Visit Modern Campus

Credentialing in the COVID-19 Landscape

The EvoLLLution | Credentialing in the COVID-19 Landscape
As higher education at large becomes more comfortable with online learning, it needs to dedicate time and resources to analyzing data about outcomes, challenges and student populations in order to inform strategy and practice.

With the revamp in higher education in response to the pandemic, this could very well be the moment credential innovation was waiting for. Now is the time to use credentials to their advantage by providing learners with quick and efficient education that gets them back into the workforce. In this interview, Holly Zanville interviews Sean Gallagher on the changing nature of hiring and credentials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holly Zanville (HZ): During the upheaval of the pandemic, there are so many questions about credentials and employer hiring − such as which credentials will be most valuable in the recovery? What questions are you hearing as a leading researcher in this field?

Sean Gallagher (SG): The biggest shift is certainly the freeze on or dramatic scaling back of hiring across so many economic sectors–just a complete pivot from what was a historically strong job market.  So much energy goes into forecasting where future job growth and credential demand might be, but this is a time of incredible uncertainty. The unemployment figures show that, unsurprisingly, people with higher levels of education have been much more insulated from the downturn. Going forward, it’s important to observe whether employers continue to slowly shift away from a reliance on degrees or, if as in past recessions, demands for academic credentials escalate.

Another thing to consider is that in this remote-work world, most hiring has moved online, which could speed up employers’ use of online assessments and simulations in hiring.

It also looks like the pursuit of online credentials is booming. There’s evidence that traffic to MOOC platforms, Google search activity, online degree programs, and digital badge awards have all spiked. But unfortunately, we’re a long way from having reliable real-time data on what’s trending.

HZ: Is this a formative moment for non-degree credentials and credential innovation more broadly?

SG: Yes, this could be a real tipping point. Non-degree credentials were already popular in the marketplace, but now we have a world where more learning and working happen online than offline; workers are eager to develop new skills quickly; affordability is paramount; and employers’ processes are getting more technologically advanced and data-driven. Many new types of credentials are natively digital, but as colleges and universities do more online credentialing and employers deploy more IT, they make a recipe for digitizing existing academic programs, which includes, weaving digital badges into degrees. Also, with such huge shifts in job market demand, colleges and universities will need to adapt their existing programs and consider developing short-term non-degree credentials for in-demand areas. Consider telehealth, IT support, analytics and robotics, supply chain logistics, and public health and contact tracing, to name a few.

HZ: You raised the issue of lacking reliable data on what’s trending. What do researchers like yourself do in such a disruptive environment? Are you able to collect useful data − and will you be able to study what happens in the marketplace going forward, say for the next 12-18 months?

SG: Real-time labor market information systems that document employer demand based on job postings have become a very important tool over the last decade. Many colleges even subscribe directly to these systems, such as Burning Glass and EMSI, not to mention the usefulness of trend analysis in policy. Unfortunately, beyond high demand certifications, this job posting data won’t tell us much about employers’ receptivity to non-degree credentials. We need more primary data – from surveys, interviews, and other sources, especially when practices are changing so quickly. On the higher education side, we all rely on the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS to see what’s trending, but that data is lagging and doesn’t cover non-credit credentials. It’s a similar situation with Census data. It would be great to have more collaborations and forums for data exchange or even benchmarking and best practices. If you’re a leader at an educational institution, imagine having the types of data on customers, partners and competitors that are available in the corporate world.

As in other areas of our lives–housing, e-commerce, grocery spending and entertainment habits–the economy has changed so quickly. This applies equally to education, learning and working. It’s an important time for institutions, governments, and other key players to understand consumer sentiment and demand, and what the needs really are among today’s students and professionals. While we don’t know yet how this will play out, I’d note this could shift dramatically based simply on what educational options are available in-person and on-campus, versus online only. And I’ve long been a champion of hybrid or blended learning. Beginning in fall 2020, it seems likely we’ll see much more mixing of online interaction with limited in-person instruction.

HZ: You’ve been studying the intersection of work and postsecondary education for years, championing the evolution of work-integrated learning.  Can the findings from pre-pandemic studies inform the economic recovery developments being planned now for what I’ve been calling the “learn-and-work ecosystem in a ‘new normal’”?

