), Arthur Levine, then president of Teachers College, Columbia University wrote in a book I edited, The Wired Tower, that faculty members will become free agents and go online to reach a large global audience.  What he described as a near-term trend took just nine years before Coursera was founded.

My point is that big change does happen in higher education. It just takes longer and it happens incrementally. That is, A leads to B, B to C and C to D. Rarely does A lead directly to D. This “radical incrementalist” model is the secret to technology-driven innovation in the academic world.

There you have it. Twenty years have gone by. We must be humble and recognize the true state of what online education can do pedagogically. There’s a temptation to believe the medium can do more than it can, especially with the siren song of disruption calling out to do more, faster.  We have experience now upon which to draw. Companies like Blackboard are reimagining the LMS with the benefit of rich data about how people teach and learn.

The vision of IMS was interoperable tools and content, accessible by faculty to support their instruction and student learning.  It is a vision as urgent and important today as in 1997.  See you at the Parchment booth at Educause!

Building Blackboard, Part 1: Six Lessons I Learned Creating a Tech Company in the Higher Education Market

Time flies. It is the 20th anniversary of Blackboard’s founding in June 1997 and the Educom NLII Instructional Management Systems (IMS) retreat two months earlier. To mark the event, I recently gave a talk to the Arizona EdTech community on lessons for today’s education technology entrepreneurs, drawing on my experience co-founding and scaling Blackboard. Here are those lessons. In part 2, I’ll share some reflections on the state of eLearning and the learning management system (LMS) market 20 years later. So enjoy and stay tuned.

As genesis stories go, the co-founding of Blackboard twenty years ago lacked that single light bulb moment that tech companies, never shy to embrace a revisionist history, like to tell. There was no radioactive spider bite moment for me to relate. Implementing back office systems at universities that were spending millions on networking classrooms and residence halls caused me to question the absence of technology in the “front office” for teaching and learning.

Reading the book Accidental Empires, my favorite tech history, helped me to imagine that an academic system was more than just another enterprise application; it was an operating system or platform for instruction. (More on that distinction in Part 2.)

Discovering and joining the nascent Instructional Management Systems project convinced me there was real potential for what we now call learning management systems and an onramp for two 24 year olds — my co-founder Michael Chasen and me — to launch Blackboard LLC. And one year later, turning Blackboard LLC into Blackboard Inc., with Dan Cane, Stephen Gilfus and the rest of the CourseInfo team out of Cornell ignited the critical spark of talent and technology that set us on our way.

Instead of a single bolt of lightning, getting Blackboard off the ground involved a series of necessary but insufficient conditions, ideas, events and talent. A game of Jenga, in which you are adding and removing sticks at the same time. What now seems certain was remarkably fragile and contingent in the building.

Thanks to Ben Horowitz, Sam Altman, and others, today’s tech entrepreneurs are one click away from hard-earned experience about building a technology company. But advice on building a technology company in the education market? That’s harder to come by. I agree with John Katzman that the education market is different. And so as a nod to the 20th anniversary of Blackboard, here are some lessons I learned about what makes the higher education market unique. In this social sharing world, I’ll start with the punchline.

  1. Universities really are unique social organizations. (So approach them differently.)
  2. Features can become products, which can become companies. (Don’t be afraid to start narrow and own a lane.)
  3. Never hire a magician for your trade show booth. (The market is evaluating you.)
  4. Beware proximity to the instructional core. (There is a big difference between enabling vs. owning learning outcomes.)
  5. Colleges and universities value what they pay for. (Don’t give things away free.)
  6. Don’t blame the education market if you fail. (You need to be both radical and incrementalist.)

Now, for those who want to go deeper, read on.

Colleges and Universities Are Unique Social Organizations

While not the most original observation, the implications are easily overlooked. Colleges and universities are decentralized and “loosely coupled.”  Academic units often act independently, while faculty operate in relatively autonomous classroom environments. The purposes of education are many, meaning there is no one primary output against which to measure ROI.

The administrative apparatus is isomorphic to the academic side, dividing itself up into rigid professional categories and domains of responsibility — student life, registrar, academic affairs, career office — each with its own professional association, much like the faculty divide into their scholarly disciplines. Governance is shared, while accountability is diffuse. In large part, colleges and universities gain legitimacy by looking, feeling and acting like other colleges and universities. Combine these attributes with the fact that educational organizations shape lives and each life is precious, it’s not surprising that they are slow to change. (Other than that Ms. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?)

