A Short Glossary of Alternative Credentials In Higher Ed


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Posted In: Workforce Insight

Oct • 19 • 2018

glossary of credentials in higher ed

A 4-year degree is still the primary credential for professional-level employment. But traditional degrees have several limitations, and alternatives are emerging to overcome those limitations.

From the employer’s perspective, a degree may communicate little about what a student is able to do. From a student’s perspective, a degree program requires setting aside 4 years to be on campus, which isn’t practical for most working adults.

Also, degree programs may be overkill for some career development. Many working adults simply need to learn a particular software language or an advanced accounting practice.

Students and employers are being offered a growing menu of learning models that promise to overcome these limitations. They may have a clearer signal about what’s learned, they may be more flexible, or they may be focused and time-limited.

These are often referred to collectively as “alternative credentials,” as in an alternative to the degrees from accredited 4-year colleges.

It can be difficult to keep track of all the options emerging with this catch-all label. This short glossary of alternative credentials may prove helpful in your understanding of these new terms.

Traditional credentials by alternative means: Competency-based education

As we go through these, we’ll sometimes see that the alternative credentials conversation includes learning innovations beyond the credential itself. Sometimes it’s not the credential that is alternative but something else about the learning experience.

Competency-based degrees are one such example. They are usually brought up in the same conversation with alternative credentials, but strictly speaking, this is an alternative learning model that leads to a familiar credential. Competency-based education (CBE) delivers instruction based on tracking achievement rather than monitoring credit hours or seat time. The end result is typically still a diploma or degree.

The most traditional of alternative credentials

Certificates are usually awarded by an accredited university, college or technical school. Certificates confirm that students have acquired specific career skills that qualify them for a job. They typically cover a skill set narrower than a degree does. Certificates may be in professional skills like financial reporting, family therapy or a specialized area of nursing.

Modularized credentials

Badges are digital icons that signify an individual has mastered a skill or completed a project. Badges generally represent a limited number of activities. Any organization can independently establish the criteria for a family of badges and certify achievement. Organizations that have established badge programs have included community groups, trade associations, employers, publishers, schools, after-school programs, and other nonprofits. Learners can display the badges they have earned on websites, social media sites and online portfolios.

Microcredentials typically consist of 2-4 college courses that represent a focused subject area. They often result in credit on a transcript and can be built upon should the student continue later toward a full certificate or degree.

Credentials from MOOCs

MOOCs— short for Massive Open Online Courses — are not credentials, but rather a format of online learning. MOOCs are often offered in partnership with well-known universities using online versions of their existing course catalogs. Some MOOC platforms offer credentials that are alternatives to the accredited degree programs from those same universities.

Specialization Certificate is the term used by Coursera for paid course bundles. These are offered in a broad range of university topics in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and professions. For example, within engineering, a student can complete a specialization in power electronics.

MasterTrack Certificate is another Coursera credential resulting from a module of courses within an online master’s degree program.

xSeries Certificate is the credential awarded by edX for completion of a sequence of around 4 courses on a subject or skill.

MicroMasters is edX’s version of the MasterTrack Certificate.

Nanodegree is the credential award by Udacity for completion of one of their course bundles in a particular skills area.

A move away from credentials

Coding bootcamps are typically 8-15 weeks of intensive training in software engineering skills to prepare students for immediate employment in an entry-level role.

Bootcamps are often discussed in the same conversation with alternative credentials, but, again, it’s really the format that’s alternative. They may award some kind of certificate on completion, but, if anything, coding bootcamps try to make certificates irrelevant by creating such a tight alignment between skills and employment that students get job offers immediately on “demo day” at the end of a course.

What’s next for alternative credentials?

Along with the growth of competency-based education, we may see a parallel movement toward competency-based hiring. Employers are looking for clearer signals about what the credentials in the talent pool actually mean. In 2017, LinkedIn polled learning and development (L&D) authorities about emerging trends, and 60% predicted hiring would be increasingly based on what the applicant can do as opposed to what degree they have.

The LinkedIn survey also found that 57% predicted hiring would put more emphasis on nontraditional credentials. That could mean that workers with alternative credentials will have an advantage in the labor market.

But students and employers will need some common understanding of what providers of alternative credentials (and alternative formats) are referring to.

Lumina Foundation, for example, has the Credentials Framework project. It aims to construct a unified basis to codify and verify what it terms a “highly fragmented” ecosystem “ranging from badges and industry-based certifications to 2- and 4-year degrees and beyond.” Doing so, the foundation hopes, will bring transparency and portability to the alternative credentials marketplace.

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Robert McGuire operates McGuire Editorial Content Marketing Agency, which specializes in education technology companies.