Workcred and the University of Texas System released a report last month titled Integrating Microcredentials into Undergraduate Experiences.
Workcred is an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute also known as ANSI. ANSI oversees standards and conformity assessment activities in the United States. The UT System is the umbrella organization for 13 public institutions in the state of Texas that enroll more than 244,000 college students and that operate under the University of Texas name.
I applaud the research team at Workcred and the UT System for the organization of the report. In addition to a background section, the report leads off with a section that defines the purpose and definition of microcredentials, followed by sections on the value of microcredentials, the factors to consider when building or selecting a microcredential, the relationship between microcredentials and badges, commonly identified skills in liberal arts and data analytics, promising university and microcredential practices in digital skills and data analytics, approaches to align data analytics microcredentials with academic curriculum and degrees, a framework to develop and integrate microcredentials into undergraduate experiences, and an asset to support microcredentialing efforts in the UT System.
The background section provides the reader with information indicating that the UT System received a planning grant to support efforts to reimagine liberal arts and humanity degree programs to incorporate data analytics microcredentials that ensure graduates are broadly educated (with a degree) and specifically skilled (microcredential). The UT System partnered with Workcred to conduct a workshop in 2022 to explore how undergraduates majoring in humanities and liberal arts could earn a data analytics microcredential and a bachelor’s degree. Faculty and administrators from five UT institutions participated in the workshop.
The workshop included exercises to determine if there were existing employer credentials that could be integrated into existing undergraduate experiences or if the best plan would be for faculty to develop new microcredentials with assistance from industry subject matter experts.
Purpose and Definition of Microcredentials
The researchers write that nearly all universities have consistent definitions for degrees, certificates, and academic majors and minors. Consistency of definitions is not typically the case for microcredentials “where there is significant variance in their use, meaning, and guidelines for development. Figure 1 from the report provides an excellent overview of the ways in which microcredentials are used by colleges and universities.
While Figure 1 illustrates the most common way microcredentials are used, the 10 summary descriptions are so broad, you can begin to understand why defining microcredentials is even more difficult. The UT System defines a microcredential as “a short-term, employer-recognized credential that is in high-demand.”
In February 2022, I wrote about the UT System’s announcement of Texas Credentials for the Future. The website and number of credentials appear to be more planned out than when I originally wrote about the program. Eight of the 13 UT System institutions are participating in pilot projects to support the microcredentials initiative. The Strada Education Network’s Beyond Completion Challenge Grant has provided financial support. In addition, the UT System has executed a three-year agreement with Coursera to incentivize embedding industry credentials into undergraduate degree programs and experiences at no cost to students.
The researchers cite two recent reports that examined the value of microcredentials as substantiating that microcredentials can provide benefits to learners and employers alike. These reports are the 2021 Strada-Gallup survey titled Examining the Value of Non-Degree Credentials and the 2022 Coursera survey titled Advancing Higher Education with Industry Micro-Credentials. The Coursera study reported that college graduates with non-degree credentials reported with stronger agreement that their combined education helped them achieve their goals, was worth the cost, and made them more attractive job candidates. Non-degree credentials issued by higher education institutions gathered the highest rating from respondents. More than half (55 percent) of all students indicated that taking a microcredential that counted toward their academic degree was a key consideration when selecting a microcredential. Microcredentials not only benefit existing students, but they also can be a vital part of lifelong learning pathways when alumni return for upskilling and reskilling in response to shifts in the labor market.
The report includes an in-depth discussion of the factors to consider when building or selecting a microcredential. Figure 3 below provides an illustration that includes those factors that are discussed at length in the report.
The authors note that purpose should be the first factor discussed, after which the others listed are in alphabetical order and not necessarily ranked by importance.
In paragraphs describing each of these factors, there are examples of other institutions (not just UT System institutions) that have implemented microcredentials and the authors utilize those examples to emphasize the specific factor.
I was particularly interested in the discussion about assessment development. Assessments are complicated and the authors acknowledge that assessments vary greatly and that it is important that the type of assessment used be transparent to employers so that they have confidence that the microcredential holder has achieved the desired competencies. I agree. I wonder how many colleges provide that transparency for degree holders.
I commend the report’s authors for including detailed discussions of these 13 factors. Rather than summarizing each of them or quoting them verbatim, I recommend that anyone interested in microcredentials read this report and particularly the detailed overview of each of these factors. Figure 4 below is an example of the level of detail considered by the authors. This example includes the questions that should be considered in developing the governance structure for microcredentials.
The last item, the process for quality improvement, is extremely important. To maintain their relevancy, microcredentials will likely require more frequent review and updating than degree programs.
The report has an entire section dedicated to the relationship between microcredentials and badges. The authors note that there are completion badges and competency badges and only competency badges can be considered a type of microcredential since it indicates skills achieved.
In my review of the UT System’s announcement in February 2022, I criticized it for its lack of development and offerings compared to the SUNY announcement at the same time. The number of offerings is still slim compared to the list of SUNY microcredentials. This newly issued report appears to be a “cookbook” that provides faculty at the UT System participating institutions (or any other academic institution for that matter) with a roadmap and framework for developing microcredentials with all the pertinent and relevant factors to consider along the way. I expect that the UT System will see a boost in microcredentials a year or two from now. If your institution(s) is considering developing and implementing microcredentials, I strongly recommend reading this report first. It could save you a lot of time as well as avoid the development of microcredentials that may not be viewed as valuable by either students or employers.