The pending death of ink-and-paper certifications

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Are paper certifications about to vanish for good?The demise of paper has been predicted many times over the past few decades in several different venues. Since the 1970s, people have suggested that computers in the workplace would lead to a paperless office. Yet despite advances in scanning technology, standardized electronic document formats, shrinking disk storage costs and increasingly capable document retrieval systems — few (if any) offices today are truly paper-free.

In some venues, the ever-broadening scope of the Digital Age has reduced paper to a fraction of its former importance. It has been more than 15 years since I have received a physical paycheck from my primary employer. Organizations have switched to electronic funds transfer (EFT) in droves in order to reduce payroll processing costs. And employees in general are perfectly happy to have their money sent directly to their checking account rather than making a trip to the bank just to cash a check.

E-mail has not killed paper, though it has certainly reduced the usage of fax machines. In addition, the increasing use of email (and the corresponding reduction in physical letters) is one of the reasons that the U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits today.

Still worse for paper (and for the USPS) is the number of people who elect to receive their bills digitally and pay them automatically through the aforementioned EFT technology. Paper may not be dead, but it is certainly receiving some body blows.

At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with certification.

No more paper credentials?

In October 2015, one of my articles published in CertMag was about Oracle’s adoption of digital badges. At the time, I thought of badges as a useful and welcome complement to the paper certificates IT professionals receive after earning a credential.

I certainly was not thinking of the badges as a replacement of those paper certificates. Based on some recent actions taken by the Oracle certification program, though, I feel that they may well be thinking in terms of replacement. At any rate, the program is laying the groundwork for sweeping paper out of the picture.

At the start of this year, the Oracle Certification Program made a change to the format of their paper certificates. Frankly, I paid little attention to the initial announcement of the change. It popped up on my radar only when someone posted a thread on the Oracle Technology Network certification forum about receiving an “ugly” certificate in the mail. That radar contact suddenly became much clearer when I received my first certificate of the year and saw the new format at close range.

The current certificates have the look and feel of a generic “Certificate of Recognition” pulled off the shelf of an office supply store. The gold foil accents that made up the border and Oracle University seal on the old certificates have gone away. They have been replaced by a pale green border (who associates pale green with Oracle?) and a printed red rectangle with white text that says “Oracle University.”

In terms of attractiveness and impact, the loss of the foil accents makes a significant difference. The gold made the result more attractive and less like something a kindergarten teacher might print up for their Student of the Week. The new style has other problems as well — the most egregious of which, in my opinion, is that the name of the candidate who earned it is in a small font that is nearly lost in the clutter.

A mystifying change

Are paper certifications about to vanish for good?I do not know the official reason Oracle altered the certificates. There was certainly no outcry from the certification community for a change from the legacy style. The only benefit that makes sense would be reducing costs for the Oracle certification program. Certificate blanks with embossed foil seals run about a dollar per sheet.

Saving a dollar per certification is certainly not enough to justify a change of this magnitude. When all of the costs involved in shipping a physical certificate are summed up, however — the certificates themselves, labor hours spent printing and packaging, envelopes, the cardboard backing to reduce bending during shipping, and postage — the total is probably a bit upwards of $10.

I would not be surprised if my estimate was low because of other costs I am not accounting for. When multiplied by the number of Oracle certifications earned each year, the total cost to the program for paper certificates is probably in the ballpark of $2.5 million.

The change makes the physical certificate that the Oracle Certification Program mails to candidates and the electronic version that candidates can print by accessing their certification account effectively identical.

After receiving my first certificate in the new style, I decided that the new format was the opening step in an attempt to wean Oracle certification candidates from being mailed their certificates. A recent thread on the OTN certification forum, however, made me decide that the style change is Oracle’s second step in a bid to eliminate paper certificates.

Moving away from the old

In that thread, several posters were bashing the new certificate style. After several irate entries, an Oracle employee from the certification program posted a comment on the order of “How about the new digital badges. Aren’t they great?”

This initially struck me as a non-sequitur comment intended to change the direction of the conversation. Later, I decided that the comment made significantly more sense if one assumed that the introduction of digital badges and the style change were linked elements of a plan to phase out mailed paper certificates from the Oracle certification program.

Keep in mind that I do not know that this is Oracle’s intent. I simply believe it is a reasonable conclusion given recent actions by the program. That said, if paper certificates were to go away, my question would be whether their loss would materially impact certification candidates. The two primary uses for paper certificates (and the only uses that I can envision) are verification of credentials and display.

The verification question

The reason for the very existence of certificates is to verify credentials. It is why we call such credentials “certifications.” Elaborate written documents with ribbons and seals have been used for centuries to provide proof that individuals have a right to a title, or to property, or have achieved some distinction.

When certificates first came to be used for this purpose, the effort required to forge such a document was beyond the capacity of the vast majority of people. Today, everyone has access to a scanner and an inkjet printer. The level of difficulty in forging documents has dropped far enough that an elaborate paper document no longer provides a reasonable degree of proof for any given claim.

In 20 years of holding IT certifications, I have never been asked by a prospective employer for proof that I held a given credential. If someone were to ask me for proof today, I would point them to the digital badge. Even before the digital badges were available, I would most likely have used the third-party verification capability of Oracle’s CertView website in lieu of producing a paper certificate.

Speaking as someone who has been on the other side of the interview table, I would be unlikely to accept a paper certificate as proof of credentials. The current certificate style would be a breeze to counterfeit. The legacy style would have been harder to forge, but certainly not impossible.

Pretty on paper

Are paper certifications about to vanish for good?The “display” aspect of certificates came about as a result of the same effort that was put into making them elaborate as a deterrent to forgery. Ribbons and seals and elaborate text made them visually impressive and attractive. Certificates were also an advertisement from the certifying authority of their own importance.

The attractiveness of the documents plus the fact that they were uncommon meant that they were often displayed publically. The same technology that has made it easy to forge certificates, however, also makes it a breeze to create elaborate certificates for relatively minor achievements. As a consequence, the benefit of displaying any given certificate has dropped significantly.

I am sure there are there are still some professionals who frame the IT certificates they earn and mount them on a wall in their home or office. I suspect a larger percentage mounts their certificates unframed to a wall of their cubicle using a push-pin. The certificates that I have earned over the years have been “mounted” in a manila file folder of my filing cabinet.

There is no reasonable way to determine how many people who have earned credentials fall into the “display prominently,” “display half-heartedly,” or “do not display” buckets. Most of the people I have worked with who hold IT certifications fall into the third category, though.

What’s next?

If Oracle were to stop shipping out paper certificates tomorrow, the impact to me would be essentially nothing. Referring back to the first portion of this article — I am one of those people who likes the increasing digitalization of the modern world. I routinely sign up for electronic delivery of documents when an organization I deal with offers the option. Likewise, most of my bills are paid electronically. This reduces the number of things I have to remember, and the amount of junk I get in my mailbox.

In my opinion, electronic credentials provide a similar combination of greater functionality and reduced clutter. Digital badges provide increased visibility and a higher degree of authentication than paper certificates ever could. Anyone who feels a need to frame their certificate (or thumbtack it to their cube wall) would still be able to do so by printing up the PDF version. For myself, I will keep my manila folder for the time being — but I can certainly envision a day in which it quietly fades away.

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Matthew Morris

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Morris is an experienced DBA and developer. He holds Oracle DBA Certifications for every Oracle release from 7 through 12c; Expert certifications for SQL, SQL Tuning, and Application Express; and is an Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional. He is the author of more than 20 study guides for Oracle certification exams, as well as a suite of Oracle practice tests that are available at ocpexam.com.

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