Published on 2016/09/30
The EvoLLLution | The Mainstreaming of Alternative Credentials in Postsecondary Education
Alternative credentials are meeting a clear market demand for more granular recognition of learning, and so long as the alternative credential ecosystem avoids a few critical concerns they will become mainstream offerings for colleges and universities nationwide.

The Context of Alternative Credentials

The past few years have seen a proliferation of new learning credentials ranging from badges and bootcamp certifications to micro-degrees and MOOC certificates. Although alternative credentials have been part of the fabric of postsecondary education and professional development for decades—think prior learning assessments like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, or industry certifications—postsecondary institutions are increasingly unbundling their degrees and validating smaller chunks of skills and learning to provide workplace value to traditional and non-traditional students alike.

Many are experimenting with alternative credentials to counter the typical binary nature of a degree. Certifications of learning or skills are conferred after the completion of a course or a few short courses in a related field. Students do not have to wait until all requirements for a degree are met before receiving a certificate of learning, but instead can receive one after a much shorter period of study. “Stackable” credentials are combined to be the equivalent of an undergraduate or graduate certificate (a micro-degree), or even a degree.

The National Discussion of Alternative Credentials

Discussions of alternative credentials are often responses to a persistent and growing critique of traditional higher educational institutions’ ability to meet workforce needs, especially because the cost to students for a four-year degree has grown dramatically over the past several decades. The increasing attention paid to alternative credentials brings to the fore questions such as what constitutes a postsecondary education, what role universities in particular should play vis-à-vis workforce development, and how we can assess learning and mastery.

Alternative credentials have garnered federal attention in the past few years, with bills to recognize alternative credentials for employment (Alternative Qualifications for Federal Employment) and to allow both traditional institutions and alternative providers to access federal financial aid funds if they promote and verify student success outcomes (Innovation in Higher Education Bill).

Most significant, in 2015, private lenders began offering loans to students to attend some coding bootcamps, and the federal government was soon to follow with an experiment in providing financial aid to students in non-traditional programs. The Department of Education announced in October 2015 its Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) pilot program, which encourages partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers to develop joint, postsecondary programs.

October 2015 saw a national summit on credentials, part of the Connecting Credentials initiative. Over 80 education, government, industry and foundation organizations are partnering with the Lumina Foundation to address a highly fragmented ecosystem of alternative credentials, in part by developing a sorely-needed credentials framework and recommendations for validation of credentials.

Who’s Doing What: Higher Education

Many postsecondary institutions offer alternative credentials either as an extension of an institutional mission (e.g., outreach, experimentation in teaching and learning) or in response to legislative mandates or other political pressure. While many higher education thought leaders have responded favorably to universities entering the field of alternative credentials, even deeming them part of the inevitable revolution in postsecondary education, others caution that “granular credentials … can lead to reductionism and over-vocationalization” of higher education. Still others question the quality of credentials that can be earned in a short period of time and view such programs as credentialing running amok (see this Chronicle article on Utah’s technical colleges counting minimal coursework as a completed credential).

A quick scan of alternative credentials offered U.S. institutions evidence the breadth of options and experimentation:

  • The information systems program in the University of Colorado Denver’s Business School offers six transfer credits to learners who complete their data warehousing for business intelligence MOOC specialization, and are accepted into and enroll in their information systems masters degree program.
  • MIT offers an inverted-admissions degree program in supply chain management, which allows students to complete and gain credentials for a semester of graduate level courses. This micromasters represents an unbundling of the masters degree and is offered online, as a MOOC on the EdX platform.[1]
  • Hundreds of universities offer non-credit-bearing certifications through MOOC Learners receive a certificate for the completion of a course or a series of courses in a particular topic, such as those offered by Coursera in data analysis or finance. These courses are increasingly shorter than a traditional semester or quarter, and increasingly offered as on-demand or self-paced.
  • Many universities offer non-credit, non-degree badging programs that validate mastery of a particular skillset. Colorado State University is highlighted for its skills-based digital badge programs in sustainability management and master gardening. The Colorado Community College System recently announced a program in which students can earn skills-related badges through traditional coursework or on-the-job training. The University of California Davis has implemented a badging project for its students in the university’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute. SUNY and Open SUNY have created badging programs for students who wish to show their skills in evaluation, information ethics, and metacognitive reflection, and for faculty who serve as SUNY Fellows.
  • Seven universities (Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the University of Washington, the University of California’s Davis, Irvine and Los Angeles campuses, and the University of Wisconsin Extension) have announced plans to create the University Learning Store, a “joint web portal for microcredentials,” which will feature online content, assessments, and tutoring.
  • Metro State University in Denver offers stackable courses and credentials in its advanced manufacturing program. Some courses and credentials are “latticed” with programs from community college partners to ease transfer.

Two recent examples that evidence the market value of alternative credentials such as these include the government of Singapore’s decision to pay for its citizens’ MOOC certificates in high-demand, high-skills fields, and a study that shows a 38-percent average salary increase for graduates of coding bootcamps.[2]

Providers in the Alternative Credentials Space

Several providers, including private companies, offer and validate credentials. The Chronicle published A Gallery of Credentials that includes organizations like Coursera, and Khan Academy, all of which provide content to learners, and Degreed, which provides a platform for tracking formal and informal online learning.

Players in the badging space include Mozilla’s OpenBadges initiative, which provides software and an open technical standard to create, issue and verify digital badges, and Credly, which offers similar services, with for-fee options for badge-granting organizations. Very recently, researchers from MIT’s Media Lab began exploring ways to use the blockchain technology that underlies Bitcoin as a way to store and track education credentials. Blockchain technology can be thought of as a permanent, unalterable, digital ledger of transactions (or, potentially, credentials) that is a distributed database.[3]

The Future of Alternative Credentials

The genesis of the current “credentialing craze” can be traced to the confluence of several trends: an increased interest in online badges and competency-based learning in general, a perceived skills gap for college graduates (and a corollary questioning of the value of a traditional degree), and an economy that increasingly requires upskilling for many workers.[4]

A breathtakingly short hype cycle prematurely sounded the death knell for MOOCs while missing the point entirely: MOOCs could never replace higher education, but collectively remain the most visible, robust and widespread instance of alternative credential experimentation. Not only are alternative credentials such as those offered by MOOCs here to stay, because they have been interwoven into postsecondary offerings for decades, they will continue to evolve as technology, innovation and policy offer the space to do so. With concerted efforts to make the ecosystem of alternative credentials more coherent and to address concerns of reductionism or over-vocationalization, and increased acceptance of competency-based learning and alternative credentials in the workplace, alternative credentials will become mainstream offerings for universities nationwide.

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[1] See information about the MIT micromasters here and a news article here.

[2] See Coding Bootcamp Graduates Report 38% Salary Bump (EdSurge), and this discussion, Are programming bootcamps lying about their average graduate salaries? (Quora) for more. A quick scan of popular boot camps indicate lengths of 9-19 weeks, at least one with a combination of remote and on-site learning.

[3] For a skeptical view of blockchain technology, and therefore its use in education, see Audrey Watters’ extensive post here.

[4] See Making the Case for Reforming the U.S. Credentialing System.

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