How micro-credentials are helping higher ed master the post-COVID moment

Digital badges allow students to promote themselves with richer information about their new competencies.

As micro-credentials take hold across higher ed, “soft skills” such as communication and creativity are now as central to instruction as are the technical skills taught in these professional pathways.

Take the HVAC micro-pathway offered at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. A repair person going to a home in southern Arizona that has lost air-conditioning in the middle of the summer for 24 hours not only needs to know how to fix the hardware but also should be empathetic to the residents’ discomfort and frustration. “If we’re only training people in technical skills, we’re not giving them the things they need to be good citizens and great workers,” says Ian R. Roark, the college’s vice president of Workforce Development & Strategic Partnerships.

Career navigators lend a hand

The driving force behind the rise of micro-credentials is two-fold. One, they provide paths for professionals and traditional students to add new skills at an accelerated and more affordable pace. Secondly, the digital credentials and badges awarded give employers richer information about the specific skills a student has acquired.

Pima Community College began developing its non-credit FastTrack program in the years prior to the pandemic as industries became more and more automated, which required a growing number of workers to re-skill and upskill, Roark says. The college has since launched several pilots, offering eight- to 12-week micro-credential programs in emergency medical services, information technology and cybersecurity, automotive technology, and four construction trades. Developing intercultural fluency, critical thinking and other “soft skills” account for about 15 to 30 hours of each pathway. Students demonstrate these skills through a combination of reading, research, communications with classmates and a gamified end-of-course summative assessment that requires students to demonstrate these competencies, Roark says.

Students are supported throughout their program by corporate and career navigators who assist with financial aid, ensure they are communicating with faculty if barriers emerge, and smooth transitions into full-credit programs.

“We’ve been asked why launch at such a robust space when credit program are is not supported by state funding,” Roark says. “The answer we really believe this is going to be proof of concept. In addition to quality certificates and degrees we offer, there’s a real need in the community for short-term workforce training.”

Micro-credentials meet the moment

On the other side of the country, the University of New Hampshire is also ramping up its micro-credential programs. Several institutions in the state have partnered with more than 5,000 businesses to enhance training programs for their employees and college students and graduates.

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Courses cost as little as $50 and are open to all, regardless of whether they are enrolled in a college or university. UNH now offers 60 micro-credentials in courses that have so far been taken by about 5,000 students, says Ken La Valley, the vice provost of outreach and engagement and director of the university’s extension services. “Nationally, research predicts that a very high percentage of existing employees are going to require some form of upskilling or re-skilling within their own jobs,” La Valley says. “Things as simple as having a different way of doing business such as teaching in an online environment.”

When a student earns a micro-credential in project management, for example, the digital badge or credential provides a more extensive list of competencies a student has gained. Also, the badge can be posted on LinkedIn and digital resumes that can be identified by online recruiters such as Indeed or ZipRecruiter that trawl the internet to match job candidates with employers.

UNH’s micro-credential programs include certification in drone operations, a skill now in demand in a range of fields from search and rescue to real estate. The university’s law school offers micro-credential in the emerging fields of cryptocurrency and online sports betting. “Micro-credentials can be used to empower a person after taking one, two or three classes so they can immediately start setting themselves apart before they finish a graduate certificate,” La Valley says. “It gives them a way to promote themselves.” UNH has also built into its micro-credentials soft skills such as cultural competency to guide students in working with interdisciplinary groups and people from different backgrounds.

Ultimately, micro-credentials are meeting the moment of the pandemic and ‘Great Resignation’ as people reconsider whether they are passionate about their careers and look to change professions or move closer to family. On the other hand, they can be a tool for employers willing to help employers grow their skill sets. “At a time when we’re employee-poor because of so much movement, we have to have a way to identify more quickly the folks who will be great additions,” LaValley says. “These micro-credentials can also be ways of retaining good employees because you’re giving them opportunities to increase their own professional abilities.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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