So what are the implications?  We learned a few key ones at Blackboard.

First, you need to shape your product strategy to respond to the organizational features I just described. At Blackboard we packaged learning management into three tiers. Since instructors are autonomous, we allowed them to create a CourseSite on We used adoption by faculty on to drive sales of an affordable departmental or school-level license: all of the course instructional tools, but no enterprise integration or supra-course / multi-course functionality.

We didn’t monitor or enforce limits on the number of courses, faculty or students on the departmental license. Instead, we used adoption across departments to drive an enterprise-class license that added integration, more scalable database support, and functionality required to manage multiple courses, either as a faculty member or a campus administrator.

Equally important to our product strategy were “The Two Commandments.”  Actually, they weren’t called that very often, but we lived them as if they were sacrosanct. Ease of use and enterprise technology. We focused on these two strategic pillars with as much discipline as we could muster. The idea was simple. The winner of the LMS market would be the company with the most widely adopted platform. The key to enterprise adoption was winning the hearts, minds and usage of faculty. At a time when many universities ran different LMSs in different academic units, the platform that was sticky and caused the greatest revolt among the faculty if discontinued would be the one in pole position for the enterprise contract. And if you appealed to what the CIO needed to provision an LMS at scale, you’d seal the deal.

Our chief rival in the day was WebCT, which had a lot more features. If a university evaluated Blackboard and WebCT using a feature checklist, we lost most of the time. Our sales reps would scream bloody murder that we needed adaptive, multi-choice, fill-in-the-blank, discussion board polls (I hope that’s not a thing). But we’d say no. When the university evaluated platforms by having a group of faculty use both systems, we won most of the time. As a result, Blackboard achieved more adoption at multi-platform campuses. And by pairing ease of use with a focus on the enterprise technology concerns valued by the CIO — the actual buyer with a budget — we got the campus-wide mandate, which opened the door to additional products and services over time. The lesson? Work bottom up and top down. Treat the initial adoption as winning the battle, not the war. Plan for a protracted period of time until you are adopted at the scale, and with the economics, that your business plan optimistically expects up front.

Features Can Become Products and Even Companies

Another way in which universities are unique is in the lines they draw between functional departments. Universities don’t buy solutions for processes. They buy them for functions and departments, giving rise to a lot of narrow “point” products that may not at first appear to have an obvious path from feature to a broader value proposition. Nevertheless, beware crossing categories. Librarians buy library systems. Registrars buy course catalogue systems. Want to sell a career service?  Your buyer is the career office. If the problem you solve crosses categories, as many valuable solutions do, or your core constituency lacks a clear champion and buyer (like advising did until recently), you’re in trouble. You can swim upstream and try to bring together committees or task forces, but that’s an almost impossible route.

Universities also don’t like functional overlap. When your new product includes capabilities that exist in a product already adopted on campus, even if the capability is marginal to the new product’s value proposition, you invite problems. University administrators will object: “We already have that.”  It’s in our SIS.”  “That touches another department; we need to set up a committee.”  It is guaranteed paralysis.

The conventional wisdom is that many ed tech entrepreneurs are too narrowly focused, with ventures that are little more than features masquerading as something bigger and more impactful. But it is OK to enter the market in a focused way that allows you to expand over time against the broader opportunity. Starting in a narrow lane allows you to clearly align with a specific buyer and department in the org chart. At Blackboard, we worked hard to cultivate the CIO and director of academic computing as the buyer. We lucked out that those roles were ascendant. We framed the LMS category narrowly at first. For example, we purposefully drew boundaries on the breadth of what an LMS did in order to avoid category creep with the SIS.

As a result, Blackboard was dismissed as too niche. We told a story about the growth of eLearning. We told a story about being the platform for education. But most investors saw something different. They saw generic groupware-type features being sold into the relatively small academic market. They accepted that we were more than a feature, but they didn’t see a company. Take iParadigms as another example. If checking papers for plagiarism isn’t a feature, I don’t know what is. Turns out it also makes for one hell of a company, too.

