How Micro-Credentials Recognise 21st Century Skills and Boost Employability
Technology continues to transform the workplace and the way we learn. We now know that there is an...
As we focus our Lens on Educators in the latest arc of our Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace series, the real story is the interaction between educators and learners. Because it is the learners who will take the skills and knowledge transferred to them through education out into the world, where they will need to do something with them.
There are a few challenges. First, the skills taught must be defined in a way the learner understands and can communicate to others. We must use learning activities to embed the skills we wish to teach into the curriculum while maintaining the standards mandated by current frameworks.
From there, we need to find a way to measure and assess skills in a meaningful way that goes beyond grades and transcripts, and equips the learner with a detailed assessment of what they have learned. The learner must be able to understand and interpret those assessments quickly and easily.
The mastery of those skills must then be presented to the student in a manner that is portable, verifiable, and can be turned into the currency of employability.
Much of this effort falls on the shoulders of educators, many who work in understaffed programs or institutions, and are stretched thin without adding any additional workload. However in every aspect of these challenges, there is good news. Institutions and others are finding ways to meet them, and are working to equip learners for the workplace of tomorrow.
Let’s take a look at some definitions, and then examine some of the good things that are happening.
Before we dive into any topic, it is important that terms are well defined at the start. This is to ensure we are all speaking the same language. For example, the skills of employability go by several names:
The real takeaway from all of these definitions? Well, there are a couple. First of all, while these terms are often used interchangeably, they have different definitions. While it could be argued that they are close enough, this may largely depend upon the audience you are talking to.
Secondly, a quick Google search of the above terms will net you several different definitions for each. While they also may be similar in meaning, there are differences, and again this is often due to the intended audience of the source.
To communicate effectively about these skills, we need to ensure that learners and educators agree on the same definitions, even in general terms, before we start a conversation. In that same vein, we must also define education, because there are different types which result in different outcomes, and each has different value when it comes to employability.
A good example of these efforts is the cooperative effort between Western Governors University (WGU) and Emsi. Their first step in defining and identifying skills involved first targeting industries, and then drilling down even further. Millions of job postings were analysed, determining the language used by employers seeking job candidates. Emsi then did the work of using statistical and manual vetting to narrow the list of in-demand skills from over 20,000 to around 1,000. This still sounds like a large number, but it is more manageable as we will see later in this article.
Let’s look at an example to get started: if your grandfather was a carpenter, he might have taught you something he called “head math.” You may have learned, even as a child, tips and skills needed to do math problems in your head without the need for pencil, paper, or a calculator. This skill may have come in very handy for you at times. However, it has little value when it comes to employability. Why?
Because this knowledge was a part of your informal education. In fact, as defined by nonformaleducation.org, informal education “occurs whether or not there is a deliberate choice and is realised in the performance of activities in everyday situations and interactions that take place. It is without external support and is not institutionalised and occurs within the context of work, family and leisure.”
In short, your grandfather simply taught you useful skills as you worked alongside him. There was no institution involved, nor did you get some kind of certification verifying your math skills. While you may have received a pat on the back, you can’t use that to showcase your knowledge to someone else. You can only do this by demonstration. In fact, if you later tried to use those skills in your formal school learning, an educator probably asked you to “show your work” to illustrate that you understood how to get to the answer in a reliable manner.
This type of education is also different from non-formal education. This type of learning is “characterised by a deliberate engagement of a person, in any organisation which provides purposeful education and training, even volunteering, civil service, private social service and in enterprises. Non-formal education is any type of structured and organised learning which is intentional and planned by an educational provider, but which does not lead to formal qualifications recognised by the relevant national education authorities.”
A good example of this is the Scout organisations (both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts) around the world. Participants are intentionally taught life skills, many of them soft skills that relate directly to employability. While some Scouting achievements are definitely “resume worthy” they are not recognised by “relevant national education authorities.” Still, Scouting organisations partner with and rely heavily on educational institutions in their communities, including schools, churches, civic organisations and more. This is changing, as this year for the first time through a partnership with West Virginia University in the United States, BSA leadership training can earn a Scout college credit.
Still, for the most part skills that are related to employability are taught in a formal setting, defined as primary, secondary, tertiary education, including vocational and university education that culminate in the achievement of a recognised certification, diploma, degree or professional qualification.
This is why our focus is on educators in the formal education system. We know that if lifelong learners are created in the formal education system, non-formal and even informal learning will have a greater impact later on. We’re not talking about the four year curriculum, but the sixty year curriculum, and the education that never really stops.
Looking at the larger picture can be daunting though, so instead we want to focus on what educators can do for learners right now.
Of course, any lens on learning activities will focus on a couple of different things, and are equally important when helping learners identify and speak to durable skills:
This brings us back to the cooperative effort in which WGU and Emsi analysed curriculum to determine some key things. First, were the skills that were being taught actually sought after by employers? Those were identified as “sought skills” that were actively being taught.
