For years, institutions of higher learning have been diversifying their course offerings to appeal to more students. Not only are they offering a wider range of subjects in traditional study areas, they are capitalizing on technology to mix and match face-to-face and online learning for degree work.
Not surprisingly, ambitious colleges are also turning their attention to a somewhat underserved market: people who need continuing education but cannot afford the cost or time commitment of regular college courses. More mainstream colleges are following the lead of professional organizations, technical institutes, and community colleges, and are adding micro-credentialing opportunities to their academic offerings.
What Exactly is Micro-Credentialing?
- People without the time, money, or inclination to be full-time students can enroll in short, relatively cheap online courses designed to impart knowledge in a limited subject area related to a career skill, such as coding.
- For the effort, the student earns a digital badge testifying to competence in that area.
- By stringing together a series of badges, the student can qualify for a certificate in a wider subject—say, network architecture.
The benefits to micro-credentialing are greater knowledge, greater credibility, and potentially greater earning power.
Case in Point – University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School
Take the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, which started its Business Essentials online certificate course in 2009. The six-module program has curriculum developed by the business school faculty, offers real-world business training in an online format, and provides flexible scheduling to match each student’s needs. Each module takes 10-12 hours to complete, and the entire course can be navigated in as little as four months. The modules include:
- Introduction to Business
- Financial Accounting
- Economics and Finance
- Business Operations
- Business Communication
As Allison Bonner, a Business Essentials certificate holder, said in a 2016 interview with U.S. News & World Report, “The certificate program allowed me a way to get that kind of high-level . . . business knowledge at the time that I needed it, without having to try and find a job without anything on my resume that showed I understood the business world.”
High-level knowledge: accessed when it is needed and delivered how it is wanted, and at a good price. That’s a hard combination to beat.
While micro-credentials are increasingly popular, there are still issues that universities must handle:
- How to compare credentials across institutions, or what skill or knowledge is needed to earn a badge. Organizations such as the Lumina Foundation are taking the lead in addressing this by designing and building a 21st century higher-education system that meets the needs of all students.
- How to merge badges and certificates into full-scale degrees. Colleges are spending time and resources to ensure that students who earn certificates can seamlessly move into regular coursework.
- How to partner with other institutions that have varied specialties. A number of institutions are forming teams. One example is The Learning Store, a collaboration of six universities across the country that allows people to purchase learning apps for skills they want to acquire or strengthen.
Long Term Benefits
Lifelong learning is now expected throughout a person’s career. For individuals who have already invested in a two- or four-year degree, they may just want to brush up on one skill or learn some new ones to advance their careers. For others without a full degree, being able to focus their learning on specific skills can be the key to career and life advancement.