Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges
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In transferring to a remote environment, it’s time for institutions to rethink their educational offerings. Unbundling credit programs provides learners with fast and consumable options that will help get them back into the workforce. To do this, faculty and leaders need to look at their current educational structure and analyze what can stay, go and where there’s opportunity for growth or change before they do anything else. In this interview, Beth Romanski discusses the importance of unbundling, creating more flexible access for learners and the financial implications that come with this shift.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important to unbundle credit programming into non-credit formats and how does it benefit learners?
Beth Romanski (BR): From the learner perspective, it’s important to rethink how institutions are delivering their educational offerings to remain relevant to a continuum of lifelong learners. As higher ed institutions, we possess a wealth of resources within our academic curriculum. We should be asking ourselves how we can capitalize on some of the most specialized content–the areas that make our institution special and in which we have expertise—and provide it to learners in a more consumable fashion. While formal degrees remain valuable, there is a large market of lifelong learners seeking specialized credentials or targeted skills for personal and professional development. Much like “customers,” the learner of today may benefit from targeted micro-learning options allowing them greater customization of content to fit their personal and professional interests.
It’s also important to think about the resources we’re providing people with to get a faster return on their investment. It might take somebody a couple of years to complete an academic program, which seems like a long time during which to invest both time and financial resources. As an adult learner, you often want to take what you’re learning and apply it right away on the job or in your own life. So, how do we take that approach to designing our curriculum and deliver it in different ways to truly benefit the student? We can remove segments from the academic course, so content becomes more condensed and in an easily consumable format. This unbundling approach also provides flexible start and end dates to fit busy schedules. Essentially, unbundling credit provides a unique opportunity for students to personalize and customize their learning experience in ways that benefit them most.
Evo: Why is there a laser focus, such a commitment to student-centricity, in non-traditional education divisions?
BR: The idea is that we’re really here to serve the adult learner. It’s like a customer experience, wherein we see value in what they bring and what they have to offer. It’s a partnership in learning—which isn’t always the case in a traditional model.
Evo: Why is it important for universities to start to look at ways to create more flexible access and program delivery to learners who might not be looking for that traditional degree experience?
BR: There are certainly multiple barriers within many types of institutions. But if it’s something that you can encourage your institution to at least pilot, there’s a great opportunity to leverage in terms of resource maximization.
We are all operating in a resource-limited environment, so we need to be creative and open to new ways of operating. So, what resources do we have available to use and leverage to provide learning content as a potential solution? We can adapt to the shift that the learner is expecting in delivery models, as we’ve seen it in alternative education providers, MOOCs, companies and CE providers themselves in today’s marketplace. People are actively looking for different ways of learning. Why aren’t institutions taking advantage of it? In my opinion, we’re not diluting the academic experience; the unbundled approach simply provides new opportunities for learning through the specialization of content. If we can leverage the expertise and content the institution already has, it becomes a win-win scenario.
Evo: What does it takes to unbundle a credit bearing program into a variety of non-credit offerings?
BR: That’s the biggest question—it’s a great idea, but how do you do it? With my previous experience at a variety of different institutions, I’m fully aware that the barriers are institution-specific at times. As adept CE leaders, you may have to navigate the political landscape of that particular situation to be successful, but you can often find allies even in a more traditionally minded institutional model. I was fortunate to be able to move this concept forward more easily at my current institution, Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), because we are open to innovation..
In my current role as director of professional and continuing education (PCE) at MUIH, we launched a new PCE division from the ground up that primarily focuses on a portfolio of online professional continuing education offerings. When you’re faced with the challenge of starting with nothing, you have to be creative in true entrepreneurial fashion. So, I asked myself, where can we begin with limited resources? I saw this unbundling approach as an opportunity and began forging partnerships with my colleagues in other academic departments. I would ask what they thought was needed in their industry and where there might be some opportunities for us to leverage content. Together, we identified relevant courses that would be easier to reshape in an unbundled model.
