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Facing Obstacles When Developing Microcredentials

Continuing Education has often operated in silos. With the greater need for short-term credentials, institutions need to look at a microcredential framework to meet demands of the modern learner.

In the era where people are questioning the value of higher education, institutions need to deliver the right programming that meets learner and industry demands. Without adapting, institutions will fall behind and struggle in this new environment. In this interview, Rod Lasta discusses the importance of microcredentials, the digital transformation we’re currently facing and the role post-secondary education plays in today’s society. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed institutions to focus on microcredentialing?

Rod Lastra (RL): Microcredentials emerged around 2014-15, through a number of initiatives that emphasized the development of discrete skills-based short programs that certify, validate and articulate learning outcomes aligned with industry needs. Many would argue that the essence of discrete skills-based short programs first emerged in the dot-com era (1995-2000), with the creation of industry-issued certification IT programs. As a result, the 2015-2021 boom in microcredential interest and development could be seen as a second and more nuanced wave.  Although we currently lack a national microcredential framework, post-secondary institutions (mostly continuing and extension units in universities and colleges) seem to be reaching some degree of consensus on a high-level definition. The challenge and confusion for some comes in from the proliferation of short programs being developed by numerous accredited and non-accredited practitioners issuing badges, certificates, professional certifications and/or licenses. Within this context, the diversity of skills-based short programs that has emerged since 2015 (and perhaps prior) from multiple players has contributed to the confusion we see today. 

University and college continuing and extension education units have historically always been able to respond to emerging skills and competency education needs in the form of short courses, programs or even more comprehensive certificate and diploma programs. In other words, it’s nothing new. It’s a matter of scale, related to the changes brought on by the rapid adaptation of digital technologies, fundamental changes in the culture of work, and the impacts of digitization on the disintermediation of the workforce, which has brought on the urgency to develop innovative skills-based programs.

The growing skill chasm being created by the digital transformation, coupled with both the economic and transformative impacts of the pandemic, has fast-tracked the rate of change. Change that was once anticipated to occur over decades is now expected to hit much sooner. As such, the move towards a much more global and dispersed workforce, adoption of digital technologies and the gig economy, has in many sectors and professions increased the actual or perceived notation of competition, skill needs and job turn-over. Here is where the post-secondary sector can add value to the development and delivery of micro-credentials by ensuring skills-based programs adhere to academic quality standards. These standards are the hallmark of what we do best in post-secondary and as such can help guide the process to benefit learners and contribute to creating a resilient workforce. 

It should be noted that there are challenges that need to be overcome. First and foremost, the apparent slow rate of delivery and diversity of post-secondary programs that address emerging needs. The perception seems to be that industry-led training programs are much more responsive and quicker to deploy than those being created by accredited institutions. Hence the need to devise mechanisms with universities and colleges that prioritize and resource the development of skills-based programs. This work has already started in most continuing and extension education units across Canada.  

Evo: Can you expand a little bit on this digital transformation? 

RL: The holistic transformative impact of digital transformation is not new. In the Bay Area, tech-giants have been pivoting and adopting emerging technologies for years. The story is different in other parts of the U.S. and in many parts of Canada. Companies seeking qualified employees are not necessarily looking in their own backyard but recruiting on a much broader geographic scale. Although post-secondary education investment in tech-related professions in Canada has occurred, it cannot currently compete with the scale of growth in qualified workers globally. Thus, the need and value of investing in just-in-time, skill-based short programs designed to upgrade the skills of those already in the field. Such programs provide the required skills necessary to make qualified professionals much more competitive on a global scale.

The digital transformation and fast-paced evolution of technology is not only affecting the tech sector but is having impacts in other areas such as health, the service sector, manufacturing, human resources and even higher education, to name a few. It should also be noted the trends we are seeing have connected impacts, meaning our collective inability to effectively address impacts on individuals does scale up to communities. In Canada, we are sadly seeing many smaller communities struggling to survive in the wake of this digital revolution. 

Skills-based short programs provide the necessary lifelong learning education to professionals needing to consistently be at or beyond the curve in order to remain competitive. The value proposition of microcredentials is not only to provide stand-alone, upskilling education, but to augment traditional qualifications (e.g., degree) to create a learning web. 

Evo: Can you expand on this idea of a learning web?

RL: The learning web concept is rooted in our traditional understanding of lifelong learning theory. It emphasizes the importance of recognizing formal and non-formal learning as an ever-increasing requirement for those engaged in a post-pandemic workforce. This concept also challenges our notion of terminal degrees and/or post-secondary education and posits that the rapid changes brought on by digital transformation will require us to re-image traditional higher education. For example, learners may hold traditional degrees complemented with alternative credentials in the form of certificates, diplomas and microcredentials. This concept (which is not new) will help sustain our economy during normal and disruptive times. We know the latter is becoming more common than the former. We need to ensure that the individuals who were qualified with certain core skills have the capacity to remain afloat during changing times. 

Evo: Why does this cultural gap exist between how Continuing Ed sees the market and the role that the main campus believes they play?

