Published on 2022/01/04

Lifelong Learning in Higher Education: Diversifying Credentials to Engage Learners

Lifelong Learning in Higher Education: Diversifying Credentials to Engage Learners
Expanding the kinds of credentials the institution issues creates a new level of flexibility that truly appeals to modern learners.

Uncertainty in various employment settings has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as individuals have been challenged to take on new roles and responsibilities. Many have investigated how they can attain just-in-time learning to help address knowledge skills gaps. They want to know what else is out there for them. The provision of accessible alternative credentials, which are not limited to formal degrees and certifications, is increasingly being sought to address the skills gap. This is especially true for adult diverse learners and those from low-income upbringings (Fain, 2020). Learners would like to improve their employability by differentiating themselves in the job market (Miller, de St. Jorre, West, & Johnson, 2020). Job competition for optimal work roles remains an ongoing issue in today’s employment settings. 57% of job recruiters report having increased numbers of applications for certain job roles (Jobvite, 2021). As a result, many job applicants will look to find ways to demonstrate distinct skills as they compete for roles. Fields such as healthcare and education lend themselves to this type of short-term, online credentialing where individuals can quickly acquire knowledge and skills in a brief period of time (Fain, 2020). Longevity in one’s career and transition in work roles has a significant influence on the need for ongoing skill development.

“Consider that current students will need to work until their mid-70s, through the 60 years of employment, they may go through many different jobs, requiring different skills. Society must prepare them for career growth and change as part of a multi-stage life” (Dede & Richards, 2020, p. 1). To serve lifelong learners we need to offer them opportunities to upskill. Continuing Education (CE) offerings are one way we can provide stackable credentials to address shifts in workforce skills. Additionally, there is a need for employee-focused education and cultivation of soft skills, which can be readily addressed through CE opportunities.

As noted by Jones-Schenk, 2018, CE still provides relevant, rigorous content and development oversight but with open accessibility. Limitations of degree programs are removed, such as admission criteria and program requirements. CE can also be offered at a relatively low cost, increasing the accessibility to those learners. In addition to the provision of CE, to demonstrate mastery of new knowledges or skillsets, digital badging can provide a credentialing system outside of traditional higher education (Carey & Stefaniak, 2019). These badges can be shared with employers and on social media sites, providing a more immediate display of newly earned qualifications, compared to that of the traditional transcript. Jones-Schnek (2018) notes, “Building a library of tools that can be used to achieve learning and the skills to vet and curate them is an important competency for today’s professional development leader” (p. 450).

To address this changing environment in the nursing and health professions field, the nursing department at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) identified a CE initiative within our strategic plan to address workplace trends and the value of stackable credentials. As Miller et al. (2020) noted, “Universities need to equip graduates with more than just skills or knowledge specific to their chosen field; they must also develop broader transferable capabilities.” The ability to upskill at a low cost can make the learner more competitive in the workforce.

SNHU became an accredited provider of Nursing Continuing Professional Development through the American Nurses Credentialing Center in 2017. Since then, the provider unit has issued over 1,451 contact hours and 616.5 participation credits. Again, these types of educational opportunities provide rigorous content while maintaining accessibility for all learners. 

One example of how CE and digital badging can both be utilized to address the need for workforce skills was the development of a four-part series that provides career preparation through the development of 21st century skills needed in any healthcare-related employment. The series focuses on the development of critically important skills in today’s healthcare environment. The skills explored reflect elements necessary to enhance effective care delivery within a complex health system. The skills developed through the series include critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Participants earn one CE credential for each activity completed. Awarding the CE certificates reflects the learner’s successful participation in the content activity and demonstration of content mastery through a post-assessment knowledge check at 80% or greater in each of the skills content areas. Individuals who complete all four parts of the series are eligible for a 21st Century for Healthcare Professionals digital badge which can be shared on learners’ resumes. The digital badge reflects successful completion of the series. 

The response for this series has been overwhelming, which demonstrates that learners value these types of opportunities.

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Carey, K., & Stefaniak, J. (2019, May 23). An exploration of the utility of digital badging in higher education settings. Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 66: 1211-1229.

Dede, C., & Richards, J. (2020). The 60-year curriculum: New models for lifelong learning in the digital economy. Routledge.

Fain, P. (2020). Alternate credentials on the rise. Inside Higher Ed.

Jobvite. (2021). Recruiter annual report. Retrieved from

Miller, K.K., de St. Jorre, T.J., West, J.M., & Johnson, E.D. (2020). The potential of digital credentials to engage students with capabilities of importance to scholars and citizens. Active Learning in Higher Education, 21(1), 11-22. http://doi:10.1177/1469787417742021

Jones-Schenk, Jan. (2018). Alternative credentials for workforce development. Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 49, 449-450. 10.3928/00220124-20180918-03. 

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