The Role of Micro-Credentials in the Transformation of Higher Ed: An Interview with Amrit Ahluwalia of The EvoLLLution

By Heather Di Beneditto Bialowas, Senior Marketing Strategist

Incremental credentials, competency-based badges, digital credentials, microcredentials–these are just some of the terms that have been circulating on the periphery of higher ed for more than a decade. With movements like IA (Inclusive Access), OER (Open Educational Resources) and student demand for digital course materials gaining traction across institutions–evidence of learners realizing their agency–it’s imperative that we take a look at how the movement for institutional buy-in of micro-credentialing has the capacity to help institutions reimagine the learning trajectory of postsecondary education to better fit societal needs and the lifestyles of their consumers–from the 18-22 year olds, to life-long learners. In this interview, Amrit Ahluwalia, Editor In Chief at The EvoLLLution: A Modern Campus Illumination, spoke with Partner In Publishing about his insights on the philosophical shift that must take place in order for institutions to better meet the needs of learners, how micro-credentialing can greatly benefit workforce development, and the important role micro-credentialing plays in the transformation of higher education.  

Q: Please tell us about your role at The EvoLLLution and within Modern Campus.

A: The EvoLLLution was launched because we [Modern Campus] noticed there was a lot of innovation and creative work happening in the higher ed space that deserved more attention.  These innovations were happening on the periphery of colleges and universities–attempting to engage new audiences, make the institution more relevant, and bring more learners in the door,  ensuring that the institution was designed to serve a more diverse population. All these things were happening in the shadows and as a result, the innovators who were driving those ideas felt isolated from one another because there were very few outlets for them to highlight that work to other innovators across the country. So, we launched The EvoLLLution as a place where they could come together into a single community, or forum, and talk openly about their ideas and experiences. We’ve published more than 6,000 articles and interviews by more than 4,000 higher ed leaders globally, with the idea being to normalize some of these creative and innovative concepts. We published our first article on digital badging late 2012. We published our first article on micro-credentialing around the same time. And we published an article on competency-based education around 2013. So these ideas that are becoming really commonplace in the education space today have really always had a space on The EvoLLLution. It’s great to see some of those topics that were once considered really out there becoming more mainstream.

Q: In light of the simultaneous challenges within the workforce and HE, what role do micro-credentials have in the transformation of institutions and workforce development?

A: It’s fascinating. We’ve always talked about higher education as being well positioned to teach those 21st century skills, but I think we’ve done a bad job at communicating that value to our end consumers–whether that’s the learners themselves or employers. So, what micro-credentialing gives us the ability to do is more granularly recognize and communicate the skills that people are gaining. Ultimately, I think that’s going to have a pretty significant impact on college enrollment as access to higher ed moves beyond the national and global market of traditional postsecondary institutions. Now, students have access to Coursera, edX, MOOCs, private training providers, coding boot camps, and a number of alternative providers that are creating a more challenging marketplace for colleges and universities to compete. Micro-credentials have the effect of helping a college or university stand out to a learner that’s trying to understand the ROI of possible enrollment. Coursera found that 74% of students would consider enrolling in a postsecondary institution that offered micro-credentials. And it’s because I think the value of higher education as a concept is widely understood. But the limitation lies in the fact that we’ve always looked at postsecondary achievement in terms of a binary, either you have or haven’t–there’s no markers along the way. Microcredentials create the possibility for more granular recognition of skill. And it provides opportunities for a more flexible postsecondary experience, for more students to be rewarded for what they’re learning when they’re learning it, so that they can see their own progress and they can communicate that progress.

Q: That also requires institutional buy-in, right? So that they also meet their goals while serving the needs of learners.

A: Exactly.

Q: This past year, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that more than 39M people in the U.S. attended college but left without a postsecondary credential as of July 2020. What story do you believe this tells when you consider the drop in college enrollment, rising cost of college course materials, movements like IA (inclusive access) and OER (Open Educational Resources) gaining traction?

A: It’s a really important question. Our current conceptualizations speak to this very outdated idea that the student is lucky to be at the postsecondary institution when in reality, we’re generally talking about publicly funded organizations. In the private space, you’re talking about a service provider. So no one’s lucky to be at college. The college is lucky that the consumer chose them. There’s a very different sense of responsibility around students when you make that philosophical shift of recognizing that the institution is there to serve the learner. And that is reflected in a lot of these shifts around IA, the demand for open educational resources, and the demand for more granular recognition of credentials. It’s because consumers are increasingly realizing their agency. And I think when they look at a postsecondary marketplace that’s not designed for them, they’re realizing that the reason that they might have stopped out or dropped out wasn’t their fault. In fact, if you look at the data, most students don’t leave because they lack the academic capacity to succeed. Most students leave because their kid got sick or they had to care for a parent, or their job moved them to a different municipality. It’s these factors that cause people to stop out and eventually drop out. It’s not because they lack the capacity to learn and they lack the capacity to earn a credential. So, as we see these transformations happening in the education space, it’s broadly recognizing that learners have agency and that learners have a critical role to play in the success of the postsecondary institution.

