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As the Microcredential Market Booms, Don’t Forget the Learner

By Kathleen deLaski     Oct 31, 2019

As the Microcredential Market Booms, Don’t Forget the Learner
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I still remember the day in 1999 when, as a Product Director at AOL, I was invited to brainstorm our approach to the hot new thing consumers wanted: Search. There were no competitors in those heady days, just this little upstart with a baffling name and home page that was blank, except for the search box. AOL’s answer was to monetize the hell out of search, fill up the home page with ads and promotions, because users need suggestions on what to search for, right? It took us way too long to realize that Google’s founder and his PhD thesis, PageRank, were about to kick our butts to deliver crowd-sourced, user-recommended search results. We did not have the customer at the table.

Fast forward 20 years. I’m lucky enough to be at the table as we find ourselves designing the first instances of the  Learner Revolution—the emerging marketplace where consumers are starting to “shop direct” for individual skills rather than buy a whole degree from a college. It’s early days, but I’m hoping not to forget the customer this time.

At least 20 percent of American colleges now offer badges—non-credit and for-credit credentials that capture specific competencies, from coding to oral communication. More of these digital proofs of skills are expected to become available at a rapid clip, from both traditional colleges and alternative providers. By some estimates, within a decade, only 30 to 40 percent of “college students” will physically attend a college to earn a degree, while many of the rest will shop for chunks of education and training that allow them to take the next step in their careers while also stacking toward an eventual degree.

Although the market for micro-credentials is nascent, employer acceptance is growing. One in five employers report that they have hired someone with a verified certificate from a platform such as Coursera or EdX. In fact, the boom in microcredentials is being fed in large part by major companies—IBM, Google, and Amazon, to name a few—looking to grow their talent pipeline and increase the skill level of current employees.

But while employers are critical constituents, we must ensure that in our rush to meet their needs, we aren’t forgetting the learner. At a recent design session hosted by Education Design LabConcentric Sky and Arizona State University, I was impressed by how far the thinking and experimentation have come around infrastructure and data standards for microcredentials, yet how little we still understand about the needs and desires of end-users.

This raises a pressing question: While this system of microcredentials theoretically will make learning more affordable, portable and relevant, will a diverse range of learners know how and why to take advantage of it? And perhaps more importantly, will they trust it?

The simple answer: only if we intentionally focus on designing around that question.

Creating the “Why” for Learners

We often approach these questions by creating “personas,” archetypes of who we are designing for, to get to some typical needs of the audience and to prioritize them. So far, we see three types of learners in the micro-credentialing marketplace:

  1. Ninja Career Climbers: Already employed, skilled career climbers, mostly in IT and other in-demand roles with easily verifiable skill sets. These learners know that digital badges and certificates will make them discoverable in the growing number of search tools that employers use to target very specific skills. IBM and Salesforce are two companies who first used badges to promote skill-building for employee advancement, and that are now using them to find outside talent.
  2. Newbies to the Hiring Game: Degree-earning college students typically focus on bolstering their resume with lists of activities and a solid GPA in a degree field. They need convincing that they should consider micro-credentials as ways to look more attractive to employers as they search for their first job. San Jose State University has created an awareness campaign to show students how digitally discoverable badges, highlighting specific competencies, will supplement or even become the resume over time as employers try to find candidates.
  3. Frontline workers with high potential but low digital confidence: We’ve seen more employers invest in upskilling for this group. For example, our lab is working with retail employees at Goodwill Industries and Alamo Colleges to introduce competency-based pathways, online and in person. These learners typically look to trusted advisors, such as a job supervisor, to decide whether or not to seek an alternative credential to earn a promotion or to better prospects.

Today, most efforts are targeting that first group. More needs to be done for all groups to establish a world where workers can assemble their own path through these new kinds of microcredentials in a meaningful way.

Designing the “How” for Learners

In the rush to provide more and more education and training options—we must also ensure that we aren’t creating a marketplace that’s actually harder to navigate. (A recent report found there are now 475,000 discrete non-degree credentials in the US, double the number recorded last year.) To harness the coming deluge, we need to focus on:

  1. A scalable, open, transparent, universal taxonomy to help learners and employers make sense of the sea of new credentials. OpenTaxonomy.org is one example. Labor market data company EMSI just made its skills database open source for us all to create better skills maps.
  2. Highly-visible tools that allow learners to visualize the relationships between skills, career pathways and salary opportunities.
  3. Policies and practices that address privacy and data ownership concerns. We believe that the future of learner data should be controlled by learners in a way that spans traditional information silos.
  4. A better awareness among all workers about how to build a fully digital, competency-based resume of the future.

And we should design these structures with the most disadvantaged Americans top of mind.

Indeed, design often works best when we design in collaboration with extreme users, those who likely need the innovation most. The typewriter was invented for a blind person. The telephone was invented to help the deaf. Let’s invent the digital credential hiring marketplace not just for, but with those who currently lack social networks and opportunity.

Kathleen deLaski is the founder and president of Education Design Lab, and a former AOL product designer.Workforce Training Higher Education

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