Illumination by Modern Campus

Jon Harbor (Purdue University Global) on Adapting Education: Harnessing the Power of Microcredentials

July 06, 2023 Modern Campus
Jon Harbor (Purdue University Global) on Adapting Education: Harnessing the Power of Microcredentials
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Jon Harbor (Purdue University Global) on Adapting Education: Harnessing the Power of Microcredentials
Jul 06, 2023
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Jon Harbor to discuss the recognition of the value in short-term credentials that speak to the needs of modern learners, and the interplay between microcredentials and the traditional programming of a university. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Jon Harbor to discuss the recognition of the value in short-term credentials that speak to the needs of modern learners, and the interplay between microcredentials and the traditional programming of a university. 

Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Jon Harbor, who is Provost of Purdue University Global. Jon and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the recognition of the value in short-term credentials that speak to the needs of modern learners, and the interplay between microcredentials and the traditional programming of a university. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):John Harper, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.

Jon Harbor (00:06):Hey, it's great to be here with you, Amrit

Amrit Ahluwalia (00:08):I really appreciate you taking the time out. We'll, we'll dive right in because this is a topic that's of as, I mean, you're, as a evolution subscriber, listener to the podcast, you'll know full well, micro-credentialing is a topic that's close to my heart. It's something that I, I truly believe starts to represent the, the future of higher education. From your perspective, why do you think micro-credentialing as a concept is generating so much interest, both from university leaders and from employers?

Jon Harbor (00:35):Yeah, that, that's a great question and, and it is something that has been changing over time. And as I was thinking about this, this conversation, I reached out actually to get input from across the university that I belong to. So I'm with Purdue University Global, and so I really wanted to make sure that I could reflect the perspective, not only from the academic side, which is sort of my traditional area, but also career services and the people who work with employers and the registrar's office and those who are working with their community college partners. And, and I got a pretty consistent message from all those different groups that both, you know, university leaders and employers are really recognizing that in addition to full degrees, there is real value and relevance in offering condensed and maybe non narrowly focused credentials that, that really speak to the needs for upskilling or re-skilling.

(01:29):And especially for adult learners, which is the focus of our university. You know, these micros can provide learners with specific content that allowed them to really clearly demonstrate that they have the skills needed for a particular piece of employment success. And it's really a chance for, you know, an individual to really focus on developing the skills that they need for their current job, offer a future position. Right. And, you know, inside higher ed, I think you, you may have seen earlier this year in the spring released, you know, results from a survey from collegiate education and ssea, you know, 76% said, pursuing my credentials demonstrates an employee's willingness to develop their skills. 63% said it shows initiative. 60% said it's an easy way to communicate employee competence in skills. And what was really interesting to me is that 80% said that stackable credentials leading to a degree in enhance their appeal. And I think that's something that we, we may sort of play more within this conversation is, is, you know, the, the interplay between micro-credentials and degrees and the ways that that works within universities.

Amrit Ahluwalia (02:41):It's absolutely, I mean, this is absolutely a topic we'll, we'll be, we'll be diving into in more detail. But before we get there I am, I am curious on, on your perspective here, because this is, you're talking a lot about recognizing the trends that are shaping demand and a adjusting the post-secondary product, if you will, to, to, to meet those needs, to meet those expectations. Why is it more important today than it has been in the past for post-secondary institutions to be responsive to and reflective of the needs of the community as opposed to being kind of, I guess the, the more traditional model, which very much was more faculty and institution centric in terms of the thinking and the philosophy behind the portfolio of offerings?

Jon Harbor (03:32):Well, the reality is that we have a wide range of institutions in a place like the us some of which, you know, a absolutely, you know, have a mission that is laser focused on supporting student success, supporting communities, employers really fitting what they do to the need to the students and their aspirations in terms of a job move or career move. Career development. Others are not in that position. Their missions are, are really focused around creating new knowledge. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, research intensives. And I've worked at all of those different types of institutions. So I think where we're seeing a lot of this work, the most innovative work is on those institutions that are really laser focused on student success, that work closely with employers with, you know, and, and are employers themselves too. So they're thinking about how they hire people and, and credential people, but they're thinking a lot about what are the outcomes for students.

(04:33):And many of the, you know, so I work at an, a fully online university for working adults. Our students are looking for that career move. They're looking for that next job. And so they are very much making a decision to come to our institution because of the fit between the credentials we're offering and what they, they're looking to achieve. So I think I, I think that's why a lot of institutions are thinking more about the range of credentials they offer. The other reality is that traditional institutions, some of them have struggled to maintain the sort of numbers of students that they were used to and that they wanted and that fit their, you know, their budgets as much as anything else, but also their, their sense of what they were trying to achieve. And so you have to adapt in the face of changing needs and interests from the students that you're trying to recruit. So there's a range of reasons for having a wider portfolio of offerings. I don't think many institutions are abandoning the traditional degrees, but they're realizing that one size does not fit all and having a range of opportunities really works very well.

