Microcredentials: Staying Competitive Among Rising Business Education Disruptors
How can business schools compete with the growing number of customizable, flexible, and low-cost learning opportunities offered outside of academia?
Three weeks after starting a new role at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business in Atlanta, Brian Jennings was tasked with launching an exciting new roster of microcredentials.
The three flexible graduate certificate programs can be completed fully online. They’re stackable, meaning students gain credits that count toward a future formal degree program. And they focus on cutting-edge business topics—artificial intelligence, disruptive innovation, and fintech—responding to the needs of employers.
Business schools are increasingly launching microcredentials, sometimes referred to as alternative credentials, to address the challenges posed by business education disruptors. In April 2021, Google extended its educational offerings, launching three Google Career Certificates in data analytics, project management, and UX design. There are thousands of affordable online courses on MOOC platforms like Coursera, and alternative MBA-style courses like the Quantic MBA are growing in popularity.
For Jennings, the need for business schools to act has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic as learners demand more flexible, affordable programs that they can pursue alongside their work.
Other business school leaders agree: 70 percent of respondents to a recent MBA Roundtable survey believe that alternative credentials are a necessary part of a business school’s strategy.
So why invest in microcredentials? What makes a good microcredential course or program? And for whom are these programs designed?
Why Invest in Microcredentials?
There are three key reasons that schools are launching microcredentials.
- Recruitment Tool: Microcredentials helps you build global brand awareness and showcase the expertise of your school. Students who pursue microcredentials at your school have added incentive to go on to pursue a full degree program. This correlation is a motivation for many schools launching microcredentials and is enforced by the credit-bearing, stackable element, with credits counting toward full degree programs.
- Lifelong Learning: Microcredentials help change your relationship with your students from a two-year transaction to a lifelong partnership. By offering flexible courses focused on in-demand skill areas, you can engage alumni throughout their working lives.
- Market Satisfaction: Fundamentally, microcredentials are a response to demand from businesses and learners for shorter, more flexible, online, skills-based courses. Another benefit is that stackable microcredentials can be embedded into existing degree programs. Full-time MBA students, for example, could choose to pursue a credit-bearing online certificate as part of their degree, resulting in a blended learning experience, which many students now favor.
When planning the launch of microcredentials for Robinson College of Business, Jennings took an outside-in approach, consulting with business leaders from a variety of companies. Because of those early conversations, he was able to generate interest. Since the fall of 2020, 44 students have joined the certificate programs, and many are employees of the companies with which he had those initial conversations.
“We believe this is a huge growth area for us,” says Jennings, who is Robinson’s associate dean of graduate programs and executive education. “Specialized master’s and MBA degrees are still important, but the idea of someone getting an MBA and that being enough for the next 30 years is folly. There’s a clear need for professionals to continue to learn throughout their careers, and that need is only accelerating.”
"These certificates offer students who might already have a master’s the opportunity to obtain in-demand skills with less of a financial or time commitment." —MaryAnne Hyland
In March 2021, Adelphi University’s Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, in Garden City, New York, launched three advanced graduate certificates in business analytics, marketing analytics, and digital marketing. Like Jennings, MaryAnne Hyland, the school’s interim dean, says the plan is to reach new audiences by bringing in-demand skills into the portfolio of offerings.
“These certificates offer students who might already have a master’s the opportunity to obtain in-demand skills with less of a financial or time commitment.” The expense and time of a full-time degree program is also something students are hesitant to commit to, Hyland says, and so a stackable credential is a way for learners to test the waters and familiarize themselves with the school to see if a full degree program could be a good fit.
What Makes a Good Microcredential?
Like any program, a microcredential must meet the demands of both employers and learners. A valuable microcredential is flexible, addresses in-demand skills, and offers the ability to roll credits into a degree program.
When launching a stackable credential, Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs at ESMT Berlin, recommends a three-step process:
- First, identify the problem you’re trying to solve, whether it’s a skills deficit or a more general personal development goal. Getting faculty on board, conducting market research, and consulting with business are key.
- Then, starting with the desired outcome, construct a series of learning experiences that are necessary for achieving the target outcomes. Design content tailored for the micro-credential rather than repurposing existing content.
- Last, package these experiences in a format and timespan that works for your target group.
Some schools are betting on online program management, or OPM, providers as a quick go-to-market strategy, while others are building offerings in-house and/or collaborating with other schools.
