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Measuring the Value of Digital Credentials (Part Two): The Role of Efficiency in Delivering Agility

The EvoLLLution | Measuring the Value of Digital Credentials (Part Two): The Role of Efficiency in Delivering Agility
In order for a non-traditional unit to stand out to working adults, it’s critical to combine academic rigor and the institutional brand with the operational agility and effectiveness that allows the division to stay responsive to ever-changing needs.

With their increased granularity, transparency and portability, digital credentials are quickly supplanting the paper certificate as a means of non-degree skills verification in leading-edge continuing and professional education units. They enable a greater understanding of academic accomplishment and provide academic leaders with a means of unbundling degree requirements. As Jonathan Lehrich notes, however, their use on a broader institutional level is slow in the making.

In the second installment of this two-part series, Lehrich discusses the shift towards digital credentialing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and argues that the greater operational agility afforded by executive and continuing education units can help institutions build expertise as a trusted partner in lifelong learning for traditional and non-traditional students alike.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How important is operational agility when it comes to ensuring business school programming is responsive to the evolving needs of working professionals?

Jonathan Lehrich (JL): There are two kinds of operational agility at play here. One involves launching a new course or program. The second involves refining it.

Launching a new course or program is a time-consuming process, more so at some institutions than others. Some institutions are very centralized, where a lot of people need to review a program in order to make sure it is appropriate to the university and its level of rigor. Other institutions are decentralized, where different pockets of the university can make decisions for themselves. In either case, there tend to be annual reviews, and if a course is taught once every fall semester, then you’re talking about annual cycles. That means there’s a long time between reviews, refinements and launches.

Executive Education inherently allows for more operational agility of that kind. We don’t normally require the same kind of review process, because our programs are customized to fit our clients and their needs. I can create a program in just a few weeks, but that doesn’t mean it’s less rigorous; it just means that I’m building from material we’ve used before.

Our assessment expectations are different as well. A non-degree executive education certificate is often received for participation but not for passing an exam. That reduced level of evaluation makes it easier for us to stand up courses quicker than our traditional counterparts, but it goes back to the question of transparency. If our learner didn’t have to pass an exam to get this certificate or that badge, we need to make sure that people know that those were the parameters of the certificate. I would be very careful about handing out a CPR certificate to somebody if I wasn’t sure they could actually do CPR. But if somebody is learning about digital strategy and they’re going to apply that education to their organization, do I want to give them a badge that says, “You have completed your digital strategy course, you know more than you did before, go forth and conquer?” Yes, I think that’s entirely appropriate. They’re going to be able to build on what they learned and apply it immediately in the working world.

Agility is great, but you can’t be agile at the expense of rigor. If that’s the case, you’re not a world-class university.

You also need to take market forces into account. I can’t just launch a program because I cooked up an idea on the plane; I need to have the subject matter expertise and business case to back it up.

Many universities feel that tradition is one of their core values, which can be a dangerous view of the world. Tradition crushes innovation. I like the Ivy League as much as the next guy, but I want to try new things. I want to pilot new projects, some of which are not going to work. Far too often, institutions don’t even bother because they say, “We can’t do that, it’s not part of our tradition.”

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges that you face in staying responsive to market demands by standing up offerings as quickly as possible, while still maintaining that focus on the rigor that makes BU’s brand what it is?

JL: There are a lot of people that would like BU’s courses to be shorter. They would like for them to not require any hard math. They would like for them to not have any prerequisites. Many would like to not have to show up. I could charge a lot more for my courses if I didn’t actually make people do any work, but that’s not a way to run a university. I don’t care if it’s an Executive Education offering or an advanced degree in engineering—centuries of development have shown that people learn material best when they actually engage with it, which is what I’m going to require of our students. The nature of that engagement varies based on the platform, subject matter and teaching style, but I’m going to make sure BU’s learners actually engage with the material.

That level of rigor is different from something that someone slapped together on an iPhone. I’m impressed by the number of educational offerings that are available online, many of which are not from universities. Some of those offerings are great, but some of them are not worth the time. It can get very noisy in the online world, and people need guidance to decide which offerings are worth spending time on—otherwise they’re just watching YouTube videos. That is where a university like BU can play a role in guiding its alumni for lifelong learning.

Evo: How do you see the next few years unfolding in terms of building out this approach to credentialing?

JL: Digital credentials will ultimately be provided for anything that currently only gets paper certificates. They will become the new normal. People will find them on LinkedIn profiles as a matter of course. The use of digital credentials will not distinguish one university or provider from another.

There is an opportunity for employers to become savvier in this space—for HR departments and recruiters to say, “What did you really learn, and based on this description, what can we count on you to provide?” There, I think, is the opportunity for universities to shine, because universities are often the better providers of ongoing executive or professional education than training firms that don’t have the same incentive to provide rigor, research and highly trained faculty. There is a cheapening effect of some firms’ offerings, and universities can now, perhaps through microcredentialing, position themselves as the better-quality alternative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 This is the second of a two-part interview with Jonathan Lehrich on measuring the value of digital credentials. To read Part One, please click here.


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