SG: Yes. Before, it was very clear that employers’ top priority to increase the value of educational credentials in the hiring process was more work-aligned models; for example, credentials that include real-world projects and experiences, academic credit for on-the-job experience, and industry-based validation of curriculum. More learning was happening at work, and employers were increasingly interested in work-engaged educational models for sourcing talent, including apprenticeships and internships. A great deal of attention was paid to using tuition assistance benefits and degree programs as employee retention tools.

But as employers rationalize their budgets, I expect they will continue to focus on shorter-term programs. This is where stackable micro-credentials offer a win-win outcome. The employer might sponsor a work-related certificate, but the employee also has the ability to earn a degree. We are also seeing growth in corporate-issued credentials, notably from companies like IBM and Google. The key to success will be creating an ecosystem that allows individuals to chart more varied and personalized pathways to credential attainment, and to have employers and government support and recognize them.

HZ: It sounds like this changing landscape could lead to more overlap. Is that a concern?

SG: Looking back at the last few years, non-degree educational credentials were so often positioned as alternatives to degrees–as disruptors. But this moment may show us how complementary non-degree credentials can be, creating pathways to degrees, and yes, sometimes alternatives to them. Students and consumers alike are financially challenged and navigating a time of shifting responsibilities and demands. This is a perfect setup for shorter, more affordable, more professionally targeted credentials.

Also, so much more learning is happening online, and students may be moving on and off campus or needing to pause their learning more frequently. Here, micro-credentials and digitization can offer learning continuity, capturing competencies and educational achievements at various points short of a full episodic degree. We’ll continue to see more colleges and universities scaffolding and weaving certificates and digital badges into their traditional degrees–and experimenting with new credentials independent of them.

HZ: Many colleges, universities and industry certification organizations are exploring how to weave/embed micro-credentials and certifications into credit-bearing offerings. Workcred’s partnership with UPCEA and APLU is an example.  Do you foresee an uptick of these practices in the credential landscape in the next 12-14 months? Does research have a role in studying where these practices are already occurring and whether they can survive and flourish in a “new normal” learn-and-work ecosystem?

SG: It’s interesting to watch what community colleges have been doing in this space, and it’s great to see four-year institutions adopt the practice as well. This was definitely a trend prior to the pandemic, so the current crisis has likely acted as an accelerant or catalyst on top of that. Higher ed leaders need frameworks and tools to fully commit to online learning, and it’s something that shines a light on the importance and value of curricular adaptation and governance processes.

We were already dealing with a fast change of pace in the economy and having to align educational programs with employer needs and consumer demands accordingly, and this means institutions must be even nimbler and more market-aligned. What are the policies and business models to achieve that? How do you integrate faculty and institutional culture? It’s an exciting area. Here, continuing and professional education units are likely already well-positioned to innovate.

HZ: Before the pandemic, there was growing recognition that we need a closer-aligned learn-and-work ecosystem, and this fueled the push toward more work-based, experiential learning through internships, apprenticeships, etc. Now that all of those have needed to go online, are there opportunities to collect data on how it’s going? What happens to work-based learning in a post-pandemic environment?

SG: This is an area we’re operating in and studying closely, and it’s been encouraging to see some of the media’s attention to these issues. For instance, reports show that internships and apprenticeships are being challenged by the sudden shift online, in the same way that K-12 and higher education were. The thing is, the online version of work-based or experiential learning was already a major growth area, but it was niche. Today, it’s commonplace because it’s the only way many of these experiences can happen in the current context. Based simply on the scale of experimentation with online internships and the continued growth of online project platforms and gig work, many more employers will need to be open to online experiences going forward, assuming online experiential learning produces good outcomes.

It’s important to remember that access to these powerful experiences requires employers to provide the opportunity, so it’s crucial to understand their needs and incentives. And, higher education institutions need to be much more intentional in how they design and manage work-based learning experiences. The most effective work-based learning experiences involve real-world work and direct links to curriculum, not some “stapled-on” employer-related activity, as useful as that might be. Creating platforms for scaffolding and tracking and measuring these experiences is part of the challenge.

