Universities are recognizing that learning doesn't always have to be packaged into multi-year chunks. It can also be broken up into less than 30-hour pieces, priced and awarded accordingly.
Enter micro-credentials: short, low-cost online courses that result in digital badges when learners complete one of them and certificates when they complete a series. Colleges are taking advantage of a business opportunity and an education need as they experiment with new learning concepts that help today's workforce.
During the Great Recession in the 2000s, many businesses stopped providing extensive training and continuing education internally for their employees. "For higher ed, that's an opportunity to really provide those services to students so they can continue to build their professional portfolios," said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Universities can use their prestige, teaching and assessment skills to help employees continue their education at a price point and time investment that makes sense for them in their careers. That's what the University of Wisconsin-Extension and five other universities have done with The Learning Store, which started posting courses in 2016. Students can buy courses and take an assessment to earn a badge for $25-$150 with a three- to 30-hour investment. The University of Washington Continuum College and Georgia Institute of Technology are offering the micro-credentials along with the University of Wisconsin-Extension on the platform. This project has a startup mentality, and like a startup, the universities aren't making any money for now.
While micro-credentials have become more popular, they still have some issues that universities need to work through. For example, who decides what skills and knowledge students will gain in micro-credentials, and how can they be compared across institutions? That's something the Lumina Foundation, the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and the Center for Law and Social Policy have been working on in the Right Signals initiative. The foundation commissioned a beta credentials framework that 20 community colleges in 15 states are testing, and it's based on competencies — what students can know and do after they complete the credential. This framework has the potential to allow employers, colleges and learners to accurately compare credentials so they can see how valuable they are.
Lifelong learning is now expected not just in retirement, but throughout an employee's career, Schejbal said. For those who already have a two- or four-year degree, they may just need to brush up on some skills or learn some new ones in a short amount of time to advance in their career. For others who can't afford a full degree, they may be able to afford a short period of learning focused on specific skills they can use to get a new job or advance in their current job. The most popular micro-credentials in The Learning Store are ones on finding a startup or small business job, mapping the business supply chain and emails that work in the digital age.
"Students really need to engage in learning over a lifetime in fits and starts, and many of those fits and starts neither require say a four-year commitment or even a two-year commitment, nor is that warranted," Schejbal said.
University of Wisconsin-Extension is taking advantage of this educational need by mapping complementary pathways between micro-credentials, two-year degrees and four-year degrees so that employees can start on whatever end they need and jump back and forth between types of learning throughout their career. For example, students who finished the university's bachelor of science in health information management and technology could take a micro-credential to study for their annual professional exam on the privacy and security provisions in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Similarly, students who take enough micro-credentials in business administration topics including project management, supply chain management and writing could convert them into credit and transfer it into a bachelor's degree in business administration at the university. These types of use cases are what the university's working on now.
While the university started this project to provide more education access to U.S. students, it's also helping students internationally, as are other micro-credential projects. A business English coach from Morocco has taken courses from University of Wisconsin-Extension as well as other universities to brush up his skills. Yassine El Maifi trains IT collaborators and managers how to communicate with others over the phone, write effective emails, and make presentations in English. They need to learn English to be able to talk with customers from all over the world.
Micro-credentials and massively open online courses help El Maifi continue learning ways to improve his teaching at a more affordable price than typical university programs — and when he has time to go through them. "This micro-credential provides me an opportunity to do more self-paced work."
While experienced workers do need to level up on their skills, they don't seem to be looking for badges or micro-credentials to show their employers, wrote online learning consultant Michael Feldstein in a blog post. Rather, students who need more than a high school degree, but less than a bachelor's degree to get a job will likely drive the need for micro-credentials moving forward.