A new era of microcredentials and experiential learning

Over the last decade, the higher education sector worldwide has seen a much greater focus on employability and skills development – beginning in what was a challenging global recession and continuing through many years of sustained economic expansion. As indicated by recent global CEO surveys, the development and acquisition of human capital has risen to the very top of corporate agendas.

There are many signs that the ‘second machine age’ and the era of digital transformation in which we are living are increasingly driving demand for continuous reskilling and lifelong learning.

At Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy in the United States, we recently conducted a survey of 750 hiring leaders in the United States – across all sectors and organisational sizes. One of the foundational findings was that a majority – 64% – of executives felt that the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand more credential attainment from job seekers and higher levels of education in the future.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Mushrooming microcredentials

The growing need for continuous learning is also reflected in the explosion of new educational credential offerings in recent years – ranging from online degrees and coding bootcamps, to technology certificates, digital badges, nanodegrees and MicroMasters.

These professionally oriented educational offerings have growing momentum – but even as millions of microcredentials are being issued, it is still very early in the development of a new market. In our recent US survey, only 30%-40% of hiring leaders had ever encountered a given microcredential on a résumé and just 16% reported they had hired an individual who held one.

The data suggests that so far, microcredentials are largely functioning in the labour market as supplements to traditional degrees, rather than degree substitutes – demonstrating advanced skill development; qualifying individuals for promotions; and facilitating career change.

At the same time, these microcredentials still hold great promise as initial job qualifications, especially in technically oriented occupations.

Learning and real-world experience

The growing interest in professionally focused microcredential programmes highlights a more fundamental truth – that in the job qualification process, education and experience are intertwined, and often difficult to decouple.

Notably, one of the hallmarks of many microcredential programmes – and a trend in higher education more generally – is the integration of capstone projects and work-based or experiential learning opportunities, as well as employer endorsement of curricula.

For example, in many MOOC (massive open online course) and online education certificate programmes, computer science students may use real employer data and programme a solution to a real-world employer challenge. When assessing human capital, the ideal combination for employers is education and evidence of being able to perform a given role.

Indeed, our survey of US hiring leaders found that employers’ top priority recommendation for colleges and universities was to “include real-world projects and engagements with employers and the world of work” in their programmes – ranked first by a quarter of respondents.

This was followed closely by providing academic credit for experience and on-the-job learning, as well as including more industry-based validation of curricula. Employers are issuing a clear call to action for universities to integrate their offerings more tightly into the fabric of the world of work.

This imperative is manifested in the growing interest in work-based learning worldwide – as governments, private businesses and universities are exploring new solutions for human capital development.

One particular work-based learning model that has captured special attention is apprenticeship. In the US, apprenticeships have been the focus of an array of federal government policies and initiatives and a high-profile presidential commission. In the United Kingdom, there is the still evolving Apprenticeship Levy – a tax programme with the specific goal of developing human capital.

In addition, a number of large global technology companies such as IBM and Amazon have launched next generation digital apprenticeship programmes.

Integrating microcredentials and micro-internships

Work-based learning models such as apprenticeships and internships can be high-value ways to give full-time students and transitioning workers education, training and experience. But in an economy that demands continuous lifelong learning, it is important to think about these models as part of a broader continuum that can and must also serve the growing numbers of working adult, online and part-time students.

For example, at Northeastern University, we have extended beyond the roots of our 110-year old cooperative education programme to embed short real-world employer projects into our programmes for lifelong learners – in an effort called the Experiential Network (XN).

In just the last few years, nearly 10,000 students have completed projects for 2,000 active partners such as Pfizer, General Electric, Raytheon and Costco.

Outside of our institution, start-up companies such as Parker Dewey and Riipen are creating platforms that connect students and universities to ‘micro-internships’ with employers. Other start-ups such as Practera – which has roots in the Australian university sector – are developing experiential learning software that provides faculty with the tools to integrate real-world employment into their courses.

A new ecosystem of experiential learning providers and technology companies is beginning to develop and mature to meet the growing demand from students, universities and employers. Microcredentials – and micro-work experiences – are one offering within this much larger marketplace.

Thinking about microcredential offerings only as shorter online educational programmes would miss the broader, more significant trends that they exemplify.

First, the growth of microcredentials is evidence of the emergence of more continuous and less episodic post-secondary learning. Second, microcredentials highlight an educational curriculum that is much more industry-aligned and competency-focused. Finally, they demonstrate that we are entering an era with much greater overlap and integration between education and experience.

Sean Gallagher is executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and author of The Future of University Credentials.