RL: Continuing and extension education has from its inception been effectively involved in the business of upskilling and reskilling programming activity. That is our core disciplinary expertise. We have a proven track record that enabled us to successfully offer accessible post-secondary, skills-based programs in a multitude of modalities to professional and non-professional lifelong learners. The main campus has long seen itself as providing comprehensive holistic higher education in more traditional disciplines with a strong focus on research. Its relationship with alumni, at least in North America, has very clearly defined objectives that historically have been different from continuing and extension education units. The so-called gap perhaps will narrow out of necessity. The strategic value of lifelong learning is changing among institutions, as the importance of approaches and initiatives that enhance social mobility are increasingly becoming institutional priorities. In other words, once siloed activity of continuing and extension education may become more central to the function of universities in the years to come. 

Evo: What are the benefits of post-secondary, and what’s its role in today’s society? 

RL: The benefits from post-secondary are insurmountable. There is no doubt that the university enterprise as we know it has made invaluable contributions to society as a whole. But we’re currently facing an existential challenge that seems to question the value of post-secondary education. The anti-university rhetoric that has prognosticated the doom of a traditional comprehensive degree programs is not new and not supported by data. As I have already mentioned, the coming decade will see a greater need for the post-secondary sector to invest in core as well as discrete skill-based programming. The coupling of comprehensive qualifications with just-in-time upskilling and reskilling short programs will allow working professionals greater resiliency and preparedness. This in essence is the idea behind the establishment of a learning web framework. 

It should also be noted that continuing and extension education units’ experience with industry and research-focused institutions, facilitates not only the development of responsive but perhaps predictive and adaptive programs. Research-focused institutions and industry in many ways have the means to reasonably forecast coming trends. Furthermore, institutions also have the expertise to ensure the validation of programs developed and assessed with rigorous academic quality control standards.  

Evo: How can Continuing Ed leaders work to create tighter partnerships with their colleagues across campus to create more opportunities for their expertise to be leveraged in professional development settings?

RL: Continuing and extension education units bring the long-term expertise of developing and delivering programs and supports to lifelong learners in a manner this is flexible and inclusive of learner needs. This is a paradigm shift in thinking for many traditional undergraduate faculties and schools whose pedagogical approaches and modes of delivery are focused more on students transitioning out of high school. The quality standards for new degree courses and programs are often determined using qualification frameworks that are over-sought by complex university and provincial governance processes.  Furthermore, even the nature of registration systems, student records and transcripts may not meet the needs of a lifelong learning framework. 

As a result, many continuing and extension education units function as a hub for non-degree programming and services and as such provide those in more traditional faculties and schools with insights on the critical processes and pivots required to meet the needs of a wider diversity of learners.  Many professional schools are seeing a greater demand to provide its recent graduands and practitioners in the field with on-going professional upskilling education but often do not have the experience to develop and deliver certified skills-based short programs. When it comes to microcredentials, continuing and extension education units in partnership with faculties and schools can help define microcredentials based on the growing national consensus on this complex topic.

In many ways, the hub model facilitates the formal or informal registry of these types of programs, which reduces unnecessary duplication of effort and in the absence of a microcredential national framework, functions as a proxy for ensuring standards. Lastly, the hub model enhances a university’s traditional portfolio and capacity to improve its commitment to social mobility. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add on the proliferation of microcredentials across the post-secondary space and the role of Continuing Education in ensuring some level of quality and consistency as they roll out and scale?

RL: We have a number of barriers and challenges we need to address. The lack of a pan-Canadian, non-degree qualification frameworks does present challenges in developing skill-based qualifications that lead to greater mobility for learners. We also need to collectively invest in developing a skills network that maps out occupations with discrete skills and competencies. It certainly would help to have a more universal understanding of what skills are in certain sectors. Right now, we are working with a much more myopic and localized perspective.

There seems to be a lack of national and international awareness of trends. I’m talking about the Continuing Education community. In the absence of what I call the currency-of-thought, it means that we often operate as siloed units, which inadvertently creates a divergence of practice. Within continuing and extension education, we know microcredentials are more than just short programs, they are discrete skills-based programs where the attained skills are validated and articulated by the institution and recognized by industry. This is what sets microcredentials apart from other non-accredited short programs. Learners have agency in their learning, which enables them to easily communicate their skills to employees. In other words, the value proposition is the democratization of learning. Here’s the hard part: How do we do this? The digital notation of learning is still in its nascent stage among many post-secondary institutions. Do our current systems support digital notation of learning? Do we understand the benefits and limits of a digital wallet, e-transcripts? We know there are vendorsout there putting forward digital wallets, but we’d need to know the difference between that and open badges and related technologies. These are the concepts we need to agree on and convey.

One of the few benefits of our current global pandemic reality is that we have in many ways been better able to connect with colleagues across the country and abroad. The ability to invoke a pan-Canadian or global hub of information-sharing dismantles the regional bubbles many of us worked in, enabling pseudo communities-of-practice. Doing so not only removes local bias of practice and thought but also facilitates the fostering of new innovative ideas in a much quicker timeframe. We need to ensure these connections are not lost as we resume some semblance of normalcy in the coming year. We also need to ensure we make efforts to have academic conversions on pragmatic matters like the development and implementation of micro-credentials, non-degree qualification standard and skills networks. This will enable us to identify common issues, find common solutions and perhaps reach consensus even in the absence of a national framework. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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