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Educational Credentialing in A Pandemic Era

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COVID-19, a twenty-first century global pandemic, has spread to almost every country in the world. The pandemic has resulted in unprecedented upheaval across all sectors of society and has affected business, with higher education especially impacted.Information continue to unfold about the shortand long-term impact of the virus, its transmission, prevalence, mortality and overall impact.

While many university leaders are currently planning for a return to normalcy, the fact of the matter is that the university as we know it is not going to be the same again. The time has come for academic leaders who want to survive this pandemic to rethink the way they offer programs and courses to their constituents.

Traditionally, universities have provided their students with a bundled package, all in one place. However, experts predict that the unprecedented societal turbulence brought about by the pandemic has created an urgent need for alternative pathways to acquiring education. This has led to more emphasis being placed on alternative credentialing. This requires breaking down the existing menu of college majors and reformulating and repackaging their underlying ingredients into relevant short-term and lifelong-learning programs tailored to specific student needs.

In today’s fast-changing world, not every learner has the time — or resources — to earn a traditional, credit-based degree. With alternative credentialing, students can take the knowledge they’ve gained from non-degree coursework to improve their skills and employability.

This is an experiment in unbundling degrees and validating smaller chunks of skills and learning to provide workplace value to traditional and non-traditional students alike. This terrain remains a bold new frontier for many traditional degree-granting institutions and has become the new wave of change in higher education.

Examples of alternative credentialing are digital badges, bootcamps, microdegrees, microcredentials, certificates, and MOOCs, and other types of qualifications offered by organizations outside academia.

Digital badges are regarded as sharable, online credentials that students can post on platforms such as email and social media networks to show skills learned and demonstrated through the completion of badge-specific criteria.

Bootcamps are a great example of alternative credentials. In response to an acute shortage of coders, bootcamps arose to fill the gap. Bootcamps provide learners with the requirements necessary to help bridge the skills gap needed to succeed in high-demand career fields.

Microdegrees are new forms of digital credential that certifies someone has completed 1,000 hours of learning in a professional discipline. Completing a Microdegree will be the equivalent of a full year of undergraduate upper level courses.

MOOCs (or Massive Open Online courses) and its cousins such as xMOOCs (eXtended Massive Open Online courses), cMOOCs (Connectivist Massive Open Online Courses), and others have all emerged as a part of a the new wave of alternative credentialing in higher education, affecting both pedagogy and mode of delivery.

Udacity is a for-profit organization developed by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsy that offers MOOCs. Originally focusing on technology and science courses that were presented in a traditional university-type structure. However, its focus has shifted to courses intended for professionals.

Class Central is a free online course MOOC aggregator from various prestigious  universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, etc. offered via Coursera, Udacity, edX, NovoED, & others, in multiple subjects that are open to students around the world. Progressive mainstream academic institutions are beginning to accept course credit from these sources. Learners receive a certificate for the completion of a course or a series of courses in a particular topic.

Fact is, credentials are scattered across thousands of professional associations, commercial providers and licensing bodies, as well as colleges and universities. Alternative credentials, usually shorter and cheaper by comparison, have captured the imagination of reformers. Today’s learners (especially millennials) are changing the face of higher education by demanding alternative paths to knowledge and skills attainment.

The surge in micro credentialing is driven by a desire for step-change innovation to address growing frictions in mainstream higher education over cost, productivity and quality. It has emerged due to a persistent and growing critique of traditional higher educational institutions’ ability to meet workforce needs, especially because the cost to students for a degree has grown dramatically over the past several years.

Employers are increasingly seeking to hire people whose skillsets can be proven rather than merely listed on a curriculum vitae. And, these types of alternative educational credentials are going mainstream in many areas outside of academia. Professional associations, industry organizations, and nonprofits have embraced them as a way for members and patrons to demonstrate participation in certain activities or in completing training modules.

The increasing interest in alternative credentials is fueled by a number of factors. Among the prominent ones are the public dissatisfaction with the rising cost of college tuition, the increasing attrition rate, and the growing unemployment among graduates. One response to the above is a new educational product based on skill building.

Recently (in July), Google announced the rolling out of three new online “career certificate” programs which they consider to be the “equivalent of a four-year degree” and will fund 100,000 need-based scholarships for the certificates.

Other IT giants such as IBM, Facebook, Salesforce and Microsoft are in the process of developing their own short-term, skill-based credentials.

Traditionally, information technology companies such as Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft and others continue to offer certification programmes to provide their workers with specialized skills to

And, an increasing number of corporate organizations are offering and validating credentials.  Among them are Coursera, LinkedIn Learning (previously called Lynda.com), Khan Academy, and Degreed, which provides a platform for tracking formal and informal online learning.

As alternative credentials grow and employer confidence in them grows, these credentials will undermine the value of mediocre undergraduate degrees.

We are urging higher institutions to respond to this market call, and adapt their systems and processes to meet this new trend in skill acquisition.

Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.
Visiting Professor, University of Illinois-Chicago

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