When “auditing” a course for an unbundling opportunity, one thing to think about is what the learning objectives are and, using Bloom’s Taxonomy, how can we rethink them in a competency-based education format. First, look at what needs to be modified and what can stay at the high level. For course audits, create a rubric with criteria for how PCE and academic programs should align to guide the process. For example, you can consider delivering content through more interactive and engaging mediums, like mini video lectures, rather than just assigning readings. For assessments, you may modify a 10-page research paper to an evaluation that’s more reflective of or appropriate for direct professional application.
You also may want to think about aligning the curriculum in a way that matches CE use for professional organizations, if that’s a target market for the course. You should evaluate the course’s key highlights and core integrity but also attempt to look at it from a learner’s perspective. Would you engage with this content? Is it interesting and useful? There is no one “right” way to go about it, but it does help to have a consistent format within your professional programs, if possible. It comes down to thinking about education holistically and creatively, which is really fun for me. I encourage those who think it’s difficult to understand that it can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it.
Now, there are some implications in terms of politics and processes, such as, will an endorsement from faculty or subject matter experts be needed? These types of details should be considered given your specific institutional context, but once you have a solid framework developed for how to unbundle a course into micro-learning opportunities, it’s much easier to take that model and replicate it with other courses.
Evo: How do you build a framework that makes scaling part of that initial conversation?
BR: I always have a vision for a course—I can see what can be utilized and how it can be transformed. There are a lot of things that you can do with technology, so capitalizing on the learning management system is really important to making the course more comprehensive and competency-based.
When scaling, you can unbundle a course and offer it in several ways. Let’s say you have a graduate course worth three credits that consists of several modules delivered over the course of 14 weeks. Each module (topic) within that one course could be broken down into a series of mini professional continuing education offerings. Each of those mini courses be “sold” individually, or as a program at a bundle discount rate.
It’s akin to a cafeteria-style learning, wherein you get to build your education like you build your own salad at a salad bar, choosing toppings based on your preferences. That’s more what people expect in the educational “shopping” experience now. Adult learners like to be able to pick and choose what’s going to benefit them, and the learning process should be easy and enjoyable.
Despite contrary belief, you can think about education in a fun way while maintaining academic integrity. You do that by leveraging the learning experience while providing meaningful content with practical assessments that will have students using what they learned. Educating professionals is not just about theory—it’s also about application and relevancy to the real world.
Evo: What are some of the revenue and financial aid implications of making this shift from credit to non-credit?
BR: I’ve seen a lot of different models since all institutions will differ from one another. We have to recognize that this is an opportunity to increase revenue by attracting new audiences in new markets. We can use unbundled content to create beneficial partnerships with employers, organizations and professional associations and boards for those in need of specialized training. In today’s fast-paced world we all need to constantly upskill, to get a better job or to change careers, or perhaps to earn CEUs to maintain professional certification/accreditation.
It’s important to think about content available to organizations where people may have significant resources, such as employer tuition assistance or training dollars. Often, professional and continuing education programs are offered at a lower price point, but if someone is paying out of pocket, we still have to think about that price and do a competitive analysis, and charge what makes sense for the offering.
From a business standpoint, I recommend taking the time to evaluate who your audience is, what you’re delivering, and price based on value while also remembering that the end goal really to reach new markets that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to your institution.
Another area of potential concern is the question of ownership—who “owns” the intellectual property of the content you wish to unbundle. That aspect will obviously have to be discussed internally at every institution given the contractual arrangements for developers and faculty. At MUIH, I’ve found ways to engage with subject matter experts and faculty, and I have created a structure that will ideally incentivize them—either through faculty service recognition or additional compensation. As a CE leader, it’s really important to build those partnerships within the institution as well to ensure you’re on the same page and all doing this for the right reason–to provide greater access to education for all.
Evo: How could you structure an unbundled credit offering in a non-credit format in terms of its delivery to students, and how could you structure the offerings more generally as a product?
