Published on 2020/10/27

Staying Industry-Responsive with Outcome-Oriented Microcredentials

Microcredentials are a fast and efficient way for learners to get into the workforce, but be cautious–having an inflexible infrastructure can create many roadblocks for both students and administrators.  

Short-term programs—particularly microcredentials—are becoming a hot topic in higher ed, but CE has been doing this all along. This type of programming not only allows students to enter the workforce quickly but turns them into lifelong learners for the institution. Being an increasingly popular concept, students have a variety of options to choose from and institutions need to be able to stand out. In this interview, Nazlin Hirji discusses how colleges can leverage microcredentials to help stay on top of industry demands, why CE divisions are the ones to lead this type of programming and what it takes to have a well-designed program that meets the needs of both industry and lifelong learners. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do industry responsive microcredentialing programs help colleges stay responsive to the needs of both employers and students?

Nazlin Hirji (NH): The Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Act of 2002 indicates that Ontario public colleges share the mission of offering “career-oriented, postsecondary education and training to assist individuals in finding and keeping employment, to meet the needs of employers and the changing work environment and to support the economic and social development of their local and diverse communities.” That includes all types of credentials and graduates. 

Colleges do a great job of educating and preparing diploma and degree students, but not all jobs require a diploma or a degree. There’s a whole population of credentialed individuals who actually want or need reskilling. Microcredentials are perfect for those learners. 

Evo: Why are you and your colleagues in continuing education well positioned to lead this project on behalf of the college?

NH: To varying degrees, this is the role of continuing professional studies departments. We’ve always offered short courses and programs and custom training for individuals and industry partners. That is our purpose and our goal. So, we are creative and responsive to industry needs and pride ourselves on our agility and flexibility in adopting emerging trends. Our focus is not on credentials, such as diplomas and degrees that need to ministry approval and funding. We can assess what is needed and work with customers–either individuals and/or organizations. We build courses and programs that respond to market needs.

The phrasing and the momentum behind microcredentials are interesting because we have records of achievement. We’ve had various things that look like microcredentials. At Sheridan, we’re trying to clarify how the microcredential is similar or different from a record of achievement for our customers. 

Evo: How do you actively differentiate a microcredential from other kinds of credentials–where do microcredentials fit into the taxonomy of credentialing within a given institution?

NH: There is no industry standard or definition for microcredentials, so we’re all defining it differently— and that’s challenging but also exciting. We’ve been doing this for a while, but all of a sudden more people are interested in what CE is and has always been doing. So, we need to figure out how to respond to all of this, while also differentiating these offerings from what we’ve done in the past. 

At Sheridan, we’ve always had workshops, courses and records of achievement. Our programs are similar to diplomas and degrees when you look at the intention behind the learning – education in a defined body of knowledge. We’re defining and differentiating microcredentials as programming that helps you get a specific job. 

Evo: Do you have career services integrated into your model that helps provide people pathways to move forward? 

NH: Yes! To support all our current and prospective students, we created a new position called the education and career pathways specialist. This individual is dedicated to continuing professional studies, and their job is to meet with people and guide them toward whatever outcome they want to achieve–a course, program, specific job, or new-comer guidance–whether it’s offered by us or externally. I believe that if we’re serving people properly, it has to be about what’s in their best interests. It’s not just about staying at the college and only taking programs offered by our department.

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges that you faced when launching and managing these short term, non-degree opportunities?

NH: We offer stackable credit and non-credit programs. It’s an opportunity for us to leverage and build on-ramps and off-ramps for our customers. The microcredential gives them the ability to take a short program, finish quickly, and get a job. Then, if and when they want to come back, they should get recognition for prior learning. 

One of our challenges is our e-store, which doesn’t support this type of flexibility. Working within an academic institution that follows the academic calendar is a challenge. Additionally, working in an institution where scheduling happens centrally and classroom space can be hard to come by is a challenge—especially if we want to offer face-to-face courses. Of course, these obstacles can create space for innovation, presenting a huge opportunity to develop customized corporate training offerings for industry. When they ask for courses or programs for their staff, I go through the pros and cons of sending staff into an academic building versus training the staff onsite. When training unionized staff, it’s one less battle with the union if we go there—and saves us the trouble of finding space on campus! 

Having our own refund policies is also a challenge. We recognize that our customers can go anywhere—particularly in CE. If they have one bad experience, they’re not coming back, so we need to have liberal refund policies. They are customers, not students. And it’s a very different philosophy. By the time we find out about any issues and reach back out to that customer, they’ve gone somewhere else. I have gotten approval for us to open up our own contact center, which we’re calling an opportunity center. It’ll be a traditional contact center but also look at sales, industry partnerships, etc. – it’s really about building a long-term relationship with all of our different types of “customers”. 

Broadly speaking, working within a structure that follows a strictly academic model can be very challenging for a division serving “non-traditional” learners. 

Evo: What are some of the considerations that have to be made at the program design stage to ensure that there is a clean, consistent walkthrough from the microcredential to the job and then to the next available certification?

NH: There are a lot of considerations that need to be explored from the different lenses of our many stakeholders. For the customer it’s really about how they’re moving through their career journey and how can they stack in a way that supports their career progression. So, what is the entry level knowledge? They want to be able to take those courses first then go work for a little bit. Then have the ability to come back to add the next layer. The application of knowledge in relation to the career and how that stacks is important.

The challenge then is the model of how we build these microcredentials. In some cases, it’s about picking courses that demonstrate to the student that they can be successful in this program. It’s about picking courses that give them a true taste of the whole program. And so that’s a different lens. But it becomes a challenge when a student has taken multiple stackable courses and then comes back to do a program.

Added to that is the layer of prerequisites and co-requisites. In the postsecondary world, admission criteria or admission requirements, and prerequisites or co-requisites are fundamental. Programs are approved by the ministry to be offered in a certain way. In that world, you can’t just take any four courses because some of those courses have prerequisites and co-requisites. But this new model being explored questions if the student wants to try that and can be successful, then isn’t that what matters? So it’s really about the current boxes that exist and how to overcome those. And so we’re starting to have conversations about microcredentialing programs to see what that could look like, but it does come with its challenges. We definitely haven’t figured out the logistics yet.

That said, leaders across the institution recognize that this is the direction we need to go in. Collaborating with other areas including the Office of the Registrar, and Strategic Enrolment Management, and Program Planning and Approval is critical because the funding and approval boxes make it a lot more challenging; again we haven’t figured it all out yet. We haven’t identified all of the variables and we haven’t actually built one to start offering it. We’re just in conversation.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the process of developing this microcredential offerings and how you hope to see microcredentials become more a part of higher educations’ standard operating procedure?

NH: It goes back to the fact that this is not new work for us. It’s interesting to see the new language people have created for it, and I love this new expression. And if this is what helps bring CE and our programming to the forefront, then I’m all for it. The other thing would be true competency-based learning and assessment. How do we do that well? We still haven’t figured it all out, but to me, that gets into badging. I’d like to lead the way in terms of figuring that out. That’s another layer of complexity, but we can do it.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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