Strategically Developing Microcredentials for the Future of Work
With today’s learners looking to upskill and reskill to stay relevant in the workforce, short-term programming is key to keeping a foot in the industry door. As microcredentials become increasingly popular, it’s critical for higher ed leaders to stop and think about creating a strategic plan before implementing any type of credential. In this interview, Glenn Whitehouse discusses the need for microcredentials, what makes a good program and how to get senior leadership buy-in across the institution.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on strategically developing microcredential programming?
Glenn Whitehouse (GW): There are two reasons higher ed is getting into—and needs to get into—microcredentialing: the skills gap and the future of work. The skills gap is the space between the skills employers need and what new employees are showing up with. You need a last-mile strategy to get people from their general majors into specific jobs. Microcredentials can really help with that. They make the connection between college and careers more specific.
The future of work is the idea that technology and globalization are changing the workplace very rapidly, while people are living and working longer. Microcredentialing is an important strategy to keep individuals relevant in the workforce. Increasingly, re-skilling and up-skilling will be a normal part of people’s career trajectory—and an opportunity for higher ed to help fill that need.
Evo: What makes a good microcredential program?
GW: A microcredential program needs to complement your degree programs not compete with them. As much as possible, you want badging to engage the whole campus rather than just continuing ed or the career office. Program faculty can provide a lot of career-relevant content that works between majors and silos. A good way to look at microcredentials is as a connector between silos.
It’s also good for microcredentials to have a local focus, with connections to area employers that benefit both parties. It’s important for colleges and universities to take advantage of local contacts to create a job pipeline that is very specific for students and relevant for the community. Colleges can do that in ways that commercial microcredential providers cannot.
Evo: What are the challenges that come with implementing a microcredential program?
GW: It’s a lot of work, and it’s not always obvious who should be doing what. Since microcredential programs often operate outside established silos, it can be ambiguous. It could be the responsibility of career services, the academic colleges or any office around student success.
Once you’ve figured out who is responsible for badging and microcredentialing, the next challenge is relating it to the rest of the campus. If you park something in a nonacademic office, it may never leave. And professors will be unlikely to find out about it. So, a microcredential program can end up being underutilized and having limited impact because of where it’s sitting. It’s important to think about the on-ramps that will bring both students and faculty into the badge system.
Evo: Are you finding a translation issue when it comes to employers understanding what microcredentials mean?
GW: I am because employers might think you’re building a whole major around them or something like that. So, there’s education required to understand exactly what a microcredential does and does not represent.
Evo: What are some best practices to grow and scale microcredential programming, and how do you get buy-in from senior leadership and faculty?
GW: The idea of badging is not to build an entirely new shadow curriculum that’s completely different than for-credit offerings. That’s a huge job and will most likely never get done. If you instead build on things you are already doing, it’s much more manageable.
Building off existing curriculum helps in two ways. First, your microcredentialing program becomes more sustainable and a more authentic part of your institution. Second, you can use badges, not so much to introduce entirely new content but to apply existing learning specifically to a workplace context and to make student learning visible to employers.
In terms of buy-in, the biggest selling point for campus leaders is imperative—especially if you’re in a public context, one that comes down from government. We live in an era of performance metrics and accountability. The administration is going to like anything that builds a pathway to students getting a good job after graduation. Those metrics get the attention of administrators and boards.
Faculty need a clear understanding of what’s expected of them in a microcredentialing program. What is their time commitment? What is their compensation or the benefit to their programs? Working with Arts and Sciences faculty is key. CAS faculty are with students from year one to year four, and they have very powerful motivation to be involved in career initiatives because they’re constantly fighting against the misconception that their majors aren’t practical. So, faculty who may not traditionally be well resourced can be the most effective allies of a microcredential program.
Evo: What impact do microcredentials have on student retention and success?
GW: At Florida Gulf Coast University, our program is too new to have robust data right now. My experience with students suggests it should help, though. Sometimes students drop out of college because they can’t answer the nagging question, “What am I doing here?” I do think that having a career-related throughline that a student can latch onto through school can help give them the confidence to finish.
On the student success side, we’ve been able to tie badging experiences to employer networking and specifically to interviews. Some of our badges lead directly to an interview opportunity. We also invite employer partners into the badging program by having them serve as guest judges in badging events and interviewers in the badge assessment process. So, a career success component can be built into the structure of microcredentials with the right kinds of partnerships.
Evo: Is there anything else you want to add about implementing microcredentials?
GW: Don’t say yes to everything. Badging and microcredentialing are becoming a big trend now, and everyone feels like they have to do it. If you don’t establish clear goals, you can get into one of two situations. One, you can latch onto some commercial product and not think about why you’re using it. In that case, you’re putting the cart before the horse, and you’ll lose the opportunity to connect microcredentials to strategic goals. You must know what the job is first, then figure out the best tool for it.
The other danger is, without a clear sense of what microcredentials mean at your institution, you can be deluged with people who have an idea for this badge or that badge. Not every good idea makes a good microcredential or matches a program’s specific goals. So, it’s important to know what your badges are for and not say yes to everything. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an unmanageable program.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.