Starting at the Beginning – The inception phase of microcredential efforts
Published by: Lindsey Downs | 8/18/2022
Welcome to the continuation of the WCET + WCET Steering work group series focused on microcredential initiatives. This series explores microcredential adoption, implementation, and evaluation. Previously, the series has reviewed the importance of understanding the strategic goals of microcredential projects and the value that clarity of terms plays in an emergent area.
With today’s post, from Gary Chinn. WCET Steering Committee member and, Assistant Dean, Digital Learning, The Pennsylvania State University, we will move from necessary conversations regarding the “why” and “what” of microcredentials, and begin to consider the aspects of “how.”
Thank you to Gary and the entire working group for this outstanding series!
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Inception is a key phase of the project lifecycle that moves strategies and ideas toward something more tangible. With the primary goal of stakeholder agreement on overall objectives, the inception phase aspires to determine elements of project scope, necessary resources, inherent risks, and overall feasibility. Alignment with the “why” is of critical importance in the inception phase, since institutional motivations and objectives will shape many of the decisions related to team formation and a shared vision of success.
As the Non-Profit Research Institute (RTI) describes, the inception phase can be useful for clarifying the context for project implementation. Inception often involves pilots (or “small bets”) which can provide key information to inform adaptation in objectives as well as reveal gaps in the project team by illuminating stakeholders who might not yet be included in planning.
Helpful outcomes from an inception phase include:
To illustrate these important aspects of project inception, we drew upon the expertise of two talented and engaged members of the WCET community to share their perspectives:
Please note, the interview answers below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Some of the expected benefits from the UMBC badging initiative were:
Oregon State University launched its first microcredentials in the fall of 2021, with initial offerings available in winter quarter 2022. All Oregon State microcredentials are for credit and consist of at least three courses and eight credits that follow Oregon State’s quarterly term calendar. See this page for a current listing of available microcredentials, all offered online.
Our centralized online learning division (Ecampus) spearheaded this initiative with our Associate Provost at the helm. One of the first steps involved seeking internal buy-in, meaning communicating the benefits and trends of alternative credentials to internal OSU
stakeholders. Namely, we highlighted that not all learners seek a full degree or a traditional credential. Leadership in our division had been closely following the rise of alternative credentials, numerous market insights, as well the demand in the marketplace to more nimbly upskill and reskill America’s workforce. Communicating this opportunity was key and while all internal OSU partners were highly supportive, it was somewhat challenging for a four-year public institution who has offered traditional credentials for more than 150 years.
UMBC is implementing badges on two fronts: badges specific to UMBC, which are offered to their students, faculty and staff, and badges defined through collaborations with external partners like the University System of Maryland and the Greater Washington Partnership, coalition of employers and higher education institutions.
UMBC adopted digital badging as a mechanism for capturing the achievement of competencies within the numerous activities taking place at the institution in a way that would allow badge earners to not only reflect on these newly acquired skills but also to share their achievements with others, including potential employers.
In 2015, just as UMBC was embarking into the digital badging space, the University System of Maryland (USM) Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation was also exploring digital credentialing. The purpose of the Kirwan Center is to support inter-institutional collaboration across the USM institutions and promote academic innovation that results in new opportunities to improve student success and to scale effective practices in a sustainable way. The Kirwan Center was looking for ways to address an issue reported by graduates from the USM institutions: many students were not able to articulate the career-ready skills they had acquired during their time at the institutions.
The solution to this issue came in the form of an initiative known as B.E.S.T. – Badging Essential Skills for Transitions. Through the implementation of eight digital badges focusing on essential career-ready skills identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, globalism, interculturalism, leadership, problem solving, and professionalism, nine of the 12 USM schools collaborated to define the frameworks, or dimensions, for these badges, acceptable assessment strategies, and agreed-upon rubrics derived from the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Value Rubrics on which those assessments would be based.
More recently, UMBC has been working with the Greater Washington Partnership to bridge the gap between higher education and the workforce and provide access to exclusive professional development opportunities to attract and retain talent. In collaboration with regional employers, the CoLAB created the Digital Generalist Credential that captures six core competencies to educate non-STEM majors in the areas of Data Security, Data Ethics, Data Visualization, Data Manipulation, Statistics, and Data and Analytics.