One way in which we were discouraged from taking a narrow focus was in what our approach meant for the size of Blackboard’s addressable market. We were selling web course tools for $5K a year. Attain 75 percent market share of 4,500 universities, and our market opportunity would be a pittance. We were dismissed.

Nevertheless, we built up slowly through our product roadmap, from the first $5K license for a course tool to eventually standardizing as enterprise-class software at $50K or higher price points. We established relationships and a trusted advisor position to address the bigger market opportunity, which was eLearning and the rise of academic computing in higher education. If we started big and comprehensive I believe we would have failed. It’s better to risk being a feature or product to gain traction from a clear buyer and minimal product overlap with an entrenched player, and then grow from there.

Never Hire a Magician for Your Trade Show Booth

When Michael Chasen and I attended our first EDUCOM conference (or was it CAUSE?), we noticed that an SIS vendor, who shall remain nameless, made a professional magician the center attraction of their booth. Entertaining, but odd. The education market is relationship-driven and values authenticity. Especially when you are a start-up. They are evaluating and buying you. Your team. Your vision. Your values and passion. Oh, and they also are checking out your product, which can be difficult to showcase over the noise of a magician.

At Blackboard we invested heavily in events. (Our booth got so large at EDUCAUSE I think we debated adding plumbing.)  In today’s modern marketing technology world that may seem old school, even dumb, given the cost involved. I don’t think it is. The education market likes to meet:  by professional association, by region, by type. Conferences are where peer-to-peer engagement drives reference selling, perceived leadership and momentum. It’s where a start-up can stand out.

Circa 2000, when you walked into the Blackboard booth you were greeted by someone who had been at Blackboard for a while. They were clearly having fun and were fun to engage. They believed in what we were building and could communicate it fully. No passing you over to “the founder.” They all felt like founders. They knew the product. They knew your institution or the last one you worked at. They probably barkered you in by violating EDUCAUSE rules and filling the walkways with spectators for a demo (not a giveaway drawing!). They made their presence an extension of the brand, the mission and the partnership. Go to trade shows, and put your A team on the floor.

Beware Proximity to the Instructional Core

In most industries, a pretty smart strategy is to identify the core productive activity of the organization and improve it. The closer you are to that core and the more value you add, the more rent you can extract. This is tricky in education, in part for the reason I touched on earlier: colleges and universities strive to achieve multiple, sometimes conflicting, outcomes. But it’s problematic for another reason. The core of an education organization is instruction. It’s the classroom, and it’s learning. Yet selling against the proposition of improved learning outcomes is dangerous. At Blackboard we made a point to stay at least one degree away from the instructional core; we decided to be an enabler, not a driver.

Education is political, with many constituents: parents, faculty, administrators, accreditors, activists and others. Put yourself at the center of the instructional process, and you put yourself in the middle of the bullseye. Once upon a time Pearson operated under different brands that made the totality of what Pearson did less obvious. I remember when the Pearson brand could be found on fewer than 50 business cards, despite being a large and global education business. Also back then, Pearson generally operated as an enabler of learning. It was a tools and technology and service provider. Then Pearson became, well, Pearson, unifying all of its business under a common brand, with the consequence that Pearson was everywhere. And Pearson became about delivering learning outcomes. I admire Pearson’s integrity and chutzpah in holding itself to this standard, but the backlash they are weathering from all directions is instructive.

The closer you get to claim ownership over the teaching and learning process and the more you sign up for delivering learning outcomes, the more dangerous the path you take. You (your product) probably can’t drive learning outcomes in isolation. Learning outcomes are difficult to measure. I won’t say impossible, but I think the ed tech sector is way too enamored with the idea that there are disruptive learning technologies, and those technologies can create exponential value through delivered differences in learning outcomes.

The problem is not only that the state of education research is poor, reducing results to the predispositions of political stakeholders. It’s getting better and can be fixed. The issue is bigger than that. You see research on outcomes from learning technologies is almost never about answering the question, “Is this technology effective?” In education, it’s almost always about the question, “Under what conditions is this technology effective?”  Learning apps are not pharmaceuticals, raising your comprehension the way statins lower your cholesterol. Results vary by student, by teacher, by social context, by implementation, by a lot!

