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Micro-Credentials Offer Universities an Opportunity to Bridge Skill Gaps

By working with employers, universities can help students of all ages learn skills that industry leaders need.

Higher education leaders are pondering how to make bite-sized, low-cost learning opportunities available to students in different ways.

Working adults who change jobs and careers frequently often don't need to go through an entire degree program to learn different skills. However, they do need a flexible way to earn credentials that are recognized by employers and that demonstrate their ability to apply the skills they learn, said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at University of Wisconsin-Extension. University micro-credentials can help fill that role.

Six universities have been working with employers to find out what skills they need their employees to have, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California Davis Extension, University of California Irvine Extension, University of Wisconsin-Extension, University of Washington and University of California, Los Angeles.

As a result of collaborating with industry, these universities created short courses and certification programs for the University Learning Store that launched last week. These courses fall into three categories: power skills, technical skills and career advancement skills. Power skills used to be called "soft skills" and include communication, collaboration and critical thinking. 

"What we heard uniformly, regardless of the industry, is that employers need individuals who have really strong power skills," Schejbal said.

These competency-based, self-paced online courses cost between $50 and $150 and include two assessments that reveal whether students can apply what they learned. When students complete a course, they earn a downloadable micro-credential from the institution. By taking a sequence of three courses, students can earn certifications in business communications and global business communication.

While the University of Wisconsin-Extension has been offering alternative credentials for years, it joined forces with other universities to provide learning opportunities for students across the country, Schejbal said. With six institutions in the store, students can select the classes that work best for them.

"The goal here is to allow consumers to really customize the shopping experience as much as possible so they can meet their own individual needs," Schejbal said. 

Micro-credentials could meet a need for working adults who already have college degrees, while also helping motivate current students who are trying to finish an associate or bachelor's degree, said Carey Hatch, associate provost for academic technologies and information services at the State University of New York (SUNY). Since the fall, the 64-campus system has been gathering information on micro-credentials and learning from a digital badging program that started this summer at Stony Brook University's School of Professional Development. 

A taskforce made up of the campus community is working to determine ways to put micro-credentials in place. Similarly, a group of industry representatives is sharing what its members want to see. Then SUNY will mesh the work of those two groups together into a micro-credential initiative that provides relevant programs for students, said Hatch.

SUNY is currently asking industry partners what they expect future employees to learn. Then it'll identify where current programs offer those competencies and figure out how to certify students in those areas, which could happen in face-to-face, blended or online formats.

"We're the largest comprehensive system in the country, and if we're going to look at this, we want to make sure that it's done with quality and that it's done in conjunction with our mission and the culture of our campuses," Hatch said.

The micro-credential initiative ties into SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's goal of increasing the number of degrees that campuses award each year from 93,000 to 150,000 by 2020, which means scaling up programs that help students succeed. While micro-credentials won't change those degree numbers, they could help students stay motivated and engaged on their way to a degree, Hatch said.

More than 400,000 students in the system constantly rotate between community and four-year colleges as they work and take care of their families. If students can earn micro-credentials in between their associate and bachelor's degrees, they will see that they're making progress and have a small reward for their efforts that will help keep them motivated. 

Likewise, this strategy could help students who took a few college classes, but then left higher education to work full time. The idea of earning a micro-credential may seem less daunting than going back to school for a full degree. 

"SUNY's a microcosm of higher ed on the whole, and the way that we're approaching this, I think will set a standard across the higher ed landscape," Hatch said.