The Digital Generalist Credential modules were developed within the edX learning management system by Instructional Technology staff at UMBC with faculty from the relevant disciplines acting as subject matter experts (SMEs). The courses are designed to be self-paced learning experiences for non-Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learners looking to pursue employment within the Greater Washington region. Current students may opt in at any time to complete these modules during their college career. Learners may choose to do one, two, or all competencies to not only gain new knowledge in the areas of STEM, but to be eligible to earn stackable digital badges along the way.
In addition to Ecampus leadership, others involved in early discussions included the Office of the Registrar, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, Dean of Graduate School and the Provost. Ultimately, the Office of the Registrar led many of the logistics of this initiative; however, it was deemed early on that Oregon State would launch microcredentials as a pilot using only online courses. Ecampus helped to move this initiative forward by conducting faculty outreach, marketing and communications of microcredentials, and thinking through the student experience. The Office of the Registrar finalized our agreement with Credly for badging, formed and led the faculty review committee, and now tracks completion of microcredentials within our Student Information System.
A faculty committee was formed during the early phases of the initiative. They helped to further define microcredentials for Oregon State and created a modified curricular approval process that was simpler than the curricular process for full degree programs.
The CIO was the campus champion of the badging program (and provided funding for all resources); I was the institutional owner when it came to implementation; instructional technology staff supported the initial efforts.
The institutional owner for microcredentials is our University. As mentioned previously, microcredentials were initially launched as an Ecampus/online offering and many implementation details were led by our division of Ecampus. The Office of the Registrar had a project manager for this initiative, especially around microcredential coding and SIS/Banner integration. Faculty Senate Executive Committee charged the faculty committee approving microcredentials quarterly and invited participants; the Office of the Registrar led those meetings (and continues to do so). Outside of a nominal badging contract agreement, most of our project resources have been staff resources and some marketing expenses. Internally at Ecampus, we also formed a microcredentials work group comprised of Ecampus’ Associate Provost, Executive Director of Academic Programs and Learning Innovation; Executive Director of Market Development and the Student Experience; and Director of Marketing and Enrollment Services. We meet bi-weekly to stay on top of the many moving parts entailed in this initiative, including enrollment reporting, approvals, coordination with university stakeholders, etc.
Our initial strategy, a two-year pilot (AY2022-2024), has been fairly low-risk and low-cost in terms of course development. It entailed clustering existing online for-credit courses that were part of existing Oregon State University online degree programs offered through OSU Ecampus into subject areas that either showed higher demand in industry or the consumer market or that showed higher enrollment in online courses/subjects. We did not build new courses for the pilot at launch. Initially our microcredential courses designated for this pilot are only delivered online. Options to offer and promote on-campus microcredentials will be considered after the two-year pilot. Many initial microcredentials included course work that was required for a credit-bearing undergraduate or graduate certificate or full degree programs offered online. Our early thinking and design included an intentional stackability option for microcredentials to count toward other credit-bearing credentials.
Some of the early indicators of progress included the following:
The beginning of any innovative program on campus must be pursued carefully and deliberately. Understanding the campus culture and building collaborative relationships and buy-in from key stakeholders are critical factors that will ultimately determine the success of the initiative. It is important to starting small with pilots to create space to experiment and learn what works and what needs modification. We are in the very early years of microcredentialing. Ensuring that the campus community understands that it is still early and that programs may evolve as time passes and lessons are learned, is also important.
Innovation requires flexibility in approach and the time and space to experiment, fail, and apply lessons learned to the next iteration. Also, leveraging tools currently available may not be ideal to achieve all the identified goals, but are “good enough” to test some ideas and approaches while better tools are in development. Finally, a solid, skilled team is necessary to tackle these challenges, and it is imperative that team leadership has a firm grasp of effective collaboration, strategic thinking, and change management skills and approaches to work in these areas.
Thank you again to Sherri and Jessica for sharing your experiences for this post!