The Groningen Declaration Network Forges New Plans in Puebla

by | May 14, 2019 | Uncategorized

I had the pleasure of attending the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN from here forward!) Annual Meeting in Puebla, Mexico, this April. Let’s start with the basics – what the heck is the GDN? – then I’ll tell you why we care about it and why you should too.

What is the Groningen Declaration Network?

The GDN is an organization that seeks common ground in best serving the academic and professional mobility needs of citizens world wide. The stated goal of the GDN is simple and clear: “We make Digital Student Data Portability happen. Citizens world wide should be able to consult and share their authentic educational data with whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they are.” The GDN seeks to accomplish this goal by bringing together key stakeholders in the Digital Student Data Ecosystem at its Annual Meeting.
This spring, representatives from 27 countries gathered in beautiful, historic Puebla to enthusiastically advance the cause of transnational student credential mobility. As a first-timer at this meeting (our CEO, Kerry Cooper attended last year’s gathering), what I observed was a group that is passionately committed to its work: celebrating successes, sharing the details of their planned and ongoing initiatives, digging into promising technologies that could serve the cause, and forming working partnerships that will carry the work of the GDN into the next decade.

The GDN Board of Directors

Attention-getting Information

I found the GDN to be a rich environment for learning more about the global nature of higher education and its current trends. Here are a few eye-openers, culled from my notes for the first day of this year’s meeting:

Global student mobility continues to increase. It grew from 2.1 to 5 million learners in the period from 2001 to 2018.

Transnational education is a highly competitive, multi-billion dollar industry. There are winners and losers in this market! The US and UK are currently losing market share, while China, Canada, and Australia are gaining.

The world average “brain drain” is 5.4%. Africa is the highest at 10.8%. (Brain drain is slang for the phenomenon of educated individuals migrating away from their home country.)

Credential fraud is a serious problem. Jayne Rowley, Chief Executive at HECSU/Prospects Hedd shared some alarming data from the UK. 57% of people lie about their education on TV. 44% of employers never ask to see credentials. Of those 44%, only 20% verify the credentials presented to them. There are 243 known bogus universities in the UK alone. Christopher Jackson of Paradigm estimates that the credential fraud industry collects roughly 2 billion dollars on an annual basis.

Methods of sharing credentials are evolving. In 2009, 0% of credentials were issued as e-docs. In 2018, there are 4 million credentials shared as data-rich documents.

The Buzz

Every conference has a few big topics that rise to the surface. This year the themes felt like a continuation/maturation of topics from the previous year: blockchain use for credentials, a better/expanded learner narrative, and competency-based education.
A blockchain is an accumulated list of records (blocks) that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data, to make the chain resistant to modification. Sometimes blockchain is characterized as an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. While gaining primary notoriety as the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the education world has glommed onto blockchain as a potentially sound form of distributing credentials to students, who would ideally be able to carry around all of their educational experiences in a digital wallet, perhaps on a smartphone. The vision of mobility that blockchain promises is enticing, but ultimately it is a complex form of technology. It is not a “simple answer” to the problem, and therefore some groups are starting to look at it with skepticism while others are implementing it on a small scale to test the waters.
A number of institutions and vendors are collaborating to provide students with a better narrative – one that doesn’t just display a credential but actually breaks that credential down into a digital portfolio of learning outcomes, experiences, internships, service hours, and more. On a broader scope, traditional post-secondary credentials should sit alongside other forms of credentialing, such as certifications through professional training, to provide a complete picture of a student’s capabilities. The goal is student sovereignty – the concept that a student can truly own their collective credentials and have more control over when and how they are shared. (You can see why blockchain, as a specific technology, seems to resonate with this goal!)
Competency-based education has been in the forefront of educational thought for some time. Tuning (gathering academics from different institutions to align curriculum and learning outcomes) has been ongoing in a number of states and is really beginning to have an effect on the mobility and clarity of coursework. In a nutshell, focusing on competencies rather than credits is the difference between saying a student has taken/passed Accounting 101 (a credit) and saying that student can now “Demonstrate an understanding of basic financial statements, their nature, purposes, and use by business decision makers” (a learning outcome). Stating the outcome tells you something qualitative that communicating a credit “assumes” but never shares explicitly. There is a common vision for the future among vendors of academic software, educational governing bodies, governmental agencies, and educational providers that imagines a world in which the competencies needed by employers and the competencies expressed in student credentials can be matched and aligned (educators working to prepare students for the market place and the market place helping students utilize and value their education) to the benefit of everyone! It will be a glorious world, when/if we get there! In the meantime, every step toward that future is of potential value and use to students.

Education in Latin American and Caribbean Countries

Since the meeting took place in Mexico, there was an extra emphasis on the post-secondary education experience in Latin America. The following bullet points represent information shared by Dr. Pedro Henriquiez-Guajardo in the opening keynote.

• There are roughly 13 thousand institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean.

• These institutions offer more than 60 thousand programs of study (undergraduate and graduate), serving roughly 22 million students.

• 52% of the enrollment is concentrated in just 8 of 33 countries.

• 22% of learning is virtual/distance learning.

• The overall population is weak in researchers – only 1.35 researchers per thousand, economically-active citizens.

• The region produces a low number of doctoral degrees, ranging from 3-10% in most countries, except Brazil (27%) and Chile (26%).

• Latin America has second highest “brain drain” percentage, 7.4%. Mexico alone is at 6%.

• There is an extensive plan in place to move education in Latin American and Caribbean countries toward a regional approach, including 66 objectives, 124 goals, numerous concrete steps, and an extensive, ten-year action plan.

Final Thoughts

Several statements I heard at the GDN resonated with me and have come back to haunt me in the spare moments as I complete the daily work of keeping CollegeSource focused on a better future for the people we serve – the staff and students of higher education. And I have thought about what they might mean to us as a company. These statements are essentially words that I paraphrased or cobbled together from multiple speakers, so it would be hard for me to source them. Let’s say that someone wiser than I (probably many someones!) said them at GDN and I am just channeling their wisdom here.
We need to change the focus on international mobility from one of scarcity – what students are seeking and therefore what they need/lack – to one of surplus – what strengths and experiences they have to share as a representative of their country, culture, and the institutions which provided education to them in the past. 
The true value of a credential is the ability to articulate its worth.
At base, I am heartened that the conversation really is about the value of education. I love Higher Ed. I never thought I would leave the confines of the university. First I clung to it as a student, then as a professor and administrator. And even now, as the president of a software company, I essentially view a large part of my work as building the tools that I wish had been at my disposal as a student and a staff member in higher education.
Needless to say I am now searching for places in a software where I can strengthen this support for a broader, deeper learner narrative and to further each student’s perceived value in regards to their personal education and their employability in the world of responsible, working citizens. This includes a greater focus on gathering international course data, supporting efforts like the “geocode” (more on that in a future article), and further exploring our existing capability to store course learning outcomes for institutions willing to share them.
All of you, who work the front lines every day in helping students reach their academic goals, should be aware of the work of the GDN. The success of the network will translate into more students crossing borders (in both directions) and in those students being better prepared to leverage their prior learning. We, as partners in the larger framework that is higher education in the US, should be ready for the challenges and opportunities these students will bring with them! Will our institutions be prepared to assimilate a blockchain credential and help a student join a course of study mid-stream? Do we really “see” international students as bundles of experiences that can be used to enrich our programs and student bodies? (Or do we see international students as ready sources of extra tuition and ask them to fit in the same, traditional student molds we have clung to for years.) It’s time to take state and country borders out of our planning and to think more globally.
Troy Holaday, PhD
CollegeSource, Inc.