At Blackboard we committed ourselves to improving teaching and learning by empowering the instructor. We embraced the word “help.” Blackboard’s initial mission was to “help transform the Internet into a powerful environment for teaching and learning.” At Parchment, it’s to “help turn credentials into opportunities.” I insist on the word “help” over the objections of copy writers, who despise the way it weakens the punch. But as a third party, we are NOT the ones doing the work that matters. It’s the schools, universities and teachers. They are the heroes of the story. So think twice before putting yourself and your solution at the center.

Colleges and Universities Value What They Pay For

This one can be short and sweet. While it’s tempting to give away your product free of charge to get a pilot going, or overcome budget objections, don’t do it. I remember Casey Green describing the “higher ed handshake” as one in which the hand is open palm out. Universities often ask to get a product for free, promising to be a reference or case study. I do not doubt their sincerity, but rarely does it work out. In reality, universities implement and adopt what they value. If you want them to use it and make an impact (and be a reference), insist they pay for it.

Don’t Blame the Education Market If You Fail

While “It’s me, not you,” may explain why some relationships fail, it’s a cop out when it comes to explaining failure in ed tech. It’s us. It’s always ultimately us. Sure, we can complain about slow sales cycles and buyer shortsightedness. The market is fragmented and purchase does not equal adoption. The stereotype of the Luddite faculty member or status quo administrator is a tempting one to fall back on.

It’s our job as ed tech entrepreneurs to crack the code, and the code is crackable. When we do, the same dynamics that make the education market tough to scale equally make success so defensible and loyal. In recent memory, we launched Blackboard in 1997 and took the company public seven years later in 2004. Chegg was founded in 2005 and went public eight years later in 2013. 2U was launched in 2008 and became a public company six years later in 2014. Instructure was also launched in 2008, and went public seven years later in 2015.

Sure, these successes are notable in part because they are the exception in a market where most ventures fail to scale. And they each have their own story on what made the difference. But there is a balancing act that I think they all got right between continuity and disruption. Cracking the code in my humble opinion is about being a radical incrementalist.

I wrote an article two years ago explaining what I mean by radical incrementalism. You need to be radical in the way that most tech and social entrepreneurs naturally gravitate towards: seeking big systemic change. But you also need to recognize that the way change manifests itself in higher education is typically incremental: A leads to B, B to C and C to D. Rarely does A lead directly to D. We need to meet the university where it is, not where we want it to be. We need to go after big ideas with concrete, first order solutions.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

In short, building a higher ed technology startup is hard. Yes, even the second time around at Parchment, where I get to work with an incredible team to help turn academic and professional credentials into opportunities. I am grateful for all that I have learned and humble about the degree to which I actually practice what I preach. I hope these lessons are helpful. Back in 1997, Michael Chasen and I would rationalize that expertise was overrated. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and our “fresh perspective” (read: inexperience and ignorance) allowed us to approach things differently. Now it’s twenty years later. And I have become what we mocked. A purveyor of experience and its virtues!

Please keep a look out for Part 2, where I’ll tackle what I thought the LMS would grow into, what happened, and what is still to come.

Turning Credentials Into Opportunities: A Vision for Parchment

To our school and university members, employees and partners,

Parchment’s mission is to help turn credentials into opportunities, and we take this mission seriously. More than a slogan, it’s why most of us at Parchment joined the company and why so many schools, colleges and universities are members of the Parchment network.  

We include the qualifier “help” intentionally because it reminds us that our role is one of enabling. Our school and university members are the central players when it comes to making academic credentials a more effective and meaningful currency for pursuing opportunities for further education or in the labor market.

Three Big Enablers

We believe that to turn credentials into opportunities, we, as a community, have to do three fundamental things.

First, make all credentials digital, and digital credentials machine-readable data.
This may be self-evident in some quarters and a “technical detail” in others, but it’s a Big Idea nonetheless. When credentials are data:

  • Two-year institutions can track students who progress into a four-year program and award them an Associate’s degree in passing once they’ve met the requirements.
  • Employers can begin to evaluate and understand the relationship between postsecondary education experiences and outcomes, with the key talent management outcomes that drive their organization’s success.
  • Summative outcomes like courses and grades can be explored through hyperlinks to access course descriptions, syllabi and evidence of learning (e.g., key projects and papers).
  • High school students can assess their admissions probabilities at colleges of interest, and college admissions offices can use prior academic performance to help guide student course placement, not just make an admissions decision.
  • Linkages between learner, credentials and opportunities can be measured and leveraged in ways that help rationalize a patchwork system of education, credentials and occupational fields.

