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Degree Pathways

Building a Microcredential Program Framework to Meet the Needs of a Changing Academic Landscape

From curriculum to technology concerns, consider these essentials for creating alternative education opportunities at your institution.

Call them badges, short courses, certificates, microcredentials or nanodegrees, but no matter the name, these short, focused academic programs are a higher education hot topic. Just as learners are looking to reskill or upskill in the face of the changing employment market, institutions are looking for new education pathways to counteract shrinking traditional enrollment numbers. Short microcredential programs allow students to gain new skills without committing to a full degree program and they are an avenue for institutions looking to increase enrollment, boost revenue, and most importantly meet the needs of today's learner.

Forging New Pathways

We know that higher education is struggling with both enrollment and retention despite some good signs in this year's initial reporting numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse. Microcredential programs can provide an avenue for learners considering dropping out by offering flexible short-term credits to prepare for a new career or upskill an existing one.

The pandemic taught institutions many things: how to pivot to emergency remote instruction; that students need additional support services; how to work, learn, and teach from home; and that students prefer shorter educational opportunities. During the pandemic, when folks were stuck at home and the economy was turned upside down, 61% of Americans who pursued reskilling or upskilling options did so through these non-degree and skills training programs.

With a continued shift in the delivery of learning, microcredentials offer a unique, flexible way for students to access learning and allow institutions to more rapidly pivot their business model to respond and create in-demand, career-focused courses within a community. Today, these micro-programs range from professional development for nurses and engineers, to coding boot camps, teacher preparation programs, and even how to become a notary.

Building a Microcredential Ecosystem

With microcredentials or certificates, students don't have to commit to a long duration of study or enrollment and the programs are often geared toward the learner with workforce needs in mind. For some learners, microcredential programs provide an easy entry point to online courses where they have been reluctant to sign up due to the uncertainty of the teaching delivery and format. And micro degrees or certificates give quick recognition of learning and skills achieved that are sometimes lacking in more traditional programs.  

As higher education institutions decide to embark on building microcredential programs, there are some guiding questions that will allow the institution to define the objectives of the ecosystem, establish clear benchmarked outcomes, and determine the skills and competencies the program aims to assess:

  • What is the market need for this program? Is there a student or community demand?
  • What are your outcomes — what do you want the learners to achieve once they finish?
  • Is anyone else already in this space? If so, how is your program going to be different?
  • How are you going to maintain quality? Who will teach the program? Who will oversee it? How will you assess the success?
  • What modality will you offer the program? Will it be face-to-face, hybrid, online, or flexible?

Having the curriculum and idea for a program is only the first step in developing microcredential programs; there are also significant technology considerations. First, choosing the right platform to facilitate the microcredential program is critical. Whether using a learning management system (LMS), a digital badging and credentialing platform, or a solution that offers both, the chosen platform is essential for delivering online courses and assessments, tracking student progress, and awarding certificates.

In addition, most schools' registration and student information systems (SIS), including achievement and academic planning, are aligned around standard term lengths such as quarters or semesters. When creating a microcredentialing program, the institution will need to determine if the SIS and other critical systems are flexible enough to accommodate variable terms, to ensure that the students can register and be awarded credits.

Once the awarding and registration systems are in place, institutions should also integrate with a modern CRM solution to attract and manage student interest, support, and personalized communications to increase enrollment and engagement. The CRM needs to support career services and other experiential learning departments as the school looks to build outside relationships with organizations and industry partners to provide real-world learning experiences and assessment opportunities for students.

Like other innovations and initiatives, a microcredential ecosystem should not be a set-it-and-forget-it approach. The key is to evaluate and refine with all stakeholders, particularly the students, faculty and established workforce partners to ensure students are getting the delivered value and credentials for real-world experiences. 

About the Author

Justin Louder is associate vice president, Academic Innovation at Anthology.

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