Next, the analysis looked at sought skills that did not show up in the curriculum, identifying learning gaps that could then be acted on. Finally, they looked at excess skills: competencies that were taught, but were not “sought” or “in-demand” by industry.
This insight could then be applied to adding learning activities to bridge the skills gap, and eliminating learning activities that had no impact on employability unless they offered some other tangible value to the learner. Only then is it possible to move to the next step.
This is a two-part challenge. First, most teachers came up through a framework that is either identical or similar to the ones we would like to change. In short, teachers often teach the way they were taught. But in reality:
“Teachers need to know about curriculum resources and technologies to connect their students with sources of information and knowledge that allow them to explore ideas, acquire and synthesize information, and frame and solve problems. And teachers need to know about collaboration: how to structure interactions among students, how to collaborate with other teachers, and how to work with parents to shape supportive experiences at school and home.” - Edutopia
If that sounds like a lot, it is, and this quote is from an article that is two decades old. This is not a new challenge, but it is clear that new strategies are needed (and are being implemented) to teach teachers how to teach. “Better settings for such learning are appearing,” Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in the article quoted above. “More than 300 schools of education in the United States have created programs that extend beyond the traditional four-year bachelor's degree program. Some are one- or two-year graduate programs for recent graduates or mid-career recruits.”
At the same time, teachers must conform to current educational frameworks, ensure students can comply with often mandatory standardised testing requirements, and balance that with communicating with sensitivity to the many things students could be dealing with outside of school.
There are non-formal efforts in this area. The European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) - the leading network of innovative education and research, has set up a webpage that encourages learners to enter challenges. One of the examples on this website is the Autumn Challenge consists of educational sessions (lectures), skills workshops and a virtual team collaboration to solve a challenge, centred around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG11) on creating sustainable cities and communities.
The WACE Global Challenge is a student-industry project program that involves multi-disciplinary, multinational teams of university students who work on real projects provided by industry clients to assist organisations to advance initiatives aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Global Challenge was launched in 2020 and to date over 140 students located in 21 countries from 17 institutions have participated, with more programs planned in 2021 and 2022. WACE has partnered with Practera to implement the programme. In 2021, Edalex participated as an industry partner with WACE.
The outcomes have been astounding. “This was a very unique experience which challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and work with people from different backgrounds and disciplines from across the globe,” a student from Ghana says. “I think the idea of this program is fantastic and gives students a great opportunity to work on a consulting project in a different way."
“It is a good opportunity to develop skills, work on real life problems and network with like-minded peers," another student from Ghana told us. Watch the video below for another.
All of these efforts are steps in the right direction, but it leads us to another question for educators. How do we measure, assess, and document these skills in a way that is beneficial to learners?
“The work of WGU and Emsi in developing a skills map and basing future curriculum changes on that are impressive, but ultimately, the vision is for our programs to be so well-aligned to industry needs that the skills employers value most are the learning outcomes for WGU’s programs - and students get maximum return on investment from each and every course they take,” Kacey Thorne, Director of Program Architecture for WGU says.
The challenge is, assessing these competencies in such a way that the results of those assessments become part of a transcript. There are a number of ways to do this, from a richer evaluation that goes beyond a simple letter grade, to digital badges assigned to each competency that may become either a part of, or a companion to, a traditional school transcript.
Credentialate and others are working to make this ideal a reality, from non-formal to formal education settings. The ideal “skills passport” would be digital, portable, visible, and verifiable. This learner record could then be presented to an employer as proof of competencies.
This is not the entire answer though. Different skills have different applications in varying settings. Data analysis for a marketing company differs from that of a financial institution, and therefore skills would also need to be layered with contextual information. Effectively, a micro-credential or digital badge, however it is earned and verified, has to be evidence-based and aligned to recognised frameworks in order to help learners to speak their competencies and skills to employers successfully.
Even when we are speaking the same language, things can get confusing. This is why understanding is such an important part of this process.
In some ways, we have already covered the keys to equipping learners with both understanding and the ability to communicate competencies and skills. The first is establishing clear definitions. By both identifying the skills in demand by employers in a given industry and providing an agreed upon definition of those skills, we’ve provided a basis upon which learners can evaluate their own education based on “sought skills.”
When the learner can then speak to those skills themselves in a meaningful way, then they will be able to talk to those durable skills with potential employers, showing not only a clear understanding of what they are, but also of the core competencies they as students possess.
However, a part of that communication process is also the verifiable proof offered by either digital badging or micro-credentialing. A learner must be able to talk to their durable skills, but they must also have a way for employers and even other educational institutions to verify those skills.
What are your thoughts? What are ways educators help their students identify and speak to durable skills relevant to today’s job market? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.
In this blog series, we will focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace - who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face.
Margo’s in-depth knowledge and experience of micro-credentialing is the result of working in and with higher education providers and edtech leaders, nationally and internationally. She is passionate about the positive impact of technology within education and the enablement of lifelong learning and agility. Margo is a connector at heart and is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in all areas of life.
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