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Centralised methods of education have been the hub of learning historically for a long time. However, at what we now consider the K-12 level, education was often decentralised. Learning occurred at home, or with a small local community of leaders with different specialties, in one-room schoolhouses and more.

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With the COVID-19 crisis, once again K-12 education became decentralised, to an extent. Not on the scale it has in the past, but 1 in 5 families chose for their children not to attend boundary area public schools during the pandemic, but opted for home-schooling, private schools and even “pod” schools instead. 

Still, the system is largely centrally controlled by school districts and state and government regulations. Students must pass standardised tests no matter where they attend school, and in some areas must adhere to a certain number of “learning hours” for their diplomas or certificates to be considered valid. 

While educators themselves often supplement their continuing education credits with micro-credentials, students have been afforded limited opportunities so far.

When we reach the post-secondary level, many of the same issues remain. Funding is a big reason frameworks remain arguably more rigid than they need to be. But it’s not just about funding, frameworks, and tradition. It’s about the argument over the burden of knowledge as technology progresses and knowledge accumulates. It’s about the “death of the Renaissance man” and the fear that narrow specialisation will stifle innovation, mandate dependence on teamwork, and the potential negative impacts that might have on growth.

This is not a new concept: Benjamin F. Jones explored this in a well-known and often quoted paper, “The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?” published in 2005.

But with college and course completion rates at just 60% (and not getting much better), the looming nightmare of education debt without a degree is very real. But what if there was another answer?

What if micro-credentials could integrate with higher education? What if just because a learner didn’t complete a degree didn’t mean they had nothing to verify and recognise the skills they learned?

The Difference Between Degrees and Employment

We’ve talked about this difference before, but it is important to remind ourselves that though it might have been different in the past, no longer does a degree mean employment. Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data out of the UK allows us to understand better than ever before the impacts of different qualifications, institutions and, to some extent demographics, on individuals’ earning potential. According to Institute of Student Employers (ISE) research “the overwhelming majority (86 per cent) of employers say that they are not looking for graduates with particular degree subjects. Very few are interested in recruiting postgraduates with only 2 percent of employers setting postgraduate degrees as a minimum requirement and only 15 percent agreeing that hires with postgraduate degrees have better skills than other hires.

Instead, they say, “Most employers are looking to hire people who have certain skills and attributes rather than those who hold a particular qualification or attended a particular institution. Qualifications and institutions continue to hold a lot of symbolic power, but what employers are focused on is skills and other personal qualities.”

Besides the need to go beyond a bachelor’s degree for employment, there are other reasons that students who have degrees choose to either not seek employment or to work in another field. In what is being called “The Great Resignation” more people are not only quitting their jobs than ever before, but many are looking to make a major career change. But to do that, they need to acquire skills, which can come through education.

They do, but the question becomes where they are turning to get that education. More and more often, they turn to the employers they want to work for.

The Rise of Free Credentials

What are employers doing? Well, there are two approaches, and both are being pursued with equal enthusiasm. Employers are offering vocational specific courses, often for free, to attract talent to work with them or with their partner organisations. Microsoft, for example, have partnered with MEGT, Prodigy Learning and TAFE Queensland for the expansion of the Microsoft Traineeship Program into Queensland. The program, which combines paid on the job training with a Certificate IV in Information Technology, aims to grow a diverse pipeline of tech talent against the backdrop of a growing IT skills shortage. Students on the program will also obtain globally recognised Microsoft certifications as part of the Azure Administrator Certification Track.

Google offers a Career Credentials Program, integrated with Coursera, and boasts that the program has helped put nearly 170,000 Americans in new jobs. But they are now expanding that program from Coursera to local community colleges and learning institutions, where learners can get the best of both worlds: traditional, broad education while focusing on acquiring Google Career Certificates at the same time, credentials that lead directly to employment.

And Google is not the only organisation that is doing so. LinkedIn Learning offers 16,000 asynchronous courses through a subscription service resulting from the acquisition of Lynda.com in 2015. Microsoft, the parent company of LinkedIn, acquired TakeLessons for the same purpose. The University of South Australia (UniSA) joined forces with LinkedIn Learning to help learners expand their professional skill set with pathways into a range of university degrees. These can then be applied to a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and education certificates including Business, Information Technology, Digital Media, Data Science and Communication. Students who complete selected Learning Pathways on LinkedIn Learning are eligible to receive course credit into a UniSA degree (with digital credential) upon successful completion of an online assessment.

Similarly, the University of Huddersfield was chosen by LinkedIn Learning to be part of a new international education partnership that includes just six other universities from across the globe and will be able to offer people who complete select LinkedIn Learning online learning paths the opportunity to gain official academic credit.

Facebook recently released two new credentials through their career programs, and graduates get access to an exclusive job board upon completion of the course. Other free or low-cost training programs include Grow with Google, IBM Learning, and Salesforce.

However, many educators are not fans of this new dynamic. The reasons are simple: the narrowly vocational focus of micro-credentials that they feel is anti-lifelong learner, and the reductionist nature of it.

What’s the answer? There isn’t a specific clear one, and to quote a Facebook relationship status, “It’s complicated.”

Micro-credentials in (and out of) Higher Education

Higher education completion rates are often a large discussion. The question of why a learner does not complete a degree or course can be complex, and related to finances, individual goals, changing personal priorities, and more.

When asked in our 2021 Employability Outcomes Survey recently, just under 16% were underemployed for personal reasons like caring for a loved one, travel, or starting a family. Another 25% discovered they were passionate about another career field or industry which they then pursued.

It’s also important to understand innovation: what it is, and who innovators are. Because inevitably the question of “Do micro-credentials and narrowly vocational focused certifications discourage lifelong learning?” must be followed by the question, “Should everyone be a lifelong learner?”

To tackle the first question, one could argue that with an average job tenure of around 4 years, and a frequent desire to change careers, micro-credentials may actually encourage lifelong career learning. However, even innovators must specialise, and so one could argue that lifelong learning applies to everyone, just differently for those who seek to be innovators and not necessarily “typical” career works, if such a thing even still exists.

As Jones states in Burden of Knowledge, “Innovators must further choose a specific area of knowledge to learn. They choose their degree of specialisation as a trade-off between the costs and benefits of education: greater knowledge leads to increased innovative potential, but it also costs more to acquire.” This lines up with Einstein’s declaration that “Everything I have learned, I have learned from standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The issue is that as knowledge and literature grows, that climb onto the shoulders of giants gets more challenging, a part of the reason that a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean as much to an employer as it once did. The education system has not failed: there is simply more knowledge to be gained in any given field than at any other time in history. “Innovators also seek to avoid crowding: other things equal, the greater the density of innovators in a particular area of knowledge, the less expected income each will earn,” Jones continues. “The equilibrium defines the educational decisions of innovators - the total amount of education they seek, their degree of specialisation, and their consequent propensity to form teams.”

All those things being said, it’s feasible that for some lifelong learners, the stacking of micro-credentials into a degree or even multiple degrees or certifications may become a normal part of their career path, and integrating micro-credentials into higher education may enable them to gain more meaningful employment while completing their education. Google and others see this potential, the reason for integrating their credentials into higher education: they’re reaching a talent pool they’ve been unable to tap before. Both higher education and the employer come out ahead from this trade-off.

In no way does this negate the value of higher education at the master’s level and beyond. For those who seek to innovate in their fields, the climb onto the backs of giants will always offer significant benefit. Still, specialisation will continue to be the watchword, and in no way does a narrowly vocational focus negate educational value at any level.

How do we get to a place of harmonious existence between micro-credentials and higher education while maintaining a view toward mastery and innovation? Well, that’s both simple and complex at the same time.

Show Me the Money (Again)

The idea of an education SWIFT Code begs the question: what would that SWIFT Code mean? To get an idea, let’s take a look at what tIf a university no longer has a lock on the knowledge a learner needs for employment, and in fact they can get a lot of that knowledge for free or at a very low-cost, why attend a university at all? What is the learner's return on investment?

In the United States, while college enrolment is down overall, enrolment in many vocational focused programs is up overall. That doesn’t include the increased enrolment in private, for-profit vocationally focused programs. Combined that means since 2016, vocational enrolment has essentially doubled. Learners are looking for education that leads to employment, and the more direct that route, the more desirable it has become.

But there is another factor. Integrating micro-credentials in existing higher education frameworks is cheaper than creating an entirely new program. Public institutions tend to get more funding from a larger number of sources, meaning the overall cost to students is lower than that of a for-profit private school.

This is the argument for not replacing degrees with micro-credentials but adding micro-credentials to existing degree programs, or allowing learners to “stack” those credentials to achieve a degree or certificate, but to do so within existing frameworks.

Because while big-tech companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Tesla, and others may be able to create their own frameworks and develop internal education systems, most small to medium-sized businesses cannot. The fact also remains that despite micro-credentials increasing employment opportunities, for the most part, if they can afford it, learners also still turn to the qualification as validation of their learning, particularly in the MBA space.

In fact, many argue that education, as it is unbundled at the moment, will be rebundled into a new blend, one with micro-credentials at the core of revitalised frameworks. A future is envisioned where tech giants and universities, vocational schools and community colleges all cooperate with one goal in mind: the connection of the learner with both learning for learning’s sake and meaningful employment as a result of that learning.

While all of this discussion raises more questions than it answers, one thing is clear: education is going through a transformation. The unbundling is happening now, the space is being disrupted, but not forever. Funding, the need employers have for skilled workers, and the changing job market will all work to shape the future of education.

What role will micro-credentials and credential engines play? What will the school and the degree of tomorrow look like? We don’t have the answers, but we love to talk about it. Join the discussion. Let us know your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

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Credentialate is the world's first Credential Evidence Platform that helps you discover and share evidence workplace skills and is the first to introduce Skills-First Evidence Alignment. Credentialate is the only digital badging platform that includes a personalised qualitative and quantitative evidence record verified direct from within the digital badge. For institutions, educators can map and manage their skills infrastructure and track skills attainment across the institution and against existing frameworks.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.


Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

In this blog series, we focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace - who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face:

  • Final-Stakeholders-Modern-Credential-Marketplace-1200x685Lens on Learners - how can micro-credentials help today's learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators - if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?  
  • Lens on Employers - how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?
  • Lens on Associations - how are professional bodies taking action to address the skills gap and what role does micro-credentialing play in with their plans?
  • Lens on Governments - what regulations and standards are being set by Governments to keep pace with the rise of micro-credentials?

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