BR: This is where it gets exciting because there are endless opportunities! There’s a self-paced, on-demand online format, in which people enroll whenever they want and proceed through the content at their own pace to earn their credential. This highly flexible, self-directed model is what we’re recognizing as the appeal for the shorter MOOC-style courses.
Then we have a model of mini courses that comprise an inter-related program. And again, these are modules within courses that can be unbundled so that they can be enrolled into and “sold” individually or positioned as a professional certificate, program, or master class series. The program or bundle can be then priced at a discounted if a student purchases the program versus enrolling in each of the courses individually.
At MUIH, we’ve built an online mentorship program, which is a really exciting way to combine the flexibility of the self-paced, self-directed format with an instructor-led course. At certain points where most beneficial to the learning and assessment process, you’ll have a professional faculty or mentor come in and give you that personal touchpoint of one-on-one support and feedback that truly embodies individualized learning. The one-on-one support is there when most valuable, but the student retains much flexibility to complete the course at their own pace.
For a more traditional approach, you can offer the classic instructor-led cohort model over the course of several weeks. Personally, I prefer scaling a course back to be shorter for the adult learner, no more than 8 weeks.
Membership programs can be another interesting way to have an ongoing source of revenue. People sign up for your membership program to gain access to new content or training in a recurring fashion. The membership portal could include short recorded or live webinars and resources released on an ongoing and timely basis for your audience. This is an approach to consider implementing if you have a large library of content to pull from already, or if you have the ongoing content-development resources to support the recurring membership fee investment.
Evo: How are you doing this work in professional continuing ed right now?
BR: I was brought in to MUIH for the exciting challenge of launching our re-imagined professional and continuing education division, and I’m proud of the vast portfolio we’ve been able to offer with limited resources. We’re still building and learning as we go, making quality improvements along the way. One of the first helpful things we did when I arrived was review the Quality Matters online course design standards to create a crosswalk between higher education and continuing professional education. We did a comparison of how they match up to create a learning framework for how PCE offerings compare to credit courses for the instructional design teams involved in the conversion.
I also work very closely with different faculty, subject matter experts and instructional designers to rethink the model and create course templates within our learning management system and provide them examples and templates to guide the course building process. As we piloted PCE courses, we developed guides for instructional designers to provide quality standards for adapting courses. While you don’t want to wait to get started, I suggest creating a framework for the process rather than everyone going off on their own, which causes much confusion and an inferior end product.
My best advice is to identify what we refer to as “low-hanging fruit” opportunities and to start small and build from there. At first, we offered mini courses called masterclasses, which are very targeted topics ranging from one to six hours in length and can be completed entirely online and on-demand. Now, we’re venturing into more advanced short courses, mentorship-based courses, instructor-led cohort courses and hybrid courses. I’d like to establish a membership program and certification program as well. As a very small institution and unit, we were able to deliver a robust portfolio of content, which proves it can be done by anyone. Some of our content was new, but much of our most resource-effective content has originated from the unbundling of credit-bearing courses.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of creating crosswalks from credit-based offerings to non-credit offerings?
BR: We’re still exploring the opportunity for internally transferring credit of these non-credit offerings to create stackable credentials. That’s another complex discussion, but I do think that it’s worth thinking about from the beginning, if you can. Today we’re discussing unbundling credit to non-credit, but we can also reverse that approach to attract learners to matriculate into your academic programs. Depending on the course, if you have an audience who wants to pursue that option, you should capitalize on it and create a pathway and incentives for learners to progress to an advanced degree.
As a lifelong learner myself, I find it energizing to rethink education and consider the opportunity to offer educational experiences to anyone, anywhere at any time as a privilege. As the higher ed landscape becomes increasingly competitive, it’s wise for institutions to remain nimble and adaptable, which is why unbundling credits to maximize and leverage resources to expand educational portfolios is a win-win for both institutions and learners of all ages.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Discover how digital badges create a positive experience for your learners.