The global workforce is changing, constantly evolving to demand new skills and competencies from its current and future workers. More and more higher-ed institutions are creating microcredential programs to outfit learners of all ages and backgrounds with validated and evidence-based proof of learning and skills.
Microcredentials have applications in myriad areas–for remote learning, in efforts to upskill and reskill employees, for adult learners returning to higher education, and more.
Microcredentials are bite-sized educational courses with a more specific focus. They could take months or weeks to complete. Because of their convenience, microcredentials appeal to employees looking for a highly personalized, flexible, and cost-effective way to further their education.
Here’s how two institutions are leveraging their microcredential programs to help students with different goals, personal responsibilities, and professional obligations further their education.
University of Maine System
The University of Maine System’s (UMS) microcredentials comprise stacked digital badges, which offer evidence of learning and highlight the skills employers are seeking. Microcredential pathways at UMS lead learners through different levels to demonstrate learning and skill mastery.
Level 1 badges offer topic introductions and foundational work. Level 2 badges provide rigorous training with competency assessment, aligned standards, and skills practice. Level 3 focuses on application and feedback through work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, experiential learning, and competency assessment. When learners earn all three badge levels, they’ve earned a UMS Microcredential.
The program focuses on workforce development–how to skill and reskill and bring more adults into higher education.
One thing UMS has made sure to avoid is issuing participation badges. “We wanted these to be rigorous, so an employer can look at it and know a candidate has had some rigorous training,” said Claire Sullivan, PhD, assistant vice chancellor for Innovation in Digital Badges and Microcredentials with UMS.
Sullivan said one thing the university system has made sure to avoid is issuing participation badges. “We wanted these to be rigorous, so an employer can look at it and know a candidate has had some rigorous training.”
The microcredential program has had the biggest impact on adult learners and underserved learners,” Sullivan said. “We have adult learners with some college and no degree–we’d like to get them more comfortable with higher education again, bring them back in incremental ways. Getting them comfortable with small amounts of learning and stacking those into something they can apply to earning certificates or degrees.”
Adult learners are key, and so is engaging younger students and opening their eyes to potential careers.
“I do think we can do much more for our adult and underserved learners. I also see a big pipeline into higher education for youth. Not only just to get them interested and more aspirational, [but] to think about the things they’re interested in for careers, to understand what the potentials are for different careers. Lots of young people don’t know what they CAN do.”
For other institutions seeking to develop similar programs, Sullivan emphasizes understanding their “why.”
“Why are you setting out to do this? A new revenue stream? To educate the citizens of your state or beyond? What are your goals for it?”
Developing relationships with a variety of stakeholders will be essential in actually implementing a microcredential program, and working with people who are excited about the idea will help move the initiative forward, she added.
Starting with pilots is smart, she said, because microcredential programs are always evolving. “Start with pilots, see what works well, and always adapt,” Sullivan said. “Have some kind of feedback mechanism where you can continue to change and adapt as needed. There will always be new skills needed in today’s world. Skillsets are exponentially growing, and others are falling to the wayside. Knowing your top priority areas for skill-building is another key.”
Pima Community College
At Pima Community College, creating better outcomes for adult learners is a top priority. PCC was already focusing heavily on workforce development and skills-based hiring before the pandemic, in recognition that higher-ed outcomes are disproportionately misaligned to the needs of the workforce, said Ian Roark, vice president of Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships at PCC.