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In Evolving World of Microcredentials, Students, Colleges and Employers Want Different Things

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jan 23, 2018

Jeff Young, Sean Gallagher, and Nicola Soares discuss future of microcredentials

Many colleges these days are experimenting with short-form online degrees to try to reach new audiences and offer new options, often at a lower cost. And new upstart providers are also getting into the mix, including coding bootcamps and startups like Udacity, which offers unaccredited nanodegrees. These trends raise a host of questions about the future of credentialing.

To explore some of these questions, EdSurge recently held an hour-long video forum featuring two guests:

  • Sean Gallagher, the founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and author of the book, The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring.
  • Nicola Soares, vice president and managing director for Kelly Educational Staffing at Kelly Services, who has her finger on the pulse of employment and hiring trends.

Read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity). You can listen to a version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or watch the complete conversation. The event was part of our EdSurge Live series.

One of the biggest things that any new microcredential program needs is for employers to accept them. In IT fields there has been an appetite for alternative credentials, but how much will employers outside of tech warm to these?

Nicola Soares: It definitely depends on the industry. If you look at an industry like healthcare, there's obviously very regulated sort of needs on credentialing and certain types of skills that are in demand. But outside of disciplines like healthcare we are starting to see employers sort of embracing microcredentials or nontraditional kinds of certifications.

Certainly within the education space we're starting to see the credentialing criteria loosening up a little bit, so maybe [programs require] less hours or there might be a nontraditional undergrad degree that could [count toward professional requirements], depending on the state.

We anticipate in the future that we'll see these become more commonplace and more accepted.

Sean, in many of the alternative credentials that colleges are experimenting with, programs work more directly with major employers on things like capstone projects. But it can be a kind of third rail topic for a lot of traditional professors because there's a lot of skepticism and concern that colleges could become overly vocational. Could you talk a little bit about that tension?

Sean Gallagher: I would put the microcredentialing trend as a major sub-theme within a broader conversation about job outcomes and competency-based education. Virtually all of the microcredentials that have been launched and offered—and where the enrollments are and where companies appear most interested—are oriented toward professional and technical skills and disciplines. But whether it's supply-chain management or some aspect of business, or even teaching, it’s about [practical skills] rather than [theory.] You see platforms like edX, Coursera and Udacity working with employers who are focused on jobs skills and demands that are out there in the external market, and then going to their university or college partners and really designing to that.

We have a question from a viewer. Should microcredentials be able to stand on their own or should they be embedded in a degree?

Sean Gallagher: Microcredentials are positioned in the media and by government leaders as disruptors of the degree and things that will replace the degree—sort of the anti-degree in many ways. I think there's merits to that in the sense that they're shorter, they're more targeted, and they tend to be much less expensive, sometimes even free.

And so, in a world where degrees are seen as a costly proposition and there’s lot of concern about debt and educational attainment, these microcredentials are the potential solution. But more often their impact is they help people in job promotion, as an added benefit for a candidate or professional where okay, you might have your bachelor's already or an associate degree or nothing, and this shows that you're gaining some new skills and competencies and it helps you advance.

Soares: I agree with that in terms of the jury being out. And I definitely agree with the point that there’s a faster rate of adoption [for microcredentials by] workers who are already in the job market.

From an employer's perspective in terms of having it funded by employers, we definitely see that in more-traditional employment settings.

Gallagher: You can make the argument that as employer support for traditional degree funding —sending people to grad school or helping them complete an online bachelor's etc—has declined modestly, there's subsequently a pretty significant interest among employers in providing employees with microcredentials which are quicker less expensive and more targeted to what they need.

There's always been a tension: The employer has always wanted to fund the thing that's most directly relevant to their business—the profit-oriented, the thing that's least expensive and is going to generate a return, versus the employee who needs a mobile credential so they can take it with them throughout their career to the next employer.

That's an interesting dynamic where so much of this is at this intersection of not just higher ed or post-secondary education world, but it's also what's happening in terms of employer training. There's a lot more competition and the boundaries between academic credit and noncredit training are blurring.

Soares: Part of that is about executive leadership development—to be able to offer microcredential kinds of experiences not just based on the hard skills required to function in the job, but also for the softer skills too. I think about emotional intelligence.

We have a final audience question, from Cali Morrison, with American Public University System: How will institutions accept outside learning? We've been doing that for the last 40 years—with Prior Learning Assessment and with ACE credit recommendations. So how do you see this as different?

Gallagher: What we're talking about here is how does the market drive things? Do institutions become forced to accept and recognize [more] outside credit?

The idea behind competency-based education is that you have certain skills and knowledge that you can document and compare to a formal credential or a formal educational program, and now we have many different inputs into that. Some of it is going to come from military training, or on-the-job training, or a community college, or you can do it online through a MOOC, a formal for credit course, a master's degree credit course or something else. You're going to get individuals learning from different sources, but how is it assessed and endorsed and standardized? And then, what will it roll into as a credential? In many regions an institution cannot historically accept more than a quarter of the credit toward a graduate degree from the outside, and so that becomes a limitation.

These are existential questions, I think. I like to consider myself an optimist, but what you flag is one of the big barriers and questions, especially for very elite institutions, or if you're an institution that's not thoughtful about assessment, outcomes orientation, or your online education approach. 

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