Digital technology removes the friction that keeps credentials separated, whether in manila file folders or in frames lining the hallway of a home. Credentials that live as data can be combined into a single profile that reflects a lifetime of academic achievement, giving learners not only the right, but also the ability, to control who sees their record and to put that information to work on their behalf.

Second, be more innovative in the form and function of credentials.
The transcripts we’ve used for generations were developed by institutions to document courses and credits for mobility within the education system. While respecting that important use, transcripts can and should be transformed, creating more value for learners, employers and academic institutions.

Next-generation transcripts will be visual, richer and more descriptive, showing achievement over time and the distribution of courses taken by topic or skill. Academic transcripts will be extended to include experiential achievements such as club leadership, study abroad and faculty research collaborations. Diplomas will be gateways to portfolios, which provide evidence of learning. And students will be able to select focal courses to highlight at the top of their transcript, calling an employer’s attention to relevant learning. In short, the one-size-fits-all credential types of transcripts and diplomas will give way to different credential formats that are more personalized to the purpose for which they are being requested.

Getting to this point will require us to think differently. Rather than presuming that transcripts and diplomas are summary documents that say essentially the same thing, what if we asked employers and admissions offices:  What do you want to know about our graduates? What should we track and how should we express it? Answering these questions thoroughly and honestly could lead us to a superset of data that gets turned into various credential types for various audiences, as needed.

Third, make credentials truly portable, allowing individuals to collect and manage their credentials throughout their lives.
This is a significant but crucial shift. When institutions control credentials they become fragmented for the learner who wants and needs a profile that reflects their collective achievements. When combined in this way—securely and verifiably, with the explicit permission of granting institutions—credentials become currency that helps learners forge a path forward. They create opportunities.

We live in a Credential Society

I am a radical incrementalist. I believe in the ability of technology to transform education, and I believe the way education is transformed is step by step, over time (and not Internet time). To do that and make the changes stick, we need to first recognize where we are now and how far we’ve come.

We live in a world where our economy and our society are knowledge-driven and knowledge-based. Roughly half of adult Americans have an academic credential such as a diploma or certificate, while one in four have a professional credential such as a certification or license. Credentials are the currency that allow us to gain entry into and benefit from this structure, but we lack a way to evaluate the knowledge and comparative value credentials convey.

As a society, we’ve become so awash in credentials that a Connecting Credentials framework  was developed last year to create a set of common reference points. The idea is to develop ways to compare the “level and types of knowledge” that are conferred by certain degrees, certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges and more, in order to fully account for all that students achieve in a lifetime of learning.1

It could take a decade of incremental change to get to the point where we can look at credentials and accurately compare the skill sets of two different, but highly skilled, professionals. In the meantime, we need a next-generation digital credential service that supports every transcript, every diploma, every certificate and certification, fully and digitally.

And once we have a fully digital infrastructure for education credentials, we can do more. We can evaluate how certain credentials are represented in the marketplace and help future generations to customize their education. We can also better match employers with prospective employees by studying how credentials affect work outcomes.

In short: we can optimize how students, universities, employers and government institutions spend their time and treasure on higher learning.

Stacking a Future, One Credential at a Time

Education has evolved. We’ve seen it. Many of us at Parchment have worked at schools and universities or in other technology companies that serve educational institutions. With digital technology, today’s graduates can collect and stack credentials that reflect what they learn over a lifetime, helping them navigate fluid careers that ebb and flow as skillsets probably change.

The more we commit to building a digital credential infrastructure, the more opportunities we create for learners to “stack” credentials together to show provable expertise worth hiring or admitting. And the more effectively we can serve employers who want to assess much more than a year-to-year change in GPA and learners who want to showcase their experiences. Institutions also benefit by decommoditizing programs and proving that not all credentials are equal.

But this only works if lifelong learners have a single profile for collecting every credential they earn, which is why we’ve been working so hard to create the next-generation digital credential service. In fact, we use the same three fundamental goals I’ve laid out as our product north stars: making credentials digital and machine readable, innovating the form and function of credentials and making credentials truly portable.

