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3 Keys to Making Microcredentials Valid for Learners, Schools, and Employers

To give credentials value in the workplace, the learning behind them must be sticky, visible, and scalable.

The landscape of higher education is evolving. Increasingly, learners are demanding more flexible options, lower costs, and value in the form of jobs or advancement opportunities. As a result, more microcredentialing programs are popping up through organizations outside of traditional higher education institutions, as well as from two- and four-year colleges and universities. This has led to a substantial increase in overall competition for students who are interested in those programs.

None of these credentials, however, will be successful without answering the question of validity. Are the microcredentials offered credible and valuable in the marketplace, both to the learner and to the employer or institution? To answer this question, educational providers who seek to institute microcredentialing programs — and the learners that seek them out — need a framework for evaluating the quality of those programs to ensure that they are worth their time and effort. Here are three key factors of that framework.

1) Demonstrating that the Learning Experience is "Sticky"

First, in order to show their validity, microcredentialing programs need to show that learners are able to retain and apply the knowledge they worked to gain during those sessions. If learners are just passively consuming content, ultimately, they won't absorb what they need in order to move on to a new job or to a more advanced course. It doesn't matter how many buzzwords the course throws in, including concepts like "bite-sized learning" or fast turnaround; learners need to be able to actively master the knowledge and skills presented in the course.

To promote "stickiness," institutions that provide instructional materials for bite-sized learning should answer the following questions:

Will students have an immersive, authentic learning experience that helps them engage with content in a way that helps them achieve their goals, not just passively sit through lectures or videos?

According to Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, colleges of the future will be defined not by the number of people they keep out, but by the number of people they can let in while still delivering a quality experience. Colleges can incorporate simulations into microcredentialing programs to provide learners the opportunity to role-play in real-world scenarios not only for better student engagement but also greater retention, recall and transference of knowledge and skills.

Is shorter really better?

As the name implies, microcredentialing programs are often shorter than traditional college courses and university certificate programs. But simply cutting up an existing long course into smaller chunks without being mindful of the pedagogy behind an immersive, skills-based program isn't an improvement. Skills-based training is the hot new trend, but if those "chunked" learning experiences look exactly like what was delivered in the past, they won't be sticky. As Matt Towers points out in his weekly newsletter, "I'm told that shorter is better … I'm just wondering if shorter means sort of better for the sales process, not better for the outcome. I'm unconvinced that bite-size learning is actually more effective, it's just more salable."

How will learners display that they have mastered skills and have received genuine value from the course?

If a microcredential is to have value, the employer or institution must be able to verify that the learner has actually acquired knowledge or skills, not simply completed the lessons and received an overall passing grade.

2) Making the Learning Visible

For microcredentials to be valid, providers and employers must have a common language of skills across courses. The skills students are mastering should be interoperable and machine-readable so they can be used across the learn/work ecosystem. Groups such as the Open Skills Network and Credential Engine are working to solve this challenge. In the meantime, using clear language that actively identifies what learners have absorbed from content helps to create a shared context for employers and prospective employees.

One way to literally make the learning visible is a trusted system of microcredentials and badges. These credentials need to be readily transferable and easy to verify. Currently, there is a hodgepodge of courseware solutions, learning options, and badging systems. Platforms like 2U and Udemy are recognizable, but microcredentials are not granted from all courses. Furthermore, those microcredentials come directly from content or course providers, rather than being listed as part of a clear set of common skills and expectations.

3) Scalability

To meet Pulsipher's goal of letting in the maximum number of people while still offering a quality experience, microcredentials must be scalable in both delivery and assessment. Assessing the application of skills by hand is a time-consuming process. Simulation-based skills assessments help address this issue by providing learners with authentic assessment opportunities that can be autograded.

For skills-based assessments to successfully become automated, providers need to begin by identifying the ways people who have mastered those skills will actually solve the problems. To make microcredentialing scalable, the same skills need to be assessed across platforms and across industries. Many skills are transferable, but if learners are not able to demonstrate their skills, they may have a hard time clearly establishing what they have gained from their work.

Microcredentialing addresses many of the problems associated with modern learning programs. As increasing numbers of students look for ways to advance their skills through these programs, it is increasingly necessary for a system to be put in place that addresses any potential inconsistencies in the learning and credentialing process. This will give students a clear standard that establishes what they have learned and how they can apply it on the job.

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