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Customized training isn’t new to higher education but recognizing these shorter programs as a credential is a newer concept. As the market demands more alternative credentials, this is higher ed’s opportunity to be the leaders in this space. In this interview, Jeff Strohl discusses the need to focus on microcredentials, the challenges when it comes to responding to market demand, and how to align them with employer needs.
Jeff Strohl (JS): First of all, somebody needs to be focusing on them, and looking at post-secondary institutions as a source for this will add a standardized process, so we know what we’re getting. One of the problems we have is multiple providers bouncing in and out of the market. You begin to lose some type of credibility for or reliability on production. So, having a well-recognized producer would be one reason for these institutions to focus microcredentials.
Post-secondary institutions, historically, have done customized training of anywhere from one day to multiple weeks, depending on the need. But they have never had a credential put on them, and microcredentialing has an importance of its own. It allows for skills to be documented, stored and transported easily.
For someone who’s left the labor market for a short period of time, credentials give them the ability to store credibility and re-enter the market, which is a little different from experience. Even if you earned experience through a job, maybe you change employers and your experience doesn’t necessarily carry the same kind of credibility. The other reason post-secondary institutions should be focusing on microcredentialing is the growing importance of small-bite education. For example, moving from company A to company B always requires a little bit of new knowledge, which can easily be gained through microcredentials. And this has become a growing need in the workplace, so it’s probably a good business model for many institutions to adopt.
JS: The challenge with creating a microcredential to respond to an immediate market need is that immediate market needs change continuously. So, you need to be able to move with the changes. When you build an apparatus to create a curriculum, you build in a lag response function. Another big problem is that microcredentials will parallel traditional degrees and come embedded with the need for faculty, physical location, accreditation, every one of those pieces is an anchor, which slows the speed at which small-bite education is able to move with the punches. Reliability is another problem. The whole world has changed, entire sectors are gone and 10 million people need a job.
This quick responsiveness comes with high costs when it comes to reliability and effectiveness. So, I fear that aspect of microcredentials. I could take a C++ microcredential, show you a hundred different providers and the consumer isn’t going to be able to differentiate these items.
So, if you have a stable provider, then you know for sure that the credential is good because the provider has a good reputation. So that’s one of the big problems: not necessarily creating the thing but creating the thing in a way that it produces a predictable, reliable, trustworthy outcome. And that’s a bit harder because everything is experimental.
JS: First let’s just assume when we say microcredential, we’re mean something that takes one to six weeks to complete. So, small certifications that are fairly standardized across labor markets and aligned with employer needs. It starts with involving the employer, then going to a test-based structure. In fact, post-secondary institutions are aligning curriculum with the exam components, so they’re basically reverse-engineering the exam.
If we think about that process, you’re talking about employer engagement, clear identification of a specific activity and building a process that fulfills it. It doesn’t always succeed, but it aims at developing that skill, that competency. This is where we need be aware of the problems with developing a microcredential. Some people will falsely assert that everything can be taught in the classroom, but that’s not true. The whole beginning of work-based learning is working beside the machine that you’re going to work, providing the clearest, most effective and efficient introduction to workplace activity.
We need an overlap of traditional learning and work-based learning, which schools can help with. For instance, Tennessee Technical College System is using a lot of virtual simulation for welding. West Virginia has a high school CTE program called a simulated workplace in which they re-create the workplace environment in the classroom.
So, reducing the distance between the classroom and the workplace is the way to do it. And of course it starts off with a lot of interaction with the employer and a lot of time spent identifying the skill sets required, which is a big challenge.
JS: This is one of those areas where there’s not a lot of guiding research. When you say microcredentials, I don’t commonly of post-secondary institutions. I don’t know of many microcredentials. I start to think of badges, of MOOCs. They are so new that there’s not a good audit or evaluative follow up. So, I need to emphasize certifications here because what they do for the student is provide very clear signals of discrete skill mastery to the employer.
Since about 1993, we’ve moved from a layoff to a fire model, and we’re beginning to see jobless recovery. In this, we’ve seen to some degree a reduction in employers’ willingness to provide qualifying training, and that’s pushed the need back onto the student to be able to go to the interview with a specific certification for whatever the role might be.
So, they get in the door work-ready, and the employer, based on time to productivity, will then invest in on-the-job training. The microcredential certification really serves an important signaling role for post- grad employment. There’s a lot of work being done on stackability, and I’m skeptical of stackability. Stackability is like a jigsaw crossword puzzle. A structural program is linked to standard occupational classification. It’s a shotgun. It has not been proven to work very well, and the same is true with stackable certificates. There’s not an awful lot of evidence that people use the stacks that faculty believe stack.
There is evidence that students stack, but not necessarily on a defined pathway. It holds a lot of promise, but you need a baseline set of competencies, an industry-specific set of competencies, occupational competencies and task-oriented competencies. It’s more about widening a portfolio and becoming more well-rounded.
In large firms, occupations are often single-task. The smaller is the firm, the more likely it is that an occupation is multitask. If that’s true, then the idea of portfolio building really makes sense. Microcredentials allow you to be to be better at your job, better at a bunch of things, but they don’t stack. It’s more of what some people might call a horizontal stacking rather than a vertical stacking.
JS: I would be very wary of movements to put microcredential in the existing framework of post-secondary program development. Because if these things are partially meant to imbue flexibility, the institutional aspects of being part of a traditional post-secondary structure will take away that flexibility. And that is a problem. Let’s think about ways that we could get the same kind of results—reliability, standardization, quality—without necessarily putting them in the same credit-bearing accreditation framework. We need to make these new things part of a new view, not part of the old one.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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