You’ll be hearing more about how our product roadmap is advancing all three from our SVP of Product and Support Rajeev Arora in an upcoming blog post. The evolving Parchment platform for digital credentials serves three distinct stakeholders: the issuer, the learner and the receiver. Each has a role to fulfill. It’s a big step on a long journey we’re taking on behalf of our members. I invite you to be a part of it.

Thank you,

Matthew Pittinsky, Parchment Chief Executive Officer



Parchment is Now Taking Advance Credential Orders for ITT students

At the center of  the closing of ITT Educational Services, Inc are the students and alumni who were pursuing their postsecondary education and now face the challenge of earning their degree  elsewhere.  Will other colleges accept their ITT credits?  When will they gain access to their transcripts to begin the process of transfer?  In many ways these questions reveal the broader issue of transferring course credits in the U.S. and the lack of a Transfer Student Bill of Rights.  But they are especially urgent and real for those who attended ITT and are now facing the involuntary need to change institutions.

The focus of this post is our announcement today that ITT has engaged Parchment to provide a convenient and national, online request and fulfillment service for ITT transcripts and related credentials.  This service will be available during ITT’s wind-down period and afterward, ensuring a secure and accessible avenue for students and alums to receive the transcript and diploma services they deserve.  As of noon Pacific today, orders may be placed at

If you are a student, alumni or adviser to one, we have some important information to share about how the service works and some expectations to set for what your experience will be like in the first few weeks we are live.

Please be patient and expect initial fulfillment times to be slower than you deserve (several weeks).

Initially, ITT staff will start fulfilling requests placed on  Their staff are limited, so it is likely that most orders will queue until ITT makes its records available to Parchment’s systems.  Once ITT’s records are available, Parchment can speed up processing time, but given the backlog of orders we will be starting with, we estimate that transcript fulfillment by Parchment will still take several weeks at first.  As the initial backlog of orders is cleared, we expect processing time to take less than 48 hours.  We have developed a special email that will be sent after each order explaining the processing timeline and how you can use Parchment’s online tracking tool to stay up-to-date.

Please take note of your graduation year as the service can support 2001 graduates to current students only.

We are only able to serve students and alumni with graduation years from 2001 to current students.

If you are sending your transcripts to a college or university, please use Parchment to send them electronically.

In addition to online request and tracking, Parchment provides the ability to send your transcripts electronically to colleges instead of us printing and mailing them.  When you start the ordering process, you will be asked to type in the destination.  With more than 80% of colleges accepting electronic transcripts, it is likely that we will recognize your destination and inform you that the admissions office prefers electronic delivery. (It is easier and faster for them to process electronic transcripts, especially when courses need to be evaluated for credit.) You can always choose to send via email to any email address or have printed and mailed to any address.

Please think twice before choosing overnight delivery as an option.

We provide an overnight delivery option, but because of the volume of requests we will be receiving at first, it will still take a while to process your request.  Once processed, we will send it overnight, of course. But we want to make sure that requestors understand that we cannot ensure 24-hour delivery following a request until the initial surge of orders are processed.

Please take advantage of our Help Center.

It’s natural to have questions and we have developed our Help Center to provide assistance when you need it.  If your main question, understandably, is “Where is my transcript?” or “When will my transcript go out?”, the tracking tool is your best and most up-to-date resource.  Beyond that, we have lots of tips and guides and when needed, you can file a support request via the Help Center and we will work to respond by email as soon as possible.  We are adding staff to help serve ITT students.  That said, the watchword remains patience as we work to serve a large number of students all at once.

Please understand that there is a fee.

Yes, I saved this one for last.  In cases like this we do what most state agencies and many colleges and universities do — we charge a request fee.  For electronic requests that fee is $12.  If you choose for your transcript to be printed and delivered by mail, there is an additional $2.50 handling fee.  We recommend you send electronically, both to save those costs and because it’s the delivery method colleges prefer.  If you choose overnight delivery or international destinations, the handling fee will be higher based on what you’ve chosen.

Schools or hiring agencies may need to request ITT credentials too.

While we anticipate the bulk of ITT credential orders to come directly from students and alumni, we recognize that there are colleges, universities, hiring agencies and other credential verifiers that have permission to request credentials on behalf of ITT students or alumni. In order to process these types of orders, requestors will need to be have a Parchment Receive account (don’t worry, its free we make it easy). Organizations looking to receive ITT credentials through Parchment can learn more about our Parchment Receive program here.

