(Looking Back and Looking Forward takes a look at the articles and posts I found interesting from the previous week, along with reflections about how the trends they point to might shape my thinking about education and technology.)

So, what do we talk about when we talk about credentials, alternative credentials, and microcredentials?

After all, badges, certificates, and certifications (all non-degree stuff) are all the rage. But why?

While college enrollments continue to decline, there is still plenty of evidence that getting a college degree pays off (had strong ROI) for students. Just look at this recent analysis of data from the College Scorecard. Seems like a whole lot of students are doing really well with their college degrees, although I would point out that individual results may and do differ for individual students and their specific institutions.

The challenge with data like this, however, is that it only presents a slice of the entire set of people who are interested in and would benefit from additional or “higher” education. There are some who, for a variety of reasons can’t entertain or justify the overall investment required to earn a college degree. For others the issue is time. They need new skills and new life opportunities now, as in within the next three to six months. For this group, earning a college degree isn’t reasonable or viable.

And then along comes the pandemic, followed closely by a whole slew of other events societal/educational/financial trends, and voilà! There’s a huge demand for upskilling and alternative learning pathways and credentials. Just look at these headlines from the past week to get a sense of the growing demand and market buzz.

Naturally, traditional higher ed institutions, seeing opportunities to offset an actual or forecast loss of enrollments, have latched on to certificates and other microcredential programs as both a new business model for generating new revenues and a lead generator for traditional degree programs. Take my former institution, for example, the University of Oklahoma, and their new Work Sooner program. It offers certificate training programs that last 3-8 months and charges students for the “time” they invest in pursuing their upskilling with packages ranging from $149 for one month’s access to $1,499 for 12-month access.

To be clear, I have no information about the Work Sooner program other than what is on their website. But, I think it’s a good example of how some universities are building out non-degree programs to attract more customers.

Personally, I am a big believer that alternative credentials — training or certifications that are an alternative to a full degree — and microcredentials — badges and certificates — will play an increasingly important role in higher education in the coming years. One of the current challenges inherent in the current “boom” in this sector, however, is the lack of standard definitions and assigned value to non-degree credentials. A certificate in “Social Media Marketing” from one institution may be entirely different than a certificate with the same title from another provider. 

The current “wild west” scenario in credentialing, fueled by high consumer demand, perceived value, and a lack of definition and oversight, has certainly led to headlines such as this one: Upskilling Trend Brings Coupons, ‘Flash Sales’ and Other Marketing Gimmicks to Higher Education

Caveat emptor!

Those who have spent decades working in and analyzing higher education, like Michael Feldstein, take a more rational and nuanced approach to the chaos, realizing that we are progressing through an inflection point in education, one that involved many different players at different points in the current line of evolution.

As I pointed out recently in a LinkedIn response, the evolution and eventual emergence of normalized strata of alternative credentials are dependent on the alignment and eventual cooperation of current market participants: consumers, employers, employment agencies, colleges and universities, career education providers, educational technology companies, credential standards organizations (like OSN), and credential market places. The pieces are all there and everyone is interested, but it will take several more years for everyone to get on the same page.

In the short term, I think we’ll see a continued trend for consumers to increasingly favor familiar brands over “good deals.”

Further Reading

Higher Education

Thinking About Alternative Credentials

Grand Canyon Education reports enrollment challenges with online students

Q&A: Western Governors University Provides a Model for Online Student Support 

4 Charts That Show What College Is Worth 

Upskilling Trend Brings Coupons, ‘Flash Sales’ and Other Marketing Gimmicks to Higher Education

Three Initial Takeaways from the GAO Report on OPMs

GAO takes moderate stance on online program management firms

Clarifying the Alternative: Why Higher Ed Needs to Better Define Microcredential Skills

Oklahoma creates a committee to oversee college free speech

How Boot Camps Are Shifting the Continuing Ed Space

New Coursera Career Academy Helps Institutions Upskill Their Learners

Colleges Are Losing Students. Is That A Growth Opportunity For Coursera?

Meta offers new professional certificates through Coursera

Google makes $100,000 worth of tech training free to every U.S. business

Transfer student enrollment continued to fall last year

Opinion | To Tackle Student Debt, Fix Ineffective Colleges

The Future of Work Is Flexible. Will Higher Ed Stay Stuck in the Past? 


K-12 Education

Media Literacy Resources 

Peer Mentoring Works…and Now It’s Scalable 

Education, Educational Technology, and Learning Design

Designing games for education

How does neurodiversity impact learners and educators?

Chegg Plummets As CEO Says People Are Shifting to Earning Over Learning

Pearson Acquires Mondly Language Learning Platform


Workforce and Business Culture

Record High: U.S. Now Has 2 Job Openings for Every Person Who Is Unemployed

How Boot Camps Are Shifting the Continuing Ed Space

6 Technology Trends Redefining the Hospitality Industry

Drifting into failure – Roblog

The next big milestones in factory automation

SHRM backs ‘alternative credentials’ in report

A Record Number of Americans Quit in March, Great Resignation Is Strong

Technology and Culture

Google Announces AI-Generated Summaries for Google Docs

How Apple, Google, and Microsoft will kill passwords and phishing in one stroke

The internet is lying to you about Machine Learning