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Leveraging Microcredentials to Drive Responsiveness and Engagement

Microcredential programs are helping modern universities establish a new value proposition for learners and employers alike, but scaling these offerings requires a new approach to operational management and learner engagement.
Microcredential programs are helping modern universities establish a new value proposition for learners and employers alike, but scaling these offerings requires a new approach to operational management and learner engagement.

Microcredential programs have exploded in recent years, with a wide range of colleges, universities and education providers using this model to deliver shorter, outcome-oriented offerings to new demographics of learners. In this interview, Kristin Mulligan shares her thoughts on the opportunities microcredentials present and the misconceptions holding them back. She also reflects on how this model is forcing changes to higher education’s status quo—both in terms of programming and operational management.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the industry trends that have influenced the development of microcredentials as a deliverable?

Kristin Mulligan (KM): One of the most significant trends we have been seeing are talent shortages and skills gaps. Microcredentials have been important to create upskilling and reskilling opportunities that enable people to find employment, transition careers or move up within a career. Microcredentials are hyperfocused on developing a specific set of skills and competencies that address the gaps industry is seeing. They position us–the educational institutions—to provide training that is timely and relevant.

Evo: What is the difference between microcredentials as they’re structured today and the certificates higher education institutions have been issuing for decades?

KM: The traditional learning certificates that postsecondary institutions have been creating and delivering for years are typically for-credit programs that may take a year or more to complete. What we are seeing now coming into the market now are shorter, more flexible non-credit microcredentials that may stack or ladder into more traditional certificates, diplomas and degrees.

We’re seeing microcredentials being viewed through the lens of transferability, which is to say we’re looking more closely at how we can create pathways between non-credit and credit education.

Evo: Why are higher education institutions so much more open to bridging non-credit and degree-bearing programming today?

KM: Some of that shift is coming from the learner and recognition of the need for lifelong learning. To support lifelong learning, pathways need to be in place for a learner to bring together all of their education in a meaningful way, filling skills gaps with microcredentials, then moving seamlessly in and out of more traditional types of learning.

Employers are playing a role here too. They are asking what skills their employees can learn after completing microcredentials accessed through training and tuition-reimbursed education. The employer does not want the learning to stop there and neither does the learner. So, it is really on us, as the higher education providers, to maximize those pathways for employees.

Evo: What are some of the most common misconceptions other higher education leaders tend to hold about microcredentials?

KM: There is a misconception that microcredentials will compete with or replace degrees. They will not—they are a compliment to degrees. Microcredentials are filling in market gaps and are providing quick opportunities to develop targeted skills that will also feed into more traditional learning.

Another misconception is the level of quality. In Canada, non-credit microcredentials are not standardized; they do not have the same accreditation process that degrees have. However, many micro-credentials are being created in partnership with faculty and industry experts and follow institutional quality assurance processes to create high-quality offerings.

And finally, some may say that microcredentials are a fad because they have been so explosive of late. Across Canada, we are seeing significant investment from provincial governments in microcredentials. The microcredential trend is not a fad; they are here to stay for the long run.

Evo: How are you creating bridges between traditional institutional processes and the demand for customer-oriented flexibility that microcredentialing requires?

KM: That is a great question. It requires a reimagining of institutional processes to be nimble, agile and develop microcredentials and microcourses in response to current market needs. PowerED™ by Athabasca University has developed microcredentials in as few as six to eight weeks. It is such a compressed timeframe that really does not fit into typical institutional processes.

What we have done to deliver on this at Athabasca University and specifically within PowerED™ is looking for opportunities to repackage and repurpose. Is there content that already exists within the institution that we can modularize and pull into a microcredential? Are there opportunities to license from other institutions that might be developing something similar? That really helps save the time and money we need to quickly build a catalog of offerings that address immediate market needs.

If we are looking to create new content, then thinking about how we partner with industry and faculty experts to co-construct it has been important for us. Thinking about rapid development and pulling agile principles into course design and production has been beneficial for PowerED™.

And finally, building out an infrastructure and a network of partners that then enable us to scale up or down, depending on opportunities and trends, has been crucial.

Evo: As microcredentialing starts to expand outside PowerED™ while you’re developing these partnerships with faculty, is there greater buy-in to the need to be responsive to market demands than there may have been in the traditional academy, say, 15 or 20 years ago?

KM: Faculties can see the value of partnering with internal units like PowerED™ that can serve as a driver for new course development on which faculty can build and implement into their own programming.

There is a mutually beneficial partnership between PowerED™ and our faculties to be responsive and develop this content that then can be used in additional programs beyond the microcredentials they were initially being created for.

Evo: How can colleges and universities leverage microcredentials to craft more meaningful lifelong learning pathways for students?

KM: Of course stacking is critical, as we discussed earlier. Stacking into larger credentials, then laddering into diplomas or degrees. In Europe, they are embedding those microcredentials within the broader degree.

Learners can also take microcredentials to try something new. Someone can dip their toe into the water of something that may be completely outside their typical skillset. Microcredentials serve as a lower-risk investment, and they are appealing for those interested in a career change, allowing them to try out something different before fully committing to longer-term studies.

There are also community-building opportunities through microcredentials. Institutions can leverage microcredentials to get learners excited to return for more learning. PowerED™ has developed microcredentials specifically designed to re-engage our learners, reconnect with them and craft a tailored learning experience just for them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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