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To design microcredentials that meet student needs, follow these 3 steps

November 17, 2023, By Davis Cousar, Research Analyst

Professional, continuing, and online education (PCO) units are facing pressure to quickly stand up microcredential offerings. And because there is not yet a clear standard for what a microcredential should be, and every institution is defining microcredentials slightly differently, deciding what specific action to take in response to that pressure can be overwhelming.

From conversations with 100+ PCO leaders about their microcredential strategies, we found that the institutions best able to find their place in the microcredential ecosystem design their offerings to meet the needs of a particular group of students. Rather than trying to build many types of microcredentials all at once, they focus on one specific application of the value of microcredentials. Schools that don’t target a particular student need risk creating offerings that simply align with trends or “keep up with the Joneses” but struggle to gain real traction.

To design microcredentials around the needs of students, follow these three steps:

Step 1: Decide on the student need that microcredentials will serve at your institution

The first step to developing microcredentials that meet student needs is deciding on the particular need your institution is best suited to address. Most often, microcredentials are aimed at solving one of these three student needs:
  1. Students need help describing the skills and abilities achieved in their education to employers

    Many students have difficulty conveying the concrete skills that they learned in a degree. Institutions that target this need are typically focused on designing microcredentials for undergraduate students.

  2. Working professionals with bachelor's degrees need to reskill as their industry's needs change

    This long-standing need will only grow in the near term as employers need staff to quickly learn new skills amidst advancements in artificial intelligence and other technology. Many institutions are interested in addressing this need to attract adult learners.

  3. Prospects are interested in continuing their education but are daunted by the idea of enrolling in a full master's degree

    The opportunity to test the waters with a microcredential may entice these wary students to give graduate work a try. Institutions with this focus typically seek to attract students currently not choosing to pursue higher education.

While there might be some overlap between these needs, when entering the microcredential space for the first time, it is best to focus on serving one student need and to design your offerings around that need. Otherwise, institutions run the risk of overcommitting and limiting their potential to offer value to the students that they want to serve.

Step 2: Select the microcredential design that best addresses the student need you are targeting

Certain types of microcredential offerings are best suited to address the student needs listed in the previous section. Here are several examples of institutions that have designed microcredentials to meet these needs.

To help students describe skills to employers: Badge existing content

  • Oregon State (OSU) ECampus wants to help students better articulate their skills to employers in job interviews, so they offer microcredentials with associated badges that highlight the skills students will use in the workplace. Examples include Programming Fundamentals, Digital Marketing Fundamentals, and Professional Sales. Students are awarded a badge when they complete any OSU Ecampus microcredential.
  • Florida International University (FIU) allows undergraduates to complete an assessment to earn a badge that demonstrates a specific skill they acquired in their undergraduate coursework. These badges help students validate their skills for employers. Examples include Public Speaking, Science Communication and Storytelling, and Leading Remote and Hybrid Teams. FIU’s offerings are unique in that some are broadly applicable to many different careers while others are specific and designed to help students break into niche careers, such as deep-sea diving and robotics.

To help students reskill or upskill: Offer microcredentials that build concrete skills

  • University of North Texas (UNT) designed its microcredential strategy as a +1 to help working adults develop tangible skills they can utilize in the workplace. Their Data Visualization microcredential is self-paced and designed to help students immediately add value for their employers upon completing the program. After completion, employees are equipped with the skills to create different types of data visualizations and the discernment to know which visualization techniques to use in different contexts. Anyone can enroll in the offering regardless of their educational background.
  • Florida Gulf Coast University designed a microcredential to provide students with a pipeline to a job interview. They worked with an employer partner, Arthrex, to design an assessment for microcredential students. Arthrex attends and helps evaluate final oral presentations in the Fundamentals of Medical Device Industry microcredential. Students who pass the assessment and earn the badge successfully demonstrate that they have the skills to pinpoint the needs of healthcare and medical providers and design products to meet those needs. These students are guaranteed an interview with Arthrex.

To serve students reluctant to enroll in a full degree: Design microcredentials that stack into larger credentials

  • Metropolitan State University Denver offers short courses that stack into microcredentials. These courses then stack towards certificates and full bachelor’s degrees. MSU Denver uses graphics to show prospects and students that they have multiple options from a noncredit course—they can enter the workforce or use that noncredit credential to build an undergraduate certificate or a bachelor’s degree. MSU Denver also shows the estimated salary data associated with each option (e.g., MSU Denver’s Fundamentals of Wedding Planning pathway). They have built 12 different stackable pathways. All of these give students an opportunity to pursue further education in bite-sized chunks while achieving defined career goals.
  • Carnegie Mellon University split one of its on-ground master’s programs into four online certificates. When students take all four certificates (in any order) and a final capstone course to assess their learning, they earn a master’s degree. As a result of this change, they have seen more applicants for the traditional on-campus master’s program despite faculty fears that microcredential enrollment would cannibalize master’s enrollment.

Step 3: Use student surveys to ensure that your microcredentials are meeting student needs

Even the best market research and program design cannot create the perfect microcredential, especially when student needs and market demands are rapidly changing. In order to ensure that your microcredential offerings continue to provide value to the students you want to serve, use student surveys to evaluate them.

University of North Texas implemented a survey that students must complete before earning a badge for their data visualization microcredential. The survey asks questions about student reasons for enrolling in the microcredential and how the microcredential supported their professional goals. They use the survey results to refine their offerings.

For example, through analyzing these survey results, UNT learned that students find significant value in Toyota’s endorsement of their data visualization microcredential. Even students who are not interested in working for Toyota report that they appreciate the corporate recognition. As a result, UNT plans to seek out industry endorsements for other microcredentials that they create.

Davis Cousar headshot

Davis Cousar

Research Analyst

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