Q: We know the limitations of acquiring traditional credentials when you factor in socioeconomic status–do we know yet whether there are limitations on who benefits from a new approach to recognizing achievement in learning through micro-credentialing? Can it be said that micro-credentialing can make learning and skill achievement more equitable?

A: It’s an interesting question, because it can be seen through a few lenses. I’d say right now it’s probably too early to say but the problem is when you look at micro-credentialing through the lens of non-degree credentials or non-credit programming, it isn’t financial aid eligible, which means that students have to pay out of pocket for them. Now, the other side of that is it means the postsecondary institution has a greater responsibility to deliver an immediate return on that investment than they do in a more traditional program that is financial aid backed. So, you could make the argument that a micro-credential, because it’s paid out of pocket, is more relevant and more oriented to immediate learner success than a traditional credential is, which probably makes it more valuable to someone who is socioeconomically challenged. That being said, you still have to pay out of pocket; you’re assuming that individual has the ticket price to begin with. Now, micro-credentials do make the postsecondary degree more attainable and more accessible because they’re providing way points. By recognizing that learners don’t necessarily progress in lockstep toward a degree program, by recognizing that learners have a necessity to earn credentials that’ll help them be employable right away, helps microcredentials make higher education more socioeconomically diverse because you’re creating success mechanisms that are going to serve people that aren’t first-time students. And it makes the program more oriented to them gaining success in the ways they define success much more quickly.

Q: Do you believe traditional college degrees still hold their value when up against this modern approach to recognizing achievement in learning?

A: The degree is not going anywhere. I firmly believe that the degree still has a role to play. I think the problem is that as a society, we’ve over indexed on it. We use it more as a signal for basic competency than we do for actually understanding what an individual can do. And that’s partially because we’re so oriented toward transcripts and we’re oriented to these metrics that make sense within the postsecondary environment but don’t really translate well outside of it. I think when we start to see the case for micro-credentialing, we start to see the case for better communicating skills and competencies, and allowing people to start earning degrees in ways that make more sense–in ways that challenge education’s degree binary. With options for micro-credentials, you don’t necessarily live in that world anymore. You can highlight your education, skills, competencies, and get a job and still not have a degree. And that means that the degree becomes far more useful for the purpose, which is intended. I don’t think that the conversation about micro-credentialing means that we’re going to get rid of degrees. I just think that the degree is going to have a more discreet value proposition than it does today.

Q: Is the workforce prepared for this wave of change? If not, how can they prepare?

A:  Our hiring practices are designed around this binary of earning a degree or not but I would say the workforce is changing already. We’re already starting to see more and more employers, especially in the tech space, but increasingly across multiple industries, shift away from degree-based hiring and instead orient more towards skill and culture based hiring. And I think as micro-credentials, and digital credentials especially, become more prevalent we’re actually going to be able to do that in a more effective way. Because what microcredentials allow you to do is make the hiring process more skills-based rather than indicator based. And that’s going to create a more equitable labor market because all of a sudden you’ll really be able to assess the fit of different candidates based on their verified skills and abilities and not so much on your guesses about what they might be able to do.

Q: What do you predict will be most important for the higher ed space in 2023?

A: I think this answer is aligned with micro-credentialing, but it’s more of a big picture question because a lot of the innovation that’s happening in silos, is happening in an industry that can’t really afford to silo anymore. I think this year and into next year we are going to see more higher ed institutions attempt to figure out consolidated approaches to doing some of this work that has been siloed. And that’s going to mean more connectivity between divisions that generally only work together in very limited circumstances; connectivity between the registrar’s office and continuing education, and between faculty and non-degree divisions. What we’re really doing when we talk about the proliferation of micro-credentials is talking about changing the foundational postsecondary model. We’re talking about changing the core product of a higher ed institution from being the ability to pursue a degree, to the ability to learn in a flexible, lifelong way. If we’re in a labor market where people have a constant need for upskilling and reskilling, if we’re in a labor market that has a persistent demand for learning, then the institution actually has the capacity to build lifelong learning-based relationships with people, truly relational engagements with learners as opposed to transactional relationships with learners. And that inspires a more consistent lifelong vision for what education could be, but it’s going to require a lot more collaboration than there is today.

Heather DiBeneditto Bialowas Partner in Publishing

About the Author

Heather Di Beneditto Bialowas is a Senior Marketing Strategist at Partner in Publishing (PIP). At PIP, Heather supports clients through digital marketing strategies, content marketing and development, and project management.

Heather also serves as Managing Editor of PIP’s quarterly agency newsletter, Innovation Insights, and oversees the writing and development of several newsletters for EdTech clients.

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