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Horizontal Stacking of Credentials: Framework and Success Considerations

The EvoLLLution | Horizontal Stacking of Credentials: Framework and Success Considerations
Credential stacking is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to designing program offerings that meet the needs of the modern and future postsecondary customer.

Maintaining an educated workforce is critical to most communities. The challenge to continually upskill a workforce (specifically in health care and technology) is uncomfortably obvious to politicians, educators and corporate industry representatives. However, most institutions of adult learning fall short as educational partners, predominantly because their business model focuses on a two- or four-year transaction, or one-off classes, and not the integrated relationship between learning and work.

If you consider that by 2024, 25% of the workers in the United States will be 55 or older, the need to continue to educate the working public becomes tantamount.

Most educational institutions, even with the right intentions, fall short in their understanding of local skill requirements and fail to invest in an infrastructure to support lifelong learning in their communities. Critical to this mission is the lack of a learning framework that defines possible educational pathways to support on-going education with a purpose. Sadly, only a few educational entities have grasped the importance of creating a learning framework, yet the success rates and student/client interest are proof of its potential.

Specifically driven by the demands in IT, adults are seeking opportunities to gain credentials or certifications well beyond their traditional or initial education. Developing a framework of progressive learning opportunities gives adults a vision of next steps in their educational journey. This framework—more commonly known as Horizontal Credential Stacking or Value-Based Stacking—focuses on learning opportunities that may or may not build upon each other, but taken sequentially expands the individual employee/student value to the local employers.

Establishing a Credential-Stacking Framework

To begin, the credential-stacking framework requires collaboration with corporate and civic leadership and an independent gap analysis. The near- and long-term skill requirements start with the clarification of local growth opportunities. Engaging chambers of commerce and commercial development organizations helps to define commercial trends and as such defines employment and learning and development needs. Articulation of future growth opportunities in health care, IT/programming, defense or small manufacturing sets up the fundamental layer of the framework.

Second, establishing a private/public partnership with multiple local educational providers offers diversity of perspectives. Educational institutions of all dimensions should be included. Community colleges, vocational schools, college noncredit programs, and dare I say, “for-profit” training vendors, software manufacturers and industry associations should be invited to participate. The market for education is already fractured, with adult students having far more choice in where they learn. Corporate and civic leaders must also be invited to participate. Their voices will be key to how the credential-stacking framework evolves.

This private/public partnership must have the support of the community—and must be transparent in its operation and key performance metrics. Horizontal stacking of credentials is by its nature a lifelong concept, so partnership governance requires a generational view.  Participation by community leaders, especially by those who are closest to the commercial needs but who can think out of the box, is important. The framework for stacking credentials needs curation for optimization and relevancy. Like machine learning algorithms, new pathways will emerge periodically and replace existing ones.

Third, develop the goal-based layer of the framework. Grooming pathways for advancement requires reverse engineering from corporate job title to credential achievement. The goal-based layer is the collection and rationalization of skills aligned with a job description that suggests mastery of knowledge in sequence to prepare the student for the next likely position. Job titles can be wildly variable, yet there are core themes that need to be teased out to create pathways students can follow to satisfy the job requirements of all employers. To date, large-scale credential-stacking frameworks have posed a unique challenge outside of a narrow stream of competencies. Very few educational organizations know the difference between an IT help desk and a full stack developer and can construct sequential educational opportunities for each. Add in the soft skills requirements that are gaining importance, and the task becomes overwhelming.

In the goal-based layer of the framework, educational opportunities can demand increasingly complex skills; pre-requisites rarely exist. Referencing open source job boards provides a handy tool to those who are initiating a local credential-stacking framework. Establishing close relationships with software or equipment vendors also provides opportunities for constructing meaningful lifelong learning progressions.

The content layer of the framework speaks to the specific educational events offered for stacking. Millennials and post-graduate adults demand delivery in a variety of mediums, sometimes in parallel, and always on-demand to conform to their schedule. Focus on rigorous examination requirements. Employers will demand it. Associations or software vendors who issue credentials or certification exams have very high standards; it is not in their best interest to encourage grade inflation.

Once the horizontal credentialing framework is constructed, revalidation is key. The strength of the program rests in the corporate confidence of an educated employee. How credentials are stacked, the breadth and depth of content knowledge requires curation and continued alignment of thousands of opportunities. Consider weaving apprenticeships, internships or self-mastery into the plans. Immediately add new technologies into the framework. Assign a corporate advisory committee with HR or C-suite members responsible for the vitality of credential stacking to avoid deterioration of value.

Finally, leverage behavioral analytics to market the program. The desire for lifelong learning must infiltrate the subconscious as perniciously as Facebook or Instagram. Track student/client success rates, predict educational next steps and craft customized “treatments” to encourage participation. Offer discounts and creative methods to maintain engagement. Deploy social media with personal messages.

Other Critical Dimensions to a Successful Program

Creating the horizontal credential-stacking framework is the core competency for a successful program. However, other dimensions need investment.

A Diverse Program Array

Provide a marketplace of educational opportunities that includes the myriad of programs delivered by multiple institutions. Seek to represent many educational entities on one technology platform or user portal. Consider educational events as inventory readily accessible to the buyer. The more variation, the easier it will be for the student to subscribe. With thousands of options available, one needs to adopt an Amazon mentality. Carefully curate your product availability and delivery. For example, partnering with other educational centers may provide a variety of price points that appeal to different learners.

Simplified Enrollment Processes

Focus on frictionless enrollment. Enrolling in a course should take no more than a few keystrokes. Consider your “returns” or “no show” policies. Use credit cards and corporate vouchers for payment processing.

Lifelong Learning Cabailities

Implement Learning Management Systems (LMS) or a Learning Management Platform (LMX) to track student/client achievements across a lifetime. Traditionally, LMS are implemented in closed communities—a corporate roster, an association membership or an educational institution. This limits those outside of “the community” from the educational marketplace and potential career advancement. Expanding the lens, when your goal is to upskill a workforce, the entirety of the community is automatically included. Age, economic status, or geographic location are irrelevant. Everyone has an email address so there are no technical limitations to admission granting, self-enrollment and a lifelong transcript. In addition, life events can derail educational goals for years, but that is not the point. One would expect significant lapses in time between educational events. Done right, an open access LMX becomes a solution for how people learn in life, not the tool for how people learn at work.

Credential Stacking Is the Future Norm

The momentum toward horizontal or value-added credential stacking is increasing. Driven by available technology that drives content delivery, new players in the industry competing with traditional purveyors of knowledge, cost pressures of traditional programs, and the market demand for the immediate application of knowledge, new solutions to workforce upskilling are taking shape. Having a framework to harness the desire toward practical goals is key.

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