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Will Microcredentials be the Rx Needed to Fix Our Ailing Degree Systems?

Amidst the dramatic social and economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, microcredentials are presenting themselves as the viable solution to getting learners prepared quickly and effectively for desperately needed jobs. 

We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where many of the systems of the past no longer provide the solutions we need for the future. This is especially true in the labor market, where we continue to rely on outdated systems and policies to prepare a future generation. Our education systems have changed little since the Industrial era, when we developed education and training to match industries and which would remain unchanged for decades or longer. Your high school diploma, for example, is a signal of completion. When you receive it, you never look back. You go to work, expecting the knowledge and skills you developed in earning that diploma to serve you in your career and further education.

Pace of Change Accelerates Beyond Our Wildest Imagination 

But the world of work is changing at a pace that traditional education systems cannot match. Cloud computing, big data and AI technologies are replaced or improved monthly—and often faster than that. About 50% of the labor force’s current work activities are technically automatable by adapting existing technologies. The changes in the labor market over the next decade will be dramatic. Nearly 40% of U.S. jobs are in occupations likely to shrink or be cut by 2030. By 2025, 85 million jobs globally may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between human beings and machines, and 97 million new roles more adapted to this new division of humans and machines are expected to emerge.

Will It Take Four Years to Prepare for the Jobs of the Future?

Futurists like Ryan Craig believe we live in a world of macro-credentials—degrees with high social-signal strength but low skill-signal strength. And while the college degree remains popular among many employers, others are beginning to rethink its value. At IBM, 50% of jobs no longer require a college degree. Apple and other large employers report similar numbers. 

IBM took a hard look at the degree requirement and found that 50% of its open jobs do not require a college degree. Many need less than a year of skills training. “IBM has been focused on this idea of ‘new collar jobs’ where you don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to move into, for example, a technology job or a job in banking and finance,” explains Justina Nixon-Saintil, Vice President and Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility. “We believe that this idea of having a four-year degree has actually left a lot of marginalized populations and women out of the workforce.”

Growing numbers of Americans are questioning the value of a college degree, too. According to Strada Education Network, 60% of Americans–understandably impatient after a year-long pandemic–now prefer short-term training to degree programs. And 36 million Americans hold some postsecondary education and training but no completion, and they are no longer enrolled. This group is also known as the Some College, No Degree population.

Credential As You Go: The Rise of Incremental Credentialing 

The U.S. college system is organized around an all-or-none framework: You only get a credential after completing the entire learning path.  But when a large number of students cannot commit to a long-term commitment (the situation we have faced for decades), shouldn’t we break the learning down into credentials along the way?  That’s what Holly Zanville, a research professor and Co-director of the Program on Skills, Credentials & Workforce Policy at George Washington University, says. “Shouldn’t they get something for their learning?”

Holly is a leader for a forward-thinking group called the Credential As You Go Advisory Board, which is working on new ways to signal achievement by breaking down the learning experience and issuing credentials as you go.  Holly—along with Nan Travers, Director of the Center for Leadership in Credentialing Learning at SUNY Empire State College, and Larry Good, president and CEO of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce—have organized a group of leaders from industry and higher education to figure this out. 

The MicroBachelors: A Major Win for Credential As You Go

Today, most microcredentials provide the opposite of college degrees: high skill-signal strength but low social-signal strength. Companies either don’t trust microcredentials or don’t understand them. But that is changing, thanks to organizations such as edX, which recently launched its MicroBachelors program. Created by top universities and Fortune 1000 companies, edX’s MicroBachelors programs provide a path to a longer-term degree for those who wish to take that on, but the program makes a student job-ready today by credentialing along the way.

MicroBachelors programs are a series of college classes that have been customized and grouped together to meet employers’ real-world needs. The programs typically take two to four months to complete and provide credentials and college credits. edX has partnered with Thomas Edison State University, an innovative public university in New Jersey, to provides credit for these MicroBachelors programs.

A good example is the Professional Certificate in Full Stack Cloud Developer developed by a team led by Rav Ahuja, Global Program Director, Skills Network and Partnerships at IBM. The program can be completed in less than a year, and it only costs around 700 USD. The program provides a graduate with the core skills they need to gain entry into a great IT career. And, because it was built by an industry partner (IBM), the skills a graduate possesses closely aligns with the job that needs to be done. That’s one of the key benefits—industry partners know what is needed on the job often better than a higher education institution. IBM provides the content, and edX serves it up as a college program. 

Stackability: A New Way to Look at Skills Progression

The MicroBachelors program is part of a larger effort to break down skills development and provide credentials along the way. The IBM Digital Badge Program broke ground in the IT industry in 2016, and an early program offered with Northeastern University proved that digital badges can be articulated for college credit at a Tier 1 university.

IBM also launched a certificate course on edX. “As a precursor to this, last year we launched a full stack professional certificate course and that has had hundreds of thousands of enrollments. So, someone who’s already gotten a professional certificate can easily work that into a MicroBachelors by adding these extra courses and going through the extra project and assessment,” says Ahuja.

From badges to MicroBachelors, these programs were designed to democratize the labor market by identifying the skills needed for a specific role and providing a pathway to progress skills. Ahuja says, “Let’s say you want to get started with Cloud Computing. You can take a single introductory course on Cloud. You want to do a little bit more than that? Like learn web development and pick up some Javascript front-end and back-end skills—we offer a 4-course Cloud Applications Development Foundations program. And on top of that, you can stack a 10-course Full Stack Cloud Developer Professional Certificate or even a MicroBachelors.”

Big Benefits to Learners and Business

Microcredentials benefit learners by providing them with signals of job readiness. Organizations like edX and forward-thinking higher education institutions can provide learners with fast-track training developed precisely to fit the market. And many learners, including those underprivileged and underserved, can move into and through programs quicker. We’re therefore opening good jobs to more diverse learners.

What Do Companies Expect to Get Out of It? 

Companies get speed, quality and more diverse candidates. In an economy where skills in data, cloud and cybersecurity are scarce, companies are looking for solid programs that quickly prepare students for careers. And they are looking for greater diversity in their workforce. 

“There’s a new world coming, and it’s just around the bend.” – Mama Cass Elliot

When Cass Elliot sang those lyrics in 1970, few could have imagined the dramatic upheaval we would see in broader society and the labor market. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these changes and opened our eyes to the possibilities to reimagine the future. 

Credential As You Go is a movement. It is our opportunity to think big and move beyond the systems of the past to create programs and  fairer, more inclusive and more human solutions. This is our time to remove the barriers that single sheets of paper, like resumes and diplomas, have placed on too many people for far too long. It’s an ambitious goal—and it’s the right one, too.

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