Published on 2021/03/03

Leveraging Credential Innovation to Drive Meaningful Pathways to Degrees and Careers

Higher education institutions have the potential to support learner flexibility in forging career pathways, but programs and approaches to credentialing must be updated. Otherwise, students will find their own paths.

Meena Naik will be presenting on this topic at the IMS Global 2021 Digital Credentials Summit. Register now!

Now more than ever, students and the broader community are looking for ways to upskill and reskill, so that their education gets them moving forward; for better or worse, higher education should promote social mobility and be relevant to the careers of tomorrow. Four-year institutions require a large investment of time and financial resources, and ultimately, as students decide whether to pursue a four-year degree, they are weighing the odds of being employable and finding a job that will have been worth the investment. Add to that existing need, the timing and fallout of the pandemic, and we’re now seeing more and more pressure for a fast and strong return on investment–evidence that students can graduate and attain the job they are seeking. On the other end, we have employers seeking enduring skills that make students employable, which is not the same as content knowledge but rather reflects how students work through problems, collaborate, and communicate. 

As students engage with their courses, microcredentials can start to be a tool by which they get informed of the more implicit and abstract learning they gain, the learning that reflects the enduring marketable skills employers look for—the skills that will ultimately transfer and translate as students grow through their careers. What learners want to see is how these courses, not just their major classes but the ones required through general education components or graduation requirements, collectively contribute to their future goals and aspirations. Microcredentials have the potential to provide that connection and relevance. 

These digital credentials can be given as evidence of attaining enduring and field-specific skills and have the added benefit of empowering learners to share their own story: who they are, what they know, and most importantly, what they can do as a result of what they know. Done well, these microcredentials can be independently verifiable, providing credibility to what the student shares and building value for the employer as they make hiring decisions. And perhaps most importantly, these microcredentials may provide students with the language and tools to better articulate what they learned while in school beyond the course they completed or the content knowledge they’ve gained (e.g. the title of the degree and a few courses they’ve taken), and better include the skills they’ve attained through the journey and examples of where and how they learned them. The things that are most abstract and hardest to recognize in courses, like how well one collaboratively problem-solves, are the things that become the most concrete through microcredentials, making the traditional college degree doubly meaningful for students-turned-job seekers.

If we aren’t facilitating this process for learners and demonstrating relevance, then we’ll most certainly struggle to capture their attention and remain relevant in the learning journey as students find alternative ways to hack their pathways into careers. 

The challenge of implementing credit and non-credit credential pathways

The challenges of creating these pathways change depending on who you speak to. For a provost or other university leaders, it is about justification and process: how do we institutionally introduce this, how do we define what these pathways look like, what are the checks and balances, and are they credible and financially sustainable? 

Many of these questions can be answered by determining the institution’s vision for microcredential pathways. Once that’s decided, the vision itself defines criteria, for example, to external certification assessments, accreditation bodies, or even employer validation. 

But when it comes to implementation, the burden of the work falls to individual faculty members teaching the courses flagging and identifying direct contributions to the pathway and microcredentials—and that’s a different kind of buy-in. In these conversations, it comes down to showing value for the student—their learning, the ways in which this can elevate the work that they already do for their students. One of the hardest conversations we have with faculty revolves around why these microcredentials matter and that implementing them might lead to reducing the purity of a course or area of study. Often though, when we discuss the benefit to students and the ways in which microcredentials can elevate and show value for degrees that don’t easily translate to careers outside of small niche categories, like foreign language degrees, history, English, etc., we’re often able to nudge the conversation along. 

And beyond all these challenges, there are of course data collection and management processes: who assesses, evaluates, maintains structures, and ensures that microcredentials are properly awarded? It comes down to properly selecting tech tools and ensuring that conversations with faculty and leaders are honest and realistic about what is needed and demanded from stakeholders who participate. 

Lessons learned from early implementation

If we’re talking logistical and tactical challenges, we learned some early lessons about scale and managing the data volume to effectively deploy microcredentials, make them available to the broad range of learners, and ensure that the institution can stand behind the microcredentials with the same confidence with which they stand behind the diplomas and certificates they issue. 

This ultimately depends on each institution’s approach to developing and awarding credentials. For us, it was aligning tech systems and relying on faculty to do their part as they opted into this process. 

But if we step beyond that, what we’re really looking at is ensuring that these microcredentials carry meaning and value in practice. When we first began this work, we thought about seeking employer verification as a step one but soon recognized that there was too much variability in how enduring skills and credentials were understood. You can look up the same job title across different companies and see very different descriptions. You can look across skillsets and see them appear across a variety of positions, and if you dig further, you’ll find that the skills are likely defined differently. This makes aligning microcredentials and pathways to specific careers significantly more difficult. 

As we recognized this challenge, and not wanting to pollute the existing credential ecosystem while also launching microcredentials effectively, we turned our focus to what I shared earlier: informing to students of their opportunities and empowering them to better tell their story. If a learner understands a credential and its value, they can share it with the employer and make connections to what they are looking for in a new hire. 

Two steps to rolling out stackable microcredentialing: 

1. Be strategic

We chose to rely on external frameworks for validity (e.g. NACE and AAC&U frameworks for skills or accreditation standards for discipline specific skills), which means that we spend our time focusing on how to do it, not why it matters or whether it’s reliable at all levels, from the administration down to the individual faculty member. We chose stackable learning pathways to make it accessible to all students and let them leave with whatever they earn–a positive award system–rather than what they don’t. If you don’t earn a credential, it doesn’t follow you like a bad grade on a transcript, which makes it carry a different kind of value for learners. We chose an opt-in approach for our faculty partners, and it has allowed us to spread this across campus at scale. It also allowed us to distribute this process and grow it quickly. If you can anticipate which challenges you need to tackle and which ones you can sidestep (e.g. selecting widely accepted frameworks), you can strategically invest your time to building this program effectively. 

2. Decide your philosophy early

We centered our approach on learners very early on as we recognized who we were working for. This means that our approach is based on how best to equip them for their long-term education journey beyond their time with us. This led us to select open badges as our credential mechanism. It allows students to own their records, for the record to be independently verified by others, it is interoperable and can exist across multiple technical systems, and allows the record itself to exist far beyond their time at the institution. 

These last two points are especially important with the advent of Comprehensive Learner Records (CLRs) and Learner and Employment Records (LERs)—a variety of learner recognitions including but not limited to microcredentials (open digital badges) as enduring records of the lifelong learning journey. 

The future of microcredentialing in higher education

We must respond to a quickly changing world, one that the current pandemic has only accelerated. More and more, with the loss of public funding to higher education and increased demand from learners for strong returns on investments as they pursue a postsecondary education, demonstrating value in terms of what the market demands is critical.

The market is demanding relevance, value for money, access to social mobility and more than likely in the not too distant future, episodic and modular learning towards a four-year degree for which partial credits and microcredentials provide ways to learn, accelerate into a career option, then return to learn. 

Higher education has the potential to support learners in their future careers—recognizing opportunities in adjacent fields and job markets, opportunities to grow and upskill, and if necessary, reskill, while still demonstrating value for the traditional degree and learning process. 

CLRs and LERs and blockchain technologies for education are a big step in this direction, contextualizing the college degree with a variety of microcredentials and validated learning experiences that provide a more holistic picture of education. If we lean into this world of change, we can proactively respond and be part of the solution rather than being reactive or hindered by it. 

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