Published on 2021/08/27

Being Mindful with Microcredentials for the Lifelong Learner

People want and need to be able to seamlessly upskill and reskill during their careers, and higher ed can meet this need through microcredentials that are aligned with industry demands. 

Microcredentials are becoming increasingly important, as more people are looking to higher education to keep them relevant in the workforce. With millions of alternative credentials in the higher ed space communicating what each one means gets lost in translation. In this interview, Jennifer Oddo discusses the importance of microcredentials, the need to align them with industry needs and the role Continuing Education plays in helping the broader institution implement alternative credentials. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it critically important for higher education institutions to recapture the education space with the concept of microcredentialing?

Jennifer Oddo (JO): It is absolutely essential to look at microcredentials. We know that the era of digital and AI is changing the skills needed really rapidly. We also know higher education can’t keep up. But the pandemic accelerated change in workforce needs and has presented higher ed with an opportunity to take back that market and meet the needs of the lifelong learner. 

We’re not in the world where you go to high school, then college before heading into the workforce. We’re in the era of lifelong learning. So, higher ed need to take that leadership back and keep the helm of education with those institutions.

Evo: Common critiques we tend to see around microcredentials is that there are millions of them and no one in the labor market understands what they mean. How does that strike you? 

JO: We still have a big societal shift in thinking that has to happen around the value of a microcredential. At Youngstown State University, we’ve built a stack-and-start model into our approach. We know that it is important for students, especially those with degrees and who are alumni, to be able to stack the credentials that are needed in industry. There may be certifications or micro-skills they can get without needing to take a full degree pathway. This way, they can pick up the needed skills along the way. 

Our stacking model is designed for students with an advanced degree to continue their lifelong learning journey, to be able to service them because we know many of them aren’t coming back to the college to get the skills they need. 

The other benefit to microcredentials is that a lot of people don’t have a pathway into higher education. So, our stacking model is about that incremental approach to get them on a career pathway. We’re working on putting quality standards in place with our microcredentials—ones that lead to incentives for students. These incentives could be high school graduation, since several of our programs have been approved for high schools. 

We also received approval for our industry credential program to receive credits for students who have taken and completed those classes. That’s pretty huge—it’s a new pathway to getting a degree. So, in some ways, we’re elevating the marketability of our current students, but we’re also creating incremental approaches for others who didn’t think degrees were a possibility, to have that incremental approach to come in and obtain their degree.

Evo: What’s the cultural gap that keeps microcredentials from generally being recognized for credit or being sort of stackable into a credit bearing program?

JO: Opportunity At Work has done some great research that talks about the importance of microcredentials for our black and brown communities. We’re recognizing that this is a way for them to increase their employability in the marketplace, and it just takes that first step, but let’s go a little further. If we increase the quality of microcredentials, like we should be doing, then why not have them matriculate into credits at a university?

But there’s two reasons for this cultural gap. First, it’s lack of understanding of the microcredential space. There’s a lack of awareness of what microcredentials mean and how they’re being used. That’s something we’re working on: teaching our educators about the value of these programs. 

It’s also important to know what to focus on because there are so many microcredentials out there. Higher ed institutions building these programs need to build them within a stackable pathway model, so students understand that if they take a certain number of courses, it equals a certain microcredential. 

Evo: Can you walk me through how an apprenticeship model run by a university differs from an apprenticeship models run out of a community college?

JO: They’re run no differently. Apprenticeships are a standardized approach to the earn-and-learn program. At the university, we have a national program with the U.S. Department of Labor based on the same concept. So, we build our competency models, then we build our training programs to align with the skills needed by industry. For example, a foundational software developer needs to learn ten essential skills, and that’s going to be universal across the entire industry. It’s when they start learning those advanced skills that the microcredentials really start to differentiate. 

Another example: With our IBM’s IT apprenticeship program, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t include just the hard skills. We wanted to teach the new demographic some of the foundational corporate communication and power skills, as well as new ways of working with agility and design-mindfulness. Those skills are even more valuable to an employer than the technical skills. Coming out of an apprenticeship, you have a certificate. With a degree, you come out with a validation of skills. This is where microcredentials are critical because it validates skills to an employer. It’s a way for us to tell employers that this person went through a training program and earned concrete, demonstrable skills. 

Evo: What role does Continuing Education play in ensuring that microcredentials are built mindfully around outcomes and expectations, especially as excitement around them builds? 

JO: It’s critical for institutions to embrace microcredentials because we need to own the standards and let our learners know that if they’re coming to a university, they should expect the same quality of programming for a microcredential. That’s going to be a key differentiator. 

Funding coming in for these programs also needs to be aligned to quality standardization. When we talk about designing and delivering these programs, they need to be aligned to other potential credit opportunities. 

Evo: What do Continuing Education divisions need to do to ensure they’re able to manage a consistently scaling array of non-degree programs?

JO: At Youngstown State University, we created a separate division outside of the academic environment focused on workforce—and this is new for a university. Most workforce divisions sit within a community college. I report directly to the president of the university. We’ve undertaken an entire differently workforce initiative, so that we don’t follow the same guidelines as degree programs, but follow the quality standards and guidelines of the university mission to deliver those programs.

Evo: Is there a level at which this division is operating almost as a service center for the rest of the institution, so you can democratize the development of high-quality microcredentials institution-wide? 

JO: Democratizing learning is my number one goal for the work that I’m doing here. We need to create more opportunity and access for everybody to participate. And again, microcredentials are a key strategy to making that happen.

Evo: What’s in it for the school to offer microcredentials and stackability?

JO: Being able to offer these programs is really about what next-gen education is about. The model for education needs to change. We know that. We know that the majority of students entering universities are not finishing their degree, so the number of stop-outs occurring is pretty extraordinary. We know that a lot of people can’t participate for various reasons. Every university has a mission to serve their community, their region and their students. This is about the future of the university. And industry’s not going to wait.

Companies are going off and developing their own programs. We’ve seen it with IBM, Microsoft and Apple because higher education cannot keep up. This is a way for us to come together, instead of working against each other, to build the future of the workforce.

There’s no reason we need a time-based or boxed organization in our delivery mechanism. We need to be on that lifelong learning curve. We have to serve our students’ and industry needs. And more importantly, we need to be able to serve our community.

Evo: What advice would you share for any other leader, especially at a senior level, who might be considering what their institutions microcredentialing strategy could or should look like?

JO: We are living in a new world, post pandemic, and the acceleration of change in skills needed is not going away. So, we have to be able to align ourselves with industry to have an impact. We have to be able to serve their needs and make sure we’re giving our students the best educational opportunities we can offer to them. It just requires a shift in thinking. We have to start thinking about what our students’ futures look like and how we’re going to take back the educational market in this microcredential space to help fulfill them.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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Key Takeaways

  • Many students have some college but no degree—putting them on an educational career path allows them to be a lifelong learner while increasing your student success and retention rates.
  • Higher ed will put itself at risk if it’s too slow to respond to the need for alternative credentials—big-name companies have already begun developing their own courses. This provides the perfect opportunity to form partnerships.
  • Microcredentials need to be built with the lifelong learner in mind. With a stackable model, learners can earn and stack their credentials as they continue their career journey.