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What It Takes to Roll Out Digital Microcredentials

Microcredentials are only gaining more traction in the higher education space, but implementing them well requires identifying key skills in the job market, homing in on the learning required to earn these skills and creating the language to articulate these skills to employers.

Microcredentials aren’t going away, so it’s critical for higher education to create and implement them in efficiently—and it will take more strategy than some may think. In this interview, Bryan Blakeley discusses the importance of digital microcredentials, what it takes to roll them out effectively and how to illustrate their value to faculty and learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for higher ed institutions to focus on digital microcredentials strategies?

Bryan Blakeley (BB): One of the biggest reasons is signaling. Microcredentials signal engagement, competency or achievement to a range of audiences, including an individual’s professional network, potential employers or even just to the individual themselves. They are an excellent way to demonstrate the achievements in a visible and verifiable way to employers and other interested parties.

We’ve used the resume as a tool for a long time, but it is not always the most trustworthy tool. Imagine instead that our students could respond to a job posting with a set of microcredentials that are digitally verifiable and contain evidence of skills from across their educational experience. This is a paradigm-shifting idea, I think. Because digital microcredentials have baked-in metadata, they can provide detailed information about specific skills and competencies, which increases visibility, verifiability and thus trust between potential employers and our students.

Evo: What does it take to roll out innovative credentialing across the institution?

BB: Microcredential implementation is relatively simple in the non-credit space. But expanding across the institution requires a way for the registrar and faculty members to name and recognize the skills that students are building in their coursework. It is key to find ways to increase visibility for what students are gaining in courses that because it is rarely recorded on transcripts.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that come with implementing microcredentials?

BB: The biggest challenge is a lack of understanding. The idea of attaching an incremental credential to a piece of learning in the classroom is a different way of thinking about the curriculum and how we recognize students for what they’re doing.

Evo: Is that lack of understanding present only among faculty or students as well?

BB: Students are becoming more aware of how microcredentials can function, but faculty and staff really haven’t been exposed to the potential of microcredentials. I’m not seeing active resistance to these concepts—in fact, there’s often real interest. So, I see the big question as bridging the gap between interest and execution. Each institution will need to determine whether and at what level digital microcredentials become a viable investment.

Evo: What are some best practices to classify digital microcredentials in a more consistent and meaningful way?

BB: Issuing a badge or microcredential requires figuring out the magnitude of the achievement you want to recognize. How substantial is the one-off event someone attended compared to a semester-long course through which they built a set of skills that were verified through an authentic assessment at the end? Because microcredentials vary in size, we’re running into the challenge of classifying these achievements while using the term “microcredential” to describe all of them. At the UW Continuum College, we’ve tried to define a substantive size that is meaningful to students and employers and be specific in how we talk about skills.

We do this by looking at labor market data to understand what competencies employers are looking for, then describing the skills students are gaining through our coursework in similar language. We’re doing a lot of work to articulate these skills to help students communicate them to potential employers.

Evo: Does language need to be taken into account when articulating these skills to employers?

BB: Absolutely. Writing a skill description isn’t an easy task—writing a good one is quite hard. So, we work with faculty and staff to understand what goes into a skill statement and how they align to the job descriptions we see in the labor market data. We want to be intentional about driving those connections. Sometimes the language of skills can sound foreign to faculty, who are often more focused on their course content than the specific skills built within each one. Bringing skill statements into the traditional course context can be difficult, but it’s important to clarify that this is simply describing something already taking place in different languages rather than redeveloping courses around the logic of the labor market.

Evo: How do you see digital innovation strategies playing a role in the future of higher education within the next five years?

BB: Prognostication is always dangerous. Having said that, I think a lot of faculty members were really burned out by remote teaching. We might see a bifurcation in faculty engagement with educational technologies over the next several years. We’ll see some faculty who want to return to the classroom and forget all about remote teaching, while others will be interested in deepening their engagement with new technologies. More people are now exposed to the idea of teaching with technology than ever before, so more people are likely to find value in these tools long term, even as many happily return to a more traditional modality.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?

BB: When it comes to microcredentials and digital badges, interoperability is key. Issuing badges in alignment with published specifications enables us to seamlessly verify and validate skills and achievements across multiple platforms and vendors. We’re starting to see major HR platforms investigate how to automatically ingest and verify credentials using open published standards, which would further increase the value of earned microcredentials issued according to these specifications. In order for the entire ecosystem to flourish, we need to align these specifications and ensure we’re building microcredentials and software systems that can function within this emerging ecosystem.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Bryan wrote a chapter on this topic, along with Rovy Branon from the University of Washington, in the book New Models of Higher Education. To learn more, click here.

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