Take Five with David Schejbal: Micro-credentials bring education á la carte

David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach, and e-learning at University of Wisconsin–Extension, is among those who believe lifelong learning has become a necessity for gainful employment, and micro-credentialing is the latest example. Through the University Learning Store, an alternative credentialing partnership with some of the nation’s top universities, he’s helping jobseekers punch up their resumes in a new-fashioned way, by earning precisely the skills they need. In this Take Five interview, he explains the concept and how employers can benefit.

IB: What are micro-credentials and how do they help close the skills gap?

Schejbal: Micro-credential is a term for alternative credentials to traditional degree programs. They might be certificates, badges, competencies — it really depends. We don’t have a clear, common name for them, but they are credentials that signify to employers what knowledge a person has, specific knowledge, and how that person can apply that knowledge in a particular context.

IB: Do you view this as a way people can spackle the cracks in the resumes?

Schejbal: Yes, exactly. I’m dean of continuing education, outreach, and e-learning at the UW–Extension and so our focus is primarily the adult and nontraditional learner. Many of our students [already] have degrees, or they are not looking to get degrees. They are looking to get some evidence of their knowledge that employers will believe. What we’re doing is creating these short bursts of learning, coupled with authentic assessments, assessments that test the person’s ability to apply knowledge and practice, and then having employers validate it so that the student can use that credential and say to an employer, ‘Look, I can do this and here’s why you should believe me.’

IB: At what point do employers first validate the credentials? Are they helping you put these programs together or does validation come later in the process?

Schejbal: It happens at different stages. First we talk to employers about what they need — so, broadly speaking what are the skills sets they are looking for? And then once we start to develop the assessments we ask employers to review both the content, but especially the ways in which we test whether students are able to apply that knowledge in practice to make sure that the employers agree that it’s a good way to test the student’s abilities.

IB: Was this movement a response only to the skills gap or also the fact that some employers have disinvested from training?

Schejbal: There has been a disinvestment in training over the last several decades. Every time we go through a significant economic slump, training is usually one of the things that goes first and it’s one of the things that comes back last. Many employers prefer to outsource training in part because they often don’t remain current in the kind of training they need, especially in quickly evolving fields like information technology or health care. A lot of employers find it more cost effective to outsource training in general.

IB: Feedback on missing skills isn’t always clear from employers, so how do job seekers know which credentials to pursue?

Schejbal: It really depends on what they are trying to achieve. We provide counseling for students who want to talk about what they need and we especially do that for students who are seeking degrees. If a student calls and says, ‘I’m looking at the various things in the Learning Store and I don’t know which one to take,’ we’ll try to talk them through the various options and try to understand what the student is trying to achieve and why he or she is looking for another credential, and then help point them in another direction.



IB: Are those seeking micro-credentials more likely to be adults or recent college or tech school grads taking additional training upon graduation?

Schejbal: We have only a short history on this because we just launched the Learning Store a few weeks ago, so most of our students are adult students. Now, there are certainly organizations out there that cater specifically to students who are recent graduates, but those organizations are more like boot camps that put them through kind of an on-the-job experience in an eight-week intensive program or something like that.

IB: The temptation is to think this is a manufacturing-dominated trend. Is it?

Schejbal: No, we believe there are opportunities across the spectrum, and this is why the Learning Store has three departments. So, there is the power-skills department, which is the one we started developing first, and these are the kinds of skills that are go across all industries. They are things like communications skills, teamwork, problem solving, and resilience — those kinds of things. Those are not really industry specific.

Then we have a technical skills department, and there we imagine industry-specific skills but not just in IT. They can be in health care, agriculture, or climate science, and they can be in a broad variety of fields.

And then, finally, we have what we call advanced business skills, which would be things like leadership, public speaking, numerical literacy, and those types of things.

IB: If an employer wants to contribute somehow or get involved with micro-credentials to solve a problem or find employees, how would they go about it?

Schejbal: There are several ways. One is if the employer sees an area where content for the Learning Store or particular modules in the Learning Store would be useful, I’d love to talk to that person or someone on my staff could talk to that individual.

If employers want tailored programs for their companies, we’re happy to have those conversations. From the beginning, we imagined there might be pieces in the Learning Store that an employer would want to combine into a training experience and then maybe add one or two specialized, tailored modules that we would develop specifically for the employer to really tailor it for that employer’s specific needs.

Part II of this Take Five interview will be posted in Thursday’s Ezine.

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