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Certificate or Certification: What's the Difference?

Published: Saturday, March 6, 2021
Updated: Sunday, March 07, 2021

NOTE: This article uses gender neutral pronouns in some places.  They are not spelling errors.

While some use certificate and certification interchangeably, they are not the same. Additionally, there are different types of certifications and certificates. Which to pursue can depend on your desired outcome as well as what knowledge, skills, and experience you already possess.  With that in mind, not all programs are created equally nor are they necessarily intended for the same outcome. To demonstrate this, I will provide four examples involving four learners and four types of certificates and certifications including a professional certificate, product/technical certification, post-graduate certificate, and professional certification.  While I am not advocating for any of the products or programs mentioned in this article, I am using them for explanatory purposes. 

Carl Course

Carl Course has fallen into the learning and development profession. He was a subject matter expert in his former profession, which helped him land a job as a training specialist. In this role, he will be responsible for developing e-learning solutions.  He has already completed continuing education related to instructional design. Now, he wants to learn more about a specific e-learning authoring tool.  He chooses to do so through a three-day Adobe Captivate Certificate course through his professional association since Adobe Captivate is the preferred platform of his employer.  The professional certificate course allows Carl to learn about the platform and begin to create a learning solution. Because it is a professional certificate course, there is no certification of the quality of the product on which he has been practicing during the course of study.  However, Carl now has quickly gained foundational knowledge, and combined with his prior training in instructional design, he can get started with building e-learning solutions in Adobe Captivate.

Priya Product

Like Carl, Priya Product fell into the learning and development profession. After a career as a teacher, ze decided to make a career transition completing a master's degree in instructional design along the way.  Priya has prior knowledge of similar e-learning products, but not Adobe Captivate.  To increase hir knowledge of Adobe Captivate, ze decides to pursue an Adobe Captivate Certification, which is a product certification offered through Adobe.  Priya realizes that this could help hir demonstrate hir proficiency in Adobe Captivate and ze could learn some new techniques. After completing some course sessions and submitting a work product for approval, Priya earns the Adobe Certified Professional - Adobe Captivate credential.  Along with hir prior knowledge in instructional design, ze was more capable and confident in hirself while working on zir projects built in Adobe Captivate.

Gabby Graduate

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Gabby is similar to Carl and Priya in that she did not intentionally pursue a career in learning and development. Yet, she wants to be able to develop learning solutions in different formats. Even though she already has a master's degree in adult education, she wants to be sure that she has more than technical and product knowledge, but also knowledge in evidence-based instructional design methodologies, web accessibility and design, project management, and other core topics that would help her become capable of managing, producing, and evaluating the effectiveness of e-learning products in the workplace. Gabby decides to pursue a graduate certificate through a university, which is comprised of 15 credit hours and five courses. Gabby's knowledge and skills increase as she takes each course, where her work products are graded. Prior to finishing this one-year program, she begins applying the knowledge on the job. By the end of the program, she is capable of managing her e-learning projects, producing e-learning solutions, and evaluating their effectiveness.

Princess Practitioner

Princess Practitioner has been in the learning and development field for 7 years. Like all of the others described previously, she did not intend to pursue this career, but has earned various certifications, certificates, and graduate certificates along the way. Alas, she loves it and decides that she is fully committed to the profession. To demonstrate that commitment, she decides to pursue the Certified Professional in Talent Development certification through her professional association. After completing a series of online knowledge and skill tests, she becomes certified!  To retain this professional certification, she must complete a number of activities every three years to include continuing education. She proudly includes this credential on her profiles, bios, and resumes, which increases her confidence and commitment to her profession.

Key Takeaways

Continuing education and certification can be valuable, but it is important to know the characteristics of each type of program, recognizing that professional certifications are usually for professionals who already have a certain amount of industry knowledge and experience and require ongoing maintenance, while product/technical certifications may involve the actual certification course providing instruction and the opportunity to become certified in the product(s) or technique. Professional certificates generally are not graded and expose you to information that you then have to apply, sometimes that application happens during or after the course to become proficient. Professional certificates can be offered by colleges and universities, associations, or other private and public organizations.  Post-graduate certificates generally take longer, each course is graded, and when well-designed involve learning both theory and technique, which can lead to more thorough knowledge and skills. In the end, it ultimately depends on where you are in your learning journey and what you need at the time.

2 Comments
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Thanks! This article was very informative
Glad to help, William!
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