Our mission is to help turn credentials into opportunities.

At a time like this you are probably not interested in the mission statement of the organization that is providing your services.  That’s understandable.  I share it because we want you to know, that we know, how important gaining secure and speedy access to your transcript is.  We work everyday with learners in mind.  The credentials we enable are critical to so many transitions and goals that people are pursuing, from admissions, to licensing to employment.  You deserve our best and you will have it.  We need your patience at first as we complete the transition from ITT and work through a big backlog and rush.  Our sleeves are rolled up to make that happen as soon as possible.  

We wish you the best of luck, wherever your transcripts may take you.

Matthew Pittinsky, Ph.D.


Why Students, Employers and Schools Need to Move Faster To Make Stackable Credentials Available to All

While there’s no disputing the value of a college degree when it comes to earning potential, nearly three-quarters of grads end up working in a field that’s unrelated to what they studied in school.

Liberty Street Economics made that forecast after studying Census Data from 2010.1 Academics have spent the years since discussing ways to connect the dots between learning and professional achievement, leading many — including us here at Parchment — to advocate for what are known as stackable credentials.

Forming a Career Path, One Credential at a Time

Simply defined, stackable credentials are a series of earned milestones. Complete the “stack” and collect the associated credentials and you’ll have verifiable expertise that has a value. The more credentials you have, the more valuable you should be to an employer.

And you don’t need to have a college degree to benefit from this concept. High school grads and professionals with some community college can also benefit from the pathways formed by stackable credentials.

Say you’re a nurse with an associate’s degree who works at a local doctor’s office. Adding a patient care technician certificate could lead to switching to long-term care, and earning more for your services. Stackable credentials codify and certify achievement, and, as such, it behooves the major players in each industry to design the “stacks” that teach the skills they’re seeking.

The combinations are virtually endless, and they’re not always vertical. Think of IT managers. Competency can be measured by certifications in different types and brands of systems — from Microsoft to Cisco to Oracle and more. That horizontal progression isn’t available to financial analysts, who advance vertically by passing different levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam.

Credentials can be stacked for the purpose of broadening a portfolio or for leveling up in a particular skill. Or, sometimes, for both. For example, a nurse looking to get hands-on experience in a hospital emergency room could need at least a bachelor’s degree, as well as a certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) to administer an IV or emergency pharmacology to revive patients suffering heart trauma.2

nurseWorking Together to Make Stacking Real

Today, students stack credentials on their own because there’s been no other alternative. Schools and employers can work together to change that, though the nonprofit Lumina Foundation has already put in place one of the key pieces. Through an initiative called Connecting Credentials, Lumina is bringing together some 80 distinct institutions to help set common standards for certifications so that learning and achievement becomes easier to quantify, helping employers find candidates who’ve proven they have the skills that hiring managers need most.

Bringing consistency to credentials is important, but it’s also just a first step. Four-year, two-year and vocational education institutions also need to pitch in by helping to better define pathways for students. Think of the undergrad student who wants to make films. What credentials should they stack, and in what order? Helping define not just a curriculum for that student but also a relevant stack is crucial if they’re to graduate with meaningful job prospects to go with a big tuition bill. In that area, in particular, learners have never needed our help more. Each second, U.S. student loan debt rises an estimated $2,276.

Watch the clock here. Then wipe your brow, take a drink of water and remember: with stackable credentials we can do more to make education valuable. But we need to act now.



Diploma 2020: How Digital Technology Will Make Your Most Valuable Credential Even More Useful

Surely you remember the day you got your high school diploma? How about the day you graduated from college? The joy of marking these milestones tends to stay with us for decades.

And yet for all their intrinsic value — the feelings of accomplishment, the camaraderie of graduating with friends — diplomas also have practical meaning. They signify achievement, endurance, and in some cases, exceptional intelligence and skill. We tout them in face-to-face and online conversations, and highlight them in social spaces such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

So valuable are diplomas that there’s now a billion-dollar cottage industry serving fraudsters who’ll pay up to look as if they’re graduated from a prestigious institution1. That should worry us. As educators, students, administrators, and service providers we should be taking steps to preserve the sanctity of the diploma. We can do that and make the document itself more useful. First, we have to get paper out of the process.

