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The Differentiating Power of Alternative Credentials

The EvoLLLution | The Differentiating Power of Alternative Credentials
Institutions can use microcredentials as a platform to stand out from the crowd, but their offerings must be verifiable and of the maximum quality possible in order to serve as an effective differentiator.

Leaders at colleges and universities around the country are looking at different ways to integrate alternative and microcredentials into their roster of offerings. After all, they have been shown in many cases to provide a great deal of value for students. The one stopping point for many leaders is the impact they could have on the institution’s brand—but is that a fair critique? In this interview, Cathy Sandeen shares her thoughts on how microcredentials can serve as a differentiator for institutions, and discusses the factors that must be in place to ensure a positive impact on institutional brand.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are badges and other microcredentials growing so much in popularity?

Cathy Sandeen (CS): Badges or microcredentials have been around for quite some time—if you go back to the Mozilla Foundation’s digital badges, they’ve been on the scene for well over 10 years. Microcredentials are not a brand new thing, they’re just gaining momentum now. Part of that momentum goes back to the importance of competencies.

Both within higher education and also out there with employers, we’re acknowledging the fact that it’s useful to validate individuals’ mastery of certain skills, knowledge and abilities at a more granular level than a whole degree.

Microcredentials are riding the wave of several trends, but chief among them are the pivot towards more defined competencies—and their validation—the pivot towards workplace and employee relevant skills and abilities, and the pivot towards the increased use of technology. These three trends come together and really magnify the place of microcredentials in the postsecondary ecosystem.

Evo: Why are alternative credentials particularly important for providers of continuing education and community colleges?

CS: Alternative credentials are particularly important in our space because they are a way of communicating and conveying the whole person: the range of ideas, skills, knowledge and abilities that a person has mastered.

A typical transcript is actually pretty vague. You have a list of courses and course numbers and grades that somehow add up to a degree, and the assumption is that the person knows something after having gone through this experience. I think that the use of digital badges and microcredentials really paints a deeper and more accurate picture of what an individual has accomplished and learned. Any institution of higher learning that is relevant and paying attention to current trends will at least dip a toe in the water of microcredentials and see how they work for them.

It’s also important to note that, when we’re talking about alternative credentials, no one is saying that they should take the place of a degree. In fact, in many cases, microcredentials present a way of adding more detail about what the degree includes. In the world of continuing education, these microcredentials are a great way to validate and document professional development activities.

Evo: How does a robust offering of microcredentials help an institution stand out from other colleges and universities in today’s very competitive higher ed environment?

CS: In order to discuss differentiating power, we need to go back to discussing what a digital badge or a microcredential is. It’s not just a cute logo or picture representing a skill a person has acquired. Beneath the surface symbol is a whole infrastructure that provides an indication of the learning outcomes that were mastered, how the student was assessed, and what they had to do to prove that they had mastered this knowledge and these skills.

What’s more, there is also some indication as to the identity of the validator. Implicit in the digital badge is that it has been issued by a quality institution who has put very rigorous and relevant standards behind the microcredential. An institution could align with different professional associations and the highest quality badge issuers to help it support the brand of the institution and help that institution stand out.

At the same time, and more importantly, the institution is helping the students stand out because this is a very open environment where anyone can issue a badge, but it’s a self-policing community where, over time, the high-quality badges and microcredentials will rise to the top and students and employers will recognize those.

An institution can enhance its own reputation by being very thoughtful and systematic about which badge issuers they align with. Also, if an institution becomes a badge issuer itself, it’s critical that they pay close attention to guiding criteria and assessments. The worst thing that we can do in the microcredential space is to create easy to earn, cheap badges that people use to pad their resumes. That’s not what this is all about—it has to be about quality.

Evo: What do you think it’s going to take to ensure that we really maintain that focus on quality so that the badges don’t become another thing to ignore?

CS: Again, this is an open, self-policing environment. It’s very different from traditional higher education. In higher education, to offer a degree program you have to go through multiple layers of approval processes and accreditation review—this is a whole different concept. We’ll see the quality standards evolve over time and conversations with universities, continuing education providers, employers and even—if relevant—human resource departments to gauge their value and understand how they need to change. It’s a very evolving environment now but it’s an exciting one and I think microcredentials are here to stay.

Evo: Do you foresee a future where microcredential completion is taken into account as an institutional performance metric?

CS: Microcredentials could start to be included in institutional performance metrics, but I think that this factors more into the realm of employment.

If we’re tracking where our alumni go and where they’re employed and how they build their careers over time, then maybe microcredentials could play into that. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think judging an institution by the number of microcredentials it has awarded is a relevant metric right now. That’s not to say that it might not evolve in that direction in the future.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the differentiating power of badges and microcredentials for college and university?

CS: We’re involved in a program right now called University Learning Store, which is composed of a consortium of major universities. It’s a platform where students can access multiple different types of microcredentials—from full certificate programs to digital badges—coming from reputable, high-quality providers all on one site. It’s worth taking a look at because this platform is what I think is the evolution of this approach to credentialing and it could be a model for the future. It helps students to be discerning in seeking out the high-quality, validated credentials that will help them in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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