HZ: Is this likely to play out differently depending on the industry sector?

SG: Yes, online internships and apprenticeships will look differently, depending on the industry sector. Certainly, the technology sector is most prepared and open to the learn-and-work ecosystem, given what the work in that sector entails. And generic business professions, such as marketing, finance and project management, easily lend themselves to these approaches. But what about health sciences, education, manufacturing, and other areas? I wonder if the pandemic will be a major catalyst for more simulation-based learning. A great example of this change is in the life sciences, as many institutions had to rapidly switch to virtual labs. While there’s no one-size-fit-all approach, it’s very interesting territory, and it takes resources and infrastructure to pull this off.

HZ: A workforce researcher recently noted that in his discussions with one state regarding the jobs people are getting as hiring begins to pick up, about half of the newly hired jobs in that state are “gig economy” jobs. If that means folks will return to work but they will not receive benefits, or they will not be taking what we think of as full-time jobs, what message will that relay to credential providers and learners? And how will researchers collect good information about this issue when so few states collect data on gig workers now?

SG: This is such an important point. Prior to the pandemic, we were arguing that the new work-and-learning world necessitates a new social contract between employers and workers–and this is even more true today. I hope that just as the country’s states consider the support structures in place for unemployment, childcare and healthcare in this crisis, we take this opportunity to consider education and lifelong learning as well.

Our surveys show that American workers overwhelmingly (about 70%) look to and favor their employers as providers of education and training, yet human capital has become a private good, and U.S. employers have been investing less in education over recent decades. And today, as retirement and other benefits are cut by businesses struggling to survive, educational benefits are increasingly at risk. Like healthcare, employer-provided benefits in this country require traditional full-time employment and a generous employer. That might have worked in the 1960s, but it’s not a great framework for 2020 and beyond. Consider, for example, lifelong learning accounts, which some other countries and U.S. states have put into place.

HZ: Right now, and as we look toward the post-pandemic landscape, what do you think are the three most pressing research questions to ask regarding credentialing and hiring?

SG: This might seem surprising, but first I would say we need a better understanding of online learning in all its forms–traditional online courses and programs, online micro-credentials, digital learning at work, etc. Even with a mature, two-decade-old online degree market, it’s amazing how little we understand and how little contemporary literature exists on outcomes, pedagogy and learning science, best practices, employer receptivity, and consumer preferences. The “remote learning” mindset and some of the hastily constructed online offerings we’ve seen emerge during this pandemic has laid this bare, and there’s risk of backlash, even though we know online education can deliver quality outcomes.

Second, I think we need to develop a deeper understanding of employer interests, both in hiring (talent acquisition) and on-the-job training (talent development). There is shockingly little data on this, and it’s changed rapidly.

Last, as I alluded to earlier, we need to explore the exciting frontier of work-integrated learning models of all types. I have the sense that educators and policymakers are eager to move in that direction, but there is much more to pilot and research.

HZ: Looking at those three, I’d add a fourth: ensuring we build a fair system, so that all learners and workers have equal opportunities in the marketplace.

SG: Yes, the equity challenges are immense. This pandemic and the year 2020 are hopefully a wake-up call. As we examine other aspects of social system and economy, the intersection of learning and working and access to these opportunities needs more attention. Online learning has greatly increased access, but it’s also been saddening and surprising to see the digital divide that still exists 25 years after the internet became commercially available and the huge disparities that still exist in institutional and community resources.

Likewise, we can’t be satisfied that a few Fortune 100 employers have been taking innovative approaches to training, education benefits, and educational philanthropy. We need entirely new approaches to human capital development that include small and medium businesses, the gig economy, and the public sector. COVID-19 has also illustrated how many populations of color have been disproportionately harmed by the economic downturn and public health crisis. And though we who are close to the issue might see it, the need for lifelong learning isn’t widely understood in the general public or among policymakers. As a researcher, the challenges to redesign our systems and meet the needs of diverse learners and employers are so immense. We must provide the best data available to analyze and build on trends like the ones we’ve discussed, and then collect data on how the many innovations going on impact diverse populations of learners and workers.


Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.


Author Perspective:

Author Perspective: