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Microcredentials in the Context of the Student Experience

I just read an opinion piece by the president of Aurora Community College regarding ACC’s first experience with issuing microcredentials. At the end of the piece, Mordecai Brownlee describes the elephant in the room.

“Critically speaking, the speed of these programs will not proficiently train students on soft (or essential) skills such as teamwork, interpersonal relations, complex thinking, or emotional intelligence. Furthermore, whether built as credit-bearing or non-credit pathways, microcredentials are by no means a substitute for the intensiveness or comprehensiveness of traditional higher education pathways.”

The focus on microcredentials is misguided. As Brownlee noted, they offer only minimal training and do not meet any of the critical bars that employers have set for employees – knowledge, experience, teamwork, analytical skills etc.

They also do not serve the student/employee. The microcredential holder goes into a work environment ill-equipped to succeed, even at a minimal level. It is at best frustrating and at worst excruciating. Without additional training and/or experience, these employees flail because they lack the basic knowledge, skills, and experience for the job, which a standard educational program would provide.

The microcredential is a largely thoughtless response to the perceived needs of the employer. It does not take into account the needs of the student or the work experience that awaits the holder. That is problematic, since student pays for the training – not the employer.

Who do microcredentials serve?

The unrelenting and misguided focus on employer needs ignores the “paying customer” – the student. Higher education institutions – especially at the community college level – should NOT focus their energies on meeting the needs of the employer. They should address the needs of the student – the person who’s paying the bill and to whom the institution owes transactional responsibility.

In an occupational or vocational education context, the student is not a third-party. Minus the student, no one needs the higher education institution. The institution never balances its chaotic back-channel conversation with an employer regarding what the employer needs with a conversation about what the student needs.

This leads to a one-sided, nominally employer-focused program that generates some limited cash for the institution, but meets the actual needs of neither the student nor the employer. This approach doesn’t likely meet the needs of the institution, either. (Enrollment at WCC has declined regularly since the institution switched its credentialing strategy.)

The failure to provide adequate skill-building and industry-relevant education to students is unforgivable. So, rather than doubling down on a strategy that serves no one, how about reshaping the strategy to focus on the paying customer?

Photo Credit: UN DRR , via Flickr