A Paper Past is Giving Way to a Digital Future

For students entering a workforce that’s governed by digital technology, the diploma needs to be an online-accessible testimonial for the person who earned it. We won’t get there overnight, but at Parchment we’re already taking steps to make the diploma more accessible and secure, and thereby more meaningful for both students and their schools. By 2020, I expect the diploma to change in the following ways:

  1. It will live online. Students live online so the documents that matter to them should live online too. Diplomas don’t yet, but you wouldn’t think so to look at most Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. There, you’ll find participants claiming degrees from any number of prestigious institutions. Profiles rich with dates, logos, and degrees completed are meant to reflect a sense of collegiate achievement. Whether the perception is deserved is another matter entirely.
  2. It will be secure and verifiable. An expert forger with the right materials can fake a degree from just about anywhere. Digital diplomas aren’t so easily replicated. At Parchment we’re developing a system that allows for institutions to not only issue diplomas digitally but also mark them with metadata that verifies their authenticity. We don’t expect it to be long before LinkedIn, Facebook, and every other site that allows for claiming a diploma to ask for a verified copy before it can be added to your profile.
  3. It will have layers of additional data. Digital diplomas will be marked up with more than just security data. Creative institutions will add a variety of contextual, machine-readable information as well. Examples could include everything from total years in school to a student’s official graduation date, grade-point average, and if appropriate, class ranking.
  4.  It will be visual and interactive. Diplomas have always been a treat for the eye. In the future, we’ll make it even more so by making some parts of the document clickable. For example, the student with a double-major in physics and astronomy may have clickable links for both, allowing the viewer to see the coursework that went into earning those degrees.

The diploma has been a mark of achievement for generations. It still is, and I don’t expect that to change with efforts to make the diploma a digital-first document. But with fraud on the rise, our first priority as educators and administrators is to preserve the sanctity of this vital credential. The good news is we can do that and at the same time make the diploma itself more useful for students and for issuing institutions. And we can do it by 2020.

We’ll get there by making the diploma securely shareable. We’ll also make it verifiable and infuse it with data that preserves the integrity and brand of issuing institutions. Finally, we’ll make it visual and interactive to communicate more about the experience of the student who earned it. Will it be easy? No, but at Parchment we’re committed to realizing this future. We hope you’ll join us.

Matthew Pittinsky, Ph.D. is Chief Executive Officer of Parchment. He holds a B.S. in Political Science from American University, Ed.M. in Education Policy from Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.



Groningen Declaration: The Future of Digital Student Data Portability

Declaration Signing -edited

This spring I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Málaga, Spain to represent Parchment and become a signatory of the Groningen Declaration. This international document seeks common ground to best serve both the academic and professional mobility needs of learners around the world by bringing together key stakeholders in the Digital Student Data Ecosystem.

Introduced in 2012 with meetings annually, the Groningen Network is a process. The intent of this process is a more integrated global system for the secure exchange of electronic student records. The process, of which the declaration is a part, includes demonstration projects and annual meetings designed to connect key governments, service providers and educational institutions. Each annual meeting includes a new class of invited signatories. An initial signatory, the U.S. based National Student Clearinghouse has played an important role in leading this international movement.

The declaration itself is a set of principles focused on allowing learners around the world to be able to consult and share their authentic educational data with whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. The full text of the Groningen Declaration can be found here.

By signing this declaration, we have signaled our engagement with universities, companies and governments worldwide to facilitate the transfer of electronic academic credentials. It is an exciting time to participate in the early formation of a global ecosystem of governments, educational institutions and service providers committed to enabling the secure exchange of electronic student records.

Other global signatories from 2015 include:

  • Universities of Australia
  • ARUCC (Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada)
  • CDSL (Central Depository Services Limited) and C-NAD )National Academic Depository)
  • Academic Information Centre
  • EP-Nuffic
  • Groningen University
  • Glavexpertcentr –National Information Center
  • Universidad de Málaga
  • CollegeNET
  • IMS Global
  • IERF (International Education Research Foundation)
  • PESC
  • Stanford University
  • TAICEP (The Association for Credential Evaluation Professionals)
  • University of Texas at Austin
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