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A Pathway to Success in the Digital Age with Microcredentials

Microcredentials and digital badging are part of the future of higher education, so it’s critical to get the institution’s buy-in, provide high quality and align with employer needs.

Modern learners are digital natives, and their educational journey must reflect what they’re used to experiencing in their everyday lives. Facing the need to constantly upskill and reskill, it’s critical for higher education to provide pathways that allow learners to get what they need in a timely manner. In this interview, Clay Motley discusses why higher ed leaders must prioritize microcredentials and digital badging, what it takes to implement a university-wide digital badge initiative and how to make everything high quality.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to begin prioritizing microcredentials and digital badging?

Clay Motley (CM): Workforce needs move more quickly than college curricula, so microcredentials are more responsive to needs. Microcredentials are more targeted and granular than the courses that show on a college transcript, so they’re a way to demonstrate a student’s skills that relate to an employer’s needs in the moment.

It’s important to keep in mind that microcredentials and digital badges aren’t meant to be in competition with traditional academic majors and minors. Rather, they can be embedded into a course and across programs. They can help bring to the surface some of those critical skills employers are looking for.

Providing microcredentials and badges also helps foster partnerships with local employers. We have an important partnership with Arthrex, who employs many of our students through these collaborations. It opens a whole other door to the community that students and their families are seeing the benefits of.

Evo: What are some of the challenges to designing and implementing a university-wide digital badging initiative?

CM: Since they don’t follow a traditional curriculum, the challenge with credentials and badging is that they’re created differently. The mechanisms of a university are geared toward the moving blocks of traditional credit hours, so microcredentials can end up falling through the cracks because they don’t fit into that structure.

Another challenge is that there can be resistance within the university because some see microcredentials as too vocational or responsive in a way that makes it feel like employers are calling the shots on campus. It’s not an either/or situation, but that’s initially what people think.

A third challenge is that, as microcredentials become popular, they can lose quality. Think of it like music: You have Nirvana and then you have 150 crappy grunge bands who get signed because they’re wearing plaid. For higher ed, microcredentials can lose that level of rigor as some universities try to keep up with demand. Students should be able to demonstrate their related skills and compentencies to earn a badge. We can’t take the cheap and easy way out.

Evo: What are the best practices to overcome these obstacles and deliver quality microcredentials?

CM: For Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), a type of microcredential we have is called transferable skill badges, which are based around the National Association of Colleges and Employers. We offer career-ready competencies that can be applied across the board at many jobs. These badges bring to the surface the skills employers seek but that students often overlook. We want to be able to help students articulate competencies to potential employers.

We also have digital badges that are industry-specific and available for students who want to go above and beyond what their typical course requires for a grade. By earning these badges, students are assessed by the professor and employer, complete a case study, then are guaranteed an interview with that employer once they’ve earned the badge. That quality control is critical.

Digital badges should never be a requirement, they can be thoughtfully co-created with an industry partner and embedded into traditional curriculum. However, achieving this vision requires university-wide support. You need upper admin support for finance and structure, but you also need faculty champions at the institution.

We’ve made transferable skill digital badges part of our Quality Enhancement Plan for the next five years. We have a director that leads our QEP and works across the university to facilitate implementing it. This office is in academic affairs, rather than in a single college or department, so they’re able to work across units to develop these transferable skills and digital badges.

Evo: How do you emphasize the value of microcredentials and badges across the institution?

CM: I’ve found that most faculty are least resistant with course-embedded digital badging activities. Through these activities, faculty and students are very aware that what they’re doing, such as mock interviews, can be counted toward a badge.

We’ve been able to identify various transferrible skills for faculty to highlight to help students develop and showcase to employers. For example, a professor teaching Shakespeare was able to highlight the communication and leadership skills in the class, which could lead to a badge.

We didn’t create these badges out of thin air; they were created because employers are looking for these skills specifically. It’s never seen as an artificial or external thing. It’s more of an authentic academic activity that also helps a student develop and demonstrate skills aligned with particular badges.

Evo: What impact does a university-wide microcredential and badging initiative have on the institution and its learners?

CM: Preparing students for employability is something universities will continue to develop and showcase. Through this work, the institution gains strong connections to industry, nonprofits and local government. It helps show the university’s value to the region by demonstrating responsiveness to workforce needs. The better pipeline we have between the institution and employers, the more goodwill and responsiveness come out of that partnership.


Clay Motley will be presenting on this topic at the Digital Credentials Summit in March.