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Providing Choice for the Lifelong Learner with Microcredentials

As more students are finding degrees to be time consuming and have more risk when it comes to ROI, microcredentials are becoming the favorable option and institutions need to deliver on this demand. 

Students are increasingly in favor of microcredentials because of their flexibility and ROI. This means more institutions are looking to launch their own credentials to meet this demand from not only students, but also employers. In this interview, Adam Fein discusses the opportunity microcredentials provide, what should be considered before implementing them, and how to fix the disconnect between industry and higher ed. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are microcredentials such a hot topic in higher education right now?

Adam Fein (AF): Simply put, the market is demanding that higher education have more products of varying cost and size to meet the needs of the 21st century student and employee. For a long time, our industry has had one primary product, the degree. There have been certificates and certainly non-degree and non-credit, and while those certainly served a purpose, outside of higher education, we’re seeing they are often disassociated with industry and not necessarily meeting the needs our corporate partners have in terms of the skills they want our graduates to have when they hire them. 

The tech is coming around on this now. We can create a dynamic digital transcript that contains metadata that is highly useful for a hiring employer. 

So instead of just showing someone got an A in a particular class, an employer could see more pertinent information about the content of the course and view some of the prospective employee’s work projects. The future employer can see a little bit more about what this person knows and what they can do. 

In addition to providing a mechanism for more efficiently displaying learning outcomes, microcredentials allow institutions to create pathways for students to stack these credentials into larger credentials. The customization is controlled by the student—take a little, a lot or the whole thing. The University of North Texas offers a bachelor’s completion program online on Coursera, and it’s stackable, so you can bring in credits from other academic institutions, technical credit, military credit, etc. A student in our online BAAS completion program can also take the Google IT certificate and we will accept it as credit for the degree. Now when you graduate, you’ve got a degree from the University of North Texas, a Carnegie R1 public research university and you’ve also got this career-ready microcredential from Google. Undoubtedly that student has a leg up on the competition and has had the opportunity to learn from both industry experts and academic professors.

Evo: What are some things that an institution should consider before they implement microcredentials?

AF: We’ve tried a couple of different things. I gave an example of partnering with an external entity—in this case, Coursera—which worked very well. To me, that is a low risk / high reward solution because they largely involve existing resources and processes, just executed in a modern, market-responsive fashion. The microcredentials are easily displayed on your LinkedIn profile. See here—I received my degree at UNT and here is the Google IT certificate right along with it. 

It’s important for a university to look at, first and foremost, how its students will benefit from this. Leadership also needs to consider how much infrastructure work it’s going to take and then determine how much can be completed in-house versus with a third party. For us, it has been most beneficial for our students to leverage a partnership we already had, allowing these industry certificates to be part of the degree and readily shown on a platform that people are already using, like LinkedIn. So, other than planning and coordination, expenses were low.

Evo: What are some of the challenges or the obstacles that an institution can face when trying to implement microcredentials?

AF: There are two challenges I’ve seen. Number one, there is still a disconnect between industry and higher ed. We’re not always on the same page about the skills our students are missing. We need more communication there. I’ve talked a lot about program microcredentials, there are quite a few efforts around in-course microcredentials or skills identification. A major challenge with the in-course initiatives is that they often require a lot of manual work. Staff have to work with professors to identify what exact skills a student would receive as part of the learning and then there is ongoing work to manually input these data into some kind of engine like Credly, or Badger. I’m not fully convinced of the immediate benefits of this strategy. Most courses would give you a ‘leadership’ badge, for example, so if an employer sees that a prospective employee has this skill, but all of the candidates have the same skill, does that help the employer? 

For this to work and be scalable, it will have to be automated. Manual inputs are not sustainable. And so again, a place like Coursera with 80 million users, is not doing anything manually. They have very specific requirements in working with universities like ours. Other outfits like EMSI (now EMSI/Burning Glass) are doing some really great work in this area.

Evo: What are some of the best practices to overcome those obstacles, especially even with the employers and that disconnect there?

AF: We’re fortunate to have a good number of corporate partnerships, Liberty Mutual, Toyota, JP Morgan Chase, the Dallas Cowboys, etc. We’re able to talk to these companies directly and ask them what they are looking for in a credential or microcredential. 

Evo: What impact do microcredentials have on student success and retention?

AF: That’s the real key. What we’re hearing from students is that they like microcredentials because, historically, universities offer degrees, but that’s a very all-or-nothing outcome. Look at the bachelor’s space – historically, a student either makes it to the finish line in four, five or six years, and you get that degree, the full reward or you fall short, and you get nothing. That’s high risk for a lot of people who can barely afford it, or who can’t afford it at all. 

I like the idea of breaking it up in smaller chunks just like we do when we’re teaching. We can tell the students that even though they may stop out, they still get recognition for the knowledge they’ve accrued. We’re going to give them something tangible to take with them. When and if they need to come back and finish – we’re there.  And we’re there for them when they want graduate (additional) education.  In fact, we’re with the student for a lifetime – true lifelong learning – which I think we can all agree, given the pace of information, is necessary now more than ever.

So, we give students checkpoints, so it’s not all or nothing. They get something for their money, so they don’t leave in debt with nothing to show for it. This approach is key for the future of higher education and career ready graduates. For the student, it probably feels a little bit more manageable too. It can be daunting, four to six years—not being able to picture the finish line. 

Evo: Is there anything that you want to add about implementing microcredentials and its value to students?

AF: Utilize existing resources. Instead of completely reinventing the wheel, use the resources you have. Let’s not make it hard on students. Work closely with your registrar and across the university to develop products that your students want and need. We probably need more work on standards as well. Further discussion with industry, other institutions and federal and state governments is needed. There’s a lot of innovation happening, but we’ve got to settle on some things too, so our students can benefit from the solutions.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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