Expert Panel Explores How Micro-Credentials Reshape Higher Education and Employment

Expert Panel Explores How Micro-Credentials Reshape Higher Education and Employment

The Washington Center focused its second annual Employer-Higher Education Roundtable on the emergence and challenges of micro-credentials.

Hosted at the National Press Club, the roundtable brought together professionals from both the employer and higher education worlds to hear from a panel of experts and discuss the implications of the latest development in preparing students for the workforce.

In 1975, TWC led the effort to get an experiential internship credentialed into the college transcript. Today, an internship has become ubiquitous in higher education. Appearing with practically as much frequency as a GPA, students can no longer stand out through such additional learning opportunities like these. 

Employers who take an apples to apples comparison to talent evaluation find themselves in a predicament. How to best determine which students performed a substantive internship and possess the resulting skills necessary to succeed and which were sent on coffee runs for the sake of a line on their resume. They need to find the oranges among the apples. One solution may be the micro-credential and its signal of what is most important, i.e., demonstrated skills and abilities.

Keynote

Don Fraser of Education Design Lab delivers the keynote address.
Don Fraser of Education Design Lab delivers the keynote address.

Learning happens everywhere
Don Fraser of Education Design Lab, keynote speaker and panelist, followed the welcoming remarks by TWC president, Chris Norton. Fraser led off his keynote by stating the hiding in plain sight truth: learning happens everywhere. Perhaps this has never been more true than in today’s hyperconnected world. The question, then, is how to make sense of that learning and credential it? Now is a great time to have this roundtable, in Fraser’s words, because the employer-higher education world is at an inflection point. 

Do we need more credentials? 
Credential Engine recently published research that found 191,495 digital badges in the United States. Simultaneously, the pool of learners has expanded beyond the traditional college-aged student. What Fraser referred to as a “new majority” of learners that includes online students, workers going to school while working, and others, need the ability to demonstrate what they know without having an elite school attached to their resume. Combining their learning and competencies requires a portable signal, regardless of where learning happened. Enter the digital badge, the technology that lets students take the signal with them. 

Fraser wrapped up his speech by urging the audience to join the moment. Employers are desperate to find the right talent in a tight labor market. Students and workers are struggling to find the right differentiation in a competitive job market. TWC is a first mover on micro-credentials and the employer and higher education representatives in the audience need to join the discussion, seek the appropriate solution, according to Fraser.

Panel

The Employer-Higher Education Roundtable Panel
The Employer-Higher Education Roundtable Panel

Traditional signals are decreasing in importance
The five-member, plus moderator, panel began immediately after the keynote. The assembled panel was comprised of Randy Bitting (SkillSurvey, Inc.) Don Fraser, Nancy O’Neill (University of Maryland Center for Academic Innovation), Jennifer Thornton (Business Higher Education Forum) and Bonnie Zuckerman (Northrop Grumman), and moderated by Kelly Eaton (TWC). Each panelist opened with a similar assessment from their respective areas of expertise: they see varying degrees of acceptance, though unanimity in necessity as change is upon us.

The hiring process needs a breakthrough
According to Zuckerman, micro-credentials are increasing in importance as agile employers embrace change. Students, meanwhile, are unsure of how to articulate their skills to those employers during the critical resume evaluation. Bitting noted that university administrators’ interest in integrating the skills students possess and employers desire into a micro-credential is also growing. Everyone seems to be racing to the conclusion that something needs to change despite any of the stakeholders knowing exactly how to get beyond the antiquated hiring practices they know and adopt better signals.

What does a micro-credential look like?
Fraser was quick to point out there is no clear standard of the micro-credential, or its digital representation through a badge, and its value yet. He also added a point that the uniqueness of the issuing institution or organization would need to be weighed and would need to stand behind the skill competency. One solution may be to let the market decide. Thornton relayed a story of her previous organization working with industry to learn what skills employees should possess and then took the resulting list to partner schools for them to structure what the credential would reflect. O’Neill, speaking on the approach of a state university system, spoke on using the core NACE competencies — particularly, social and communication skills — in credentialing. 

Unseen obstacles
Technology is both an enabler and a barrier. Its biggest positive, pointed out by Bitting, is its ability to scale. On the learning side, it is proving a great equalizer. The ubiquity of mobile learning, according to Fraser, is that it helps everyone access learning. He went on to note that educators need to join the conversations education tech companies are having on designing micro-credentials. The expertise educators can bring from the classroom to the design can better guide construction. Among the barriers, Thornton mentioned the inability of resume screening software to recognize and weigh micro-credentials. Until it catches up, a workaround will be necessary. That is particularly true for those micro-credentials that students don’t have, for whatever reason, on their normal college transcripts, said Zuckerman.

Getting buy-in
Each stakeholder must evaluate where micro-credentials can serve their needs. For Maryland students, according to O’Neill, the benefit of earning the badge resides in a shorter period, see where they shine and illustrate that to employers, and depart campus better prepared and ready to contribute at their employer. Overstretched professors and instructors need to be incentivized by showing this won’t be rubricked or additional credential requirements on them, but rather, according to Bitting, a way to help students address shortfalls in their abilities. Zuckerman recommended investing in employer-higher ed partnerships, reiterating an earlier point to get everyone working to the ultimate goal of generating learners well-prepared to contribute to moving the workforce forward. 

Micro-credentials cannot guarantee a job for a student or a good hire for an employer. Because they are outcome-driven, however, they do represent confidence in an individual’s demonstrable skills, including hard to measure soft skills, and abilities. Unlike a letter grade that marks how well a student learned material in a single class, the micro-credential accounts for learning across opportunities, wherever it happens, and its aggregate result. 

Discussions such as the 2019 Employer-Higher Education Roundtable are integral in addressing the challenges students, employers and educators face. A better prepared, skills-ready student entering or climbing the workforce is the goal. For everyone in the room, the commitment to assisting students in discovering, honing and demonstrating their passions was clear. Micro-credentials are here and a solution that will be explored.

Interested in joining the 2020 TWC Employer-Higher Education Roundtable? Please contact the Office of College and University Relations at ocur@twc.edu.

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The Washington Center

The Washington Center is the largest and most established student internship program in Washington, D.C. Since our founding, we've helped more than 60,000 young people translate their college majors into career paths. We use our scale and expertise to customize each student’s experience to be truly transformative.