ESMT Berlin is a member of the Future of Management Education Alliance, with schools sharing a platform and content to compete with the likes of Coursera and EdX. Participants in ESMT’s Master in Management Essentials Program—offered in collaboration with fellow alliance schools IE Business School and Imperial College Business School—take nine courses online, earning a certificate from each school. They can then apply credits earned to full-time master’s programs at ESMT.
To attract learners, a microcredential also needs to be differentiated from other schools’ programs and those of industry disruptors, especially given the price difference. While Google Career Certificates cost around 240 USD, Robinson’s certificates cost upwards of 10,000 USD.
The stackable element is one distinguishing factor, offering a more holistic approach to professional development than a standalone credential from Google.
Robinson has also developed its Innovation Studio as a core, flagship component of its graduate certificates. The required class, offered in the first semester, brings learners together in an unstructured format and come up with a business concept or startup idea to build throughout the certificate program.
“We can’t rest on our laurels and say this is an academic credential and what you get from Google or Coursera is not." —Brian Jennings
Robinson’s certificates include a total of 12 credit hours, taken over two semesters, with two courses per semester. Classes meet two nights a week and are delivered online or at the Atlanta campus.
“We can’t rest on our laurels and say this is an academic credential and what you get from Google or Coursera is not,” says Jennings. “It’s not just about upskilling; people can learn skills on Coursera for free. We need to create the kinds of experiences that you can’t get from a purely online, asynchronous offering.”
Which Learners Benefit From Microcredentials?
One microcredential can serve several audiences:
- The experienced professional, who already has an MBA or master’s degree and wants to pursue a standalone microcredential to build on their skillset.
- The future learner, who doesn’t want to commit to a full degree program just yet, but may take advantage of the stackable element in the near future.
- The current student, who is pursuing an MBA or master’s program and wants to pursue a microcredential embedded as part of their degree.
Microcredentials can also cater to different learner preferences. Adelphi University is building a lab with a high-powered deep-learning machine on campus for learners pursuing the Advanced Certificate in Business Analytics. This requires an in-person element, popular with students who prefer the personalized support and peer interaction that comes with a more traditional, credit-bearing approach.
At the same time, Adelphi is working with IBM Skills Academy to offer non-credit-bearing microcredentials in analytics and artificial intelligence. Hyland believes those courses will compete more directly with the likes of the Google Career Certificates.
Increasingly, schools are adopting the microcredential approach when designing programs, too. Vlerick Business School, in Ghent, Belgium, offers an open enrollment executive education portfolio that allows each participant to build their own program and personal learning journey, module by module, according to their learning needs. Additionally, the school’s Online MBA comprises 14 modules of seven weeks each, and participants pay per module.
Vlerick also offers a Business Essentials series of self-paced online certificate programs, covering marketing, strategy, finance, operations, and people skills. These take around 10 to 12 hours to complete and cost 595 euros (about 720 USD) each, but they are not credit-bearing courses.
Schools could combine their program portfolios and allow learners to “shop” for complementary modules and courses.
While Vlerick has yet to launch a stackable, credit-bearing credential, general director Patrick De Greve sees industry disruptors like Coursera as potential collaborators rather than competitors.
De Greve is exploring collaboration opportunities with other business schools, too. Schools, he says, could combine their program portfolios and allow learners to “shop” for complementary modules and courses. “That requires a lot of trust and more standardization of our offerings, but it is the future,” he says.
The coming years will see an explosion of microcredentials as business schools experiment with different innovative program types, certificates, stackable credentials, and badges.
Faced with challenges from outside the industry, schools must be agile, be willing to adapt content and its delivery, and provide learners with the specialized skills training to complement the foundational management, critical thinking, and soft skills they gain from traditional degrees.
For Barniville, investing in stackable credentials is not only about market share but is driven by purpose.
The Postgraduate Diploma at ESMT Berlin is a fully stackable executive education experience that leads to a diploma for working professionals. Over 500 professionals who likely never would have invested their time in a full degree have achieved the diploma-level qualification by taking 18 days of executive courses and completing various projects.
“A typical example would be a plant manager who would not even have considered that business education with a formal qualification could be an option, but the stackable approach has made this possible,” he says.
The Global Online MBA at ESMT operates in the same way. The program is fully modular and stackable, and credits achieved along the way can be badged with certificates and are recognized by other programs, should learners wish to switch formats.
“Historically, our offerings excluded those who could not fit their lives around our courses,” Barniville says. “We’ve now realized that it’s a better strategy to turn the tables and fit our content around the lives of our learners.”
Marco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodenov.