Considering Your “Why”- How Developing a Microcredential Strategy Will Help Your Students (and Your University) Thrive
Published by: WCET | 5/26/2022
The WCET Steering Committee work group focused on Credentials is kicking of a blog series sharing good practices and lessons learned with microcredential initiatives. The blogs will explore various topics related to microcredential adoption, implementation, and evaluation. The blogs feature WCET members who have generously shared their stories.
We hope you enjoy the first post authored by WCET Steering Committee Members, Gloria Niles and Krysia Lazarewicz.
– Megan Raymond, WCET
When considering whether a microcredential strategy is right for your university, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. When your strategy is a wild success, what will be different for your learners and for your university? What will you measure, observe, or be able to report that highlights the ways that microcredentials have added to your overall impact as an institution? And perhaps most importantly, what will students say when asked how they have been impacted?
We were able to interview a variety of leaders who are in various stages of implementing a microcredential strategy, and there are a few key themes that we identified as critical to laying a strong foundation. Regardless of purpose, scale, or audience, here are three priorities that you may want to consider as you plan.
There are many noble reasons to experiment with microcredentials, but how will you know if your work is delivering on the promise? The answer is to think with the end in mind and to create detailed metrics that will enable you to see how your progress is impacting your priorities. Almost ubiquitously, there are two driving reasons for institutions to implement microcredentials: to improve student recruitment and retention metrics and to align learning with shorter-term outcomes that can more immediately align with career progression.
From a student recruitment perspective, microcredentials are seen as a way to lower the barriers to entry for learners who may be hesitant to commit financially to a full degree, or who may not yet have the confidence to believe that they can successfully complete an entire degree. Creating shorter-term pathways that serve as on-ramps may be a solution, and some of our interviewees cited this as the primary driver for the strategy. If this aligns with your goals, some helpful metrics to consider could include surveying your non-completers to see if they would engage with a microcredential, measuring how many learners you can save from the dreaded melt period, and increasing the number of returning adults with some college, no degree who view microcredentials as a means of career advancement or retooling for a career change.
Institutions also hypothesize that microcredentials can ‘gamify’ the degree path, rewarding and encouraging learners for leveling-up or making it through a particularly challenging sequence. By adding shorter-term badges, learners can celebrate progress more consistently and maintain a higher motivation to continue. If this is your goal, then consider how you measure retention metrics and how you will determine the specific intervention that made an impact. Some examples may include term-to-term continuing registration counts, course completion rates, and total number of credential completers.
Interestingly, microcredentials may also offer another way to improve completion rate metrics. Some institutions are hopeful that, by bundling courses together into a microcredential or by breaking learning outcomes into logical bundles, they will be able to encourage completion at a higher rate than measuring purely on degree completion alone. Learners who cannot commit to a full degree may find confidence in completing smaller units, intentionally starting and stopping at more comfortable intervals. If these are planned, then each can be considered a completion, rather than a failure to earn the full degree. This is especially important if your credentials are credit-worthy and apply toward these degree pathways.
Lastly, there is a desire to connect employment pathways and career advancement with specific learning pathways. For this strategy to be successful, it’s imperative that an institution identifies how they will measure the outcomes of these efforts, both for tracking learner career advancement as well as employer adoption of a credential. These are very complex to achieve, and none of our interviewees said that they had this figured out completely at scale. The recommendations focused on starting local–find an employer who has well-defined needs from a skills perspective, and then use that framework to extend to others in the region.
Another point that our interviewees agreed upon was that planning and aligning are critical components of a microcredential strategy. Through this work, the why becomes more clear. What type of alternative credentialling are you implementing (credit bearing, non-credit, stackable, etc.), how will they work, and how will you know that learners have successfully completed the pathway? Without these key definitions, your measurements will be inconsistent and challenging to interpret. Start by developing resources to share with learners, faculty, administration, and community partners that clarify key definitions, how different concepts stack together, and what is earned upon completion. Ideally you can also show how these concepts will impact the outcomes you are looking to achieve and give clarity to the measurements that will be used to determine success.
It seems ubiquitous that one of the primary ‘why’s’ for microcredentials is some thesis on what new innovation might help learners to experience more success in both the short and long term. It’s worth noting that the way different institutions define that success is anything but consistent; examples range across a myriad of pillars such as confidence, skills development, lifelong learning as a mindset, career advancement, differentiation in the workplace, credit toward a degree, affordability, inclusion, and access. One especially clear example of this is reflected in a quote from the Dean’s Message at Post University:
At the root of your why should be definitions and metrics that are authentic to the overall strategy and mission of your institution. There may be some very practical measurements that have to be obtained in order to practically keep your initiative moving, so considering things like enrollments, revenue, and growth rates over time will likely be one component of your why. Additionally, though, there must be a focus on showing the outcomes driven by that growth–how is your institution preparing for a future where microcredentials shape a new collaboration between learning and working.