Reimagining the Credential Ecosystem

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022
By W. Brooke Elliott
Photo by iStock/Khanchit Khirisutchalual
By creating portfolios of microcredentials, business schools can stay competitive in a higher education market increasingly defined by lifelong learning.
  • The State of Illinois’ approval of a credit-bearing certificate at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign is one more market validation of microcredentials.
  • People increasingly will need to move back and forth between formal education and on-the-job learning, often working and learning simultaneously.
  • In a credential ecosystem, for-credit courses must focus on clear, delineated subject areas to ensure that learners find them valuable as standalone credentials.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the University of Illinois’ first credit-bearing graduate-level certificate. The board’s decision is an encouraging step toward the validation of stackable microcredentials in the education market.

The board’s approval also signals a turning point at my institution, the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, which is in the process of transforming its traditional degree-granting capacity. The approved program, the Campus Graduate Certificate, is one part of Gies College’s core strategy to match our areas of expertise to the changing demands of the workplace and provide microcredentials that stack into our other offerings.

We’re starting with eight Campus Graduate Certificates in areas such as accounting data analytics, digital marketing, entrepreneurship and strategic innovation, financial management, global challenges in business, managerial economics and business analysis, strategic leadership and management, and value chain management. Each certificate consists of 12 credit hours with the same rigor as our degree courses, and they are designed to be completed in four to 12 months. These are designed to serve learners seeking short, standalone credentials at any point during their careers.

Our portfolio includes everything from single skills-based micro courses to specialized graduate certificates to full degrees. By creating this credential ecosystem, we make it possible for learners to accrue discrete bodies of knowledge ­at their own pace—and to continue to do so throughout their careers. We want to equip students with in-demand skills, so that they can apply their skills in the market as quickly as possible.

The Changing Nature of Work

It’s almost a cliché to say that the way people work is being disrupted in every single industry. This disruption has sparked an increasing demand for continuous learning, as more workers recognize the constant need to “upskill” to prepare not only for jobs that are emerging, but for those still unseen over the horizon.

Higher education institutions, however, have been slow to respond to this market opportunity. This has left an opening for private companies, notably those in the tech sector, to offer credentialing for specific competencies. Companies such as Google, Apple, and IBM now offer credentialing programs that are technically focused. In many cases, these programs even carry the equivalent of college credit. In the U.S., for example, the American Council on Education evaluates corporate and military training opportunities and recommends whether they can carry ACE credits. Some institutions allow learners to transfer training approved for ACE credits to undergraduate degree programs.

As their offerings are more accepted in the mainstream, corporate providers will become bigger competitors in the learning space.

This trend presents a potential threat for higher education. As their offerings are more accepted in the mainstream, corporate providers will become bigger competitors in the learning space.

That said, colleges and universities have an advantage: They possess vast reserves of educational content created and delivered by credentialed experts. The credibility of this content is a market advantage that traditional providers can and should leverage, in creative ways, to meet the needs of today’s learners.

One way that we’ve found to gain this leverage is to look beyond thinking only in terms of degrees. Instead, we are now striving to create a full credential ecosystem designed to support lifelong learning.

Disaggregating the Degree

Today, employers and employees alike recognize that viewing education and work as separate, sequential activities makes much less sense in a world where the pace of change is accelerating. People increasingly need to move back and forth multiple times between formal education and on-the-job learning. Often, they must work and learn simultaneously.

That reality has been the driving force behind our development of Gies’ fully online iDegree programs, which include master’s degrees in business administration, accounting, and management. Each program is part of an expandable ecosystem of credit and noncredit learning opportunities that are stackable toward a full degree.

In terms of noncredit options, we offer skills-based self-paced micro courses in areas such as data analytics, leadership, and digital marketing. These courses include video lectures, readings, self-reflections, knowledge-check quizzes, and peer-graded assignments. Some of these courses can be completed in just a few hours or stretched out over longer periods of time to accommodate busy schedules. Upon course completion, students earn credentials such as skills badges and certificates. Each noncredit course serves as foundational material for a corresponding credit-bearing course.

Our for-credit and noncredit learning opportunities are designed by a range of Gies faculty, including tenured full professors, industry experts with decades of experience, and even a former dean of the college. Both types of courses help learners earn specialization badges and certificates, as well as the aforementioned Campus Graduate Certificate. These courses, which run up to eight weeks, offer a self-paced component that gives learners flexibility to learn on their own schedules.

Learners can enroll in a single MOOC, stack a completed MOOC into a future credit-bearing course, or complete a MOOC before applying to a degree program.

This portfolio presents a wealth of educational pathways. Learners can enroll in a single MOOC and never stack any courses toward a degree. They can start as nondegree learners and stack a completed MOOC into a future credit-bearing course. Finally, they can complete a MOOC, all while enrolled as degree students or before applying to a degree program.

It is critical that all learners have extensive opportunities to engage with their peers around the world and with our faculty. For this reason, self-paced content is complemented by high-engagement components such as weekly live sessions with faculty, graded assignments, group work, discussion boards, and faculty office hours.

We recognize that our focused courses must be valuable as standalone credentials, so each is dedicated to a clear, delineated, often skills-based subject area. This objective-based approach to learning allows learners to choose more easily which offerings meet their needs. We also provide them with course objectives so they can know up front what they will learn. Then, if they complete a noncredit course and want to dive more deeply into the topic, they can enroll in a related for-credit option.

Driving the Demand Curve

To market our stackable credentials, we have built on the product development and pricing that we established six years ago with our credit-bearing iDegree programs. The MOOC format on the Coursera learning platform allows us to engage students with our professors and content while cross-marketing our degree programs to those same students. We also promote these programs through our online presence, partnerships with industry organizations, paid advertising, informational webinars, and other direct-to-consumer channels.

We spend a lot of time assessing our programs and determining the right composition of our portfolio. For this, we rely on market and employment data, partner research, and trends in learner demand.

By making the relationships between our products clearly understood, we demonstrate the flexibility of our various educational options to prospective students. We have found that learners appreciate being able to stack shorter experiences toward larger learning opportunities that range from two weeks to two years.

We are confident that our approach will continue to reap benefits for our students, as well as for Gies College. Since our iDegree programs launched in 2016, more than 40 percent of our degree learners have come from noncredit paths. We expect that trend to continue.

W. Brooke Elliott
Executive Associate Dean of Academic Programs and EY Distinguished Professor in Accounting, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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