Micro-Credentials: Higher Education’s Friend or Foe?

Learn why colleges & universities should be unbundling the college degree

Micro Credentialing

In the AudioSolutionz webinar “Unbundling the College Degree: How to Gain a Competitive Edge with Micro-Credentialing,” higher education consultant Charlene Talbot-Paul explains that the idea behind micro-credentials isn’t to devalue your school’s traditional degree programs, but to instead open up an untapped opportunity. And she provides a roadmap to help you develop a micro-credentialing program using the resources you already have.

The landscape of higher education is constantly changing. There has been much debate on the continued significance of bachelor’s degree, some claim that it will eventually become obsolete, others say that it will continue to be the cornerstone of academic achievement. Fueling this debate is the skills gap. “Google reports it has thousands of jobs to fill given a dearth of qualified applicants”. More and more employers are stating that job candidates entering the workforce with a college degree are not prepared to succeed in the workplace. Degreed candidates are lacking critical technical and soft skills needed and as a result, many employers are searching for alternative ways for candidates to demonstrate their ability to perform on the job. In a recent survey of human resource managers covering a myriad of industries, 95% indicated an interest in evidence-based demonstration of skills mastery by the potential hire. That evidence of mastery can be ascertained in the form of micro-credentials.

What are micro-credentials?  Connecting Credentials defines a credential “documented award by a responsible and authorized body that attests that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes or attained a defined level of knowledge or skill relative to a given standard”. Credentials includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and professional/industry certifications. Micro-credentials are visual representation of knowledge and skills earned over time in a specific area of study, such as team building or coding. The most popular forms of micro-credentials include digital portfolios, badges, nano-degrees, and micro certifications.

There are many flavors of micro-credentials being offered by a variety of organizations, including employers, training providers, industry associations. Alison.com and Portfolium are examples of micro-credential platform. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers like Udacity, Coursera and edX offer short courses designed by colleges and universities. DigitalPromise.org offers micro-credentials specifically for educators in the K-12 and higher education space. For micro-credentials to have any real relevance they must be developed within a framework that requires focus on competency. The competency must be learnable, measurable, relevant and portable. The individual seeking the micro-credential must be required to submit evidence of mastery of that competency. The rubric utilized to measure that competency must be rigorous, research-based and meet industry-wide standards. It is only when these requirements are met that a micro-credential can hold any value.

The real value in micro-credentials is their portability.

Unfortunately a micro-credential may lose its value, simply because it is not recognized in other environments. The real value in micro-credentials is their portability. Portability indicates that the “credential has value locally, nationally and internationally in labor markets, education systems, and/or other environments”. In higher education a university degree from an accredited institution has portability. It makes sense then for colleges and universities to leverage this and embrace micro-credentials. In fact the ideal scenario would be micro-credentials that are developed in conjunction with industry and higher education. This way the micro-credential is designed within a balanced framework. It is within this context that micro-credentials allow employers to evaluate a job candidate against his or her peers, and identify new hires based on industry specific credentials. Will micro-credentials become the new workforce currency? Micro-credentials can potentially represent the next version of the college transcript, as they offer a more streamlined process for evaluating an individual’s competencies and are quickly becoming a valuable metric for employers sourcing talent.

Micro-credentials can potentially represent the next version of the college transcript

Micro-credentials present a valuable opportunity for colleges and universities. By incorporating micro-credentials in classroom, colleges and universities can significantly improve their graduates’ ability to demonstrate competencies in the emerging evidence-based workplace. This radical non-traditional approach is not entirely new to higher education, yet it is still not a widely accepted pathway at colleges and universities. In 2015 Penn State’s Smeal College of Business launched their ‘Supply Chain Leadership Academy’, an online boot camp type course designed to educate “supply chain leaders of tomorrow in leadership and best practices in holistic supply chain management”. Udacity also introduced the nanodegree which is ‘curriculums designed to help you become job-ready’. Micro-credentials open up a whole new segment of college bound students for colleges and universities, non-traditionals. Non-traditionals are students seeking alternative and flexible pathways to earning a college degree, they are not on the traditional 4 to 6 year plan that students fresh out of high school typically pursue. Non-traditionals want to enter the workforce, gain some experience, earn a credential, and may be get a degree while still maintaining their place in the workforce. Their path to degree completion looks like a wiggly line and not a straight line; and for them that’s perfect.

Most employers are receptive to micro-credentials

While there are some in the higher education community that classify micro-credentials as disruptive. I believe they represent an opportunity to bridge the skills gap, whether real or perceived. Most employers are receptive to micro-credentials. Yes there are college graduates who lack the competencies that employers are seeking, however there are just as many who possess those skills but they are unable to present them in the currency employers are looking for. Colleges and universities can leverage micro-credentials to enhance their programs and enable their graduates to demonstrate their competency to employers and better prepare graduates for the workforce.

Micro-credentials work extremely well with the career pathway approach by linking education, training, and credentials to augment the progress of all types of learners, particularly non-traditional learners. Learners earn marketable credentials, with the option to pursue further education and employment; and employers are able to meet their workforce needs.

Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission of the author. In her AudioSolutionz webinar, Talbot-Paul teaches attendees to not only identify the potential challenges of unbundling existing degrees but to overcome them and effectively build micro-credentialing into existing (and future) programs.

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Charlene Talbot-Paul
About Charlene Talbot-Paul
Charlene Talbot-Paul has more than 12 years of experience in higher education, with leadership positions focused primarily on nontraditional students. As director of Business Development at the American Council on Education, she led the international expansion of the CREDIT program to increase postsecondary educational attainment through higher education innovations such as Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs), competency-based education, and alternative credentialing.