Amrit Ahluwalia (05:44):Absolutely. Just building on that, what what becomes really interesting to me when you start to think about the diversification of, of the academic portfolio and of the credential mix, is our perception of what student success looks like starts to evolve with it. Because in, in a very traditional form the, the success was binary. Either the student earned a degree or they didn't. They either persisted for four years or they didn't. But we also know that only about 28% of students that leave an academic program of study prior to prior to graduation do so for academic reasons, which say about 72% of students don't complete a post-secondary program for any number of personal reasons. It's not academically oriented. So as you start to shift to a model that's more oriented around micro-credentialing, more oriented around stackability, how does the institutional perception of measuring and defining student success start to evolve?

Jon Harbor (06:47):Yeah. That you put your finger on a, on a huge challenge for many institutions, partly because of the way in which we are required to report data Yeah. To our state or some accreditation based funding or federally Yeah. That, that the traditional measures of completion are the full degree. And yet we have many students and we design programs that say, Hey, come to us for a while and we'll, you know, you get a micro-credential and that may get you the next step in your career. Let's celebrate that, help you get that next step. And when you're ready to come back, we'll stack something else on top of that to get to a degree. But that makes it appear that that student didn't succeed initially, if they're just measuring the degrees, but then comes back, well comes maybe from another institution with a set of micro-credentials that we stack something else on, and then suddenly we're successful in finishing a degree. So we absolutely need to be changing, you know, really having measures of success that reflect what our students are trying to achieve and the mix of things that we provide for them. But that's a, a larger systemic change that we have to work on, you know, nationally really as much as anything.

Amrit Ahluwalia (07:56):Absolutely. And you know, there are so many components that are tied to that from funding models to rankings to, so coming back to, to micro-credentials as, as a, at the institutional Yeah. Institutional level. What are some of the most common misconceptions that academic leaders and faculties tend to highlight when discussion mi discussing micro-credentialing?

Jon Harbor (08:19):Well, I think often the first thing that comes up is what you mean we don't value the degree anymore. It's a binary, you know, either or and the fear that, you know, well, our current students will then leave. We'll give them a micro credential and rather than finishing the degree we'll lose them. And you know, the reality is the degree is still important. And what most institutions are doing is adding micro credentials in addition to allow us to reach out to attract more and different learners to actually keep some of our engaged. I'm a first gen student and the idea of spending four or maybe part-time five or six years before you get to something that's of value terrible, but getting a win along the way that allows me to move ahead a little bit with my life and career is more likely to keep me engaged and able to finish.

(09:14):So there, there are, there, there's that misconception that somehow we are devaluing the degree. I think another common misconception I come across, you know, cuz people have, you know, heard all about bootcamps and coding and that is that this is only for technical fields and that somehow we are de-emphasizing the arts and the humanities, Purdue Global, we offer over 70 micros covering areas such as writing and communication law, business health, social science, nutrition, community organization, as well as technical areas of course. And we even have an arts and humanities micro-credential. So micro-credentials aren't just in limited fields. They are, they can be used as a strategy for the the entire institution. You know, if you've been involved in building four year degrees, then the idea of a micro-credential might say, well that's, that's really too small. You know, how can that develop an educated citizenry in addition to the sorts of skills that we want? And so this idea that somehow we're losing track of some of the value of a total education. And you know, I I think another misconception somehow is that, that, you know, with micro-credentials we'll lose connection with, with our alumni because they won't have spent so much time with this. And yet I'll turn that around and say, this is actually a way to connect with alumni.

Amrit Ahluwalia (10:41):Yes.

Jon Harbor (10:42):Because many of us, you know, we didn't learn everything we needed to learn when we were, you know, in college perhaps at a traditional age. You know, for me that was, you know, sometime in the last millennium, things have changed since then. Right. And so providing opportunities for that sort of continuous lifelong learning through micro-credentials that stack on top of that experience you might have had earlier in life, that's actually a great way for continuing to provide value to our alumni, keeping them connected and keeping us relevant.

Amrit Ahluwalia (11:12):You know, that it's such a, and you might have noticed, I'm taking some notes there cause I I wanna touch on a fair amount of what you were talking about there. Yeah. But this, this point is so valuable. You know, I've never understood the philosophy that a post-secondary institution has value to the learner for four years-ish. And then after that the relationship goes entirely to a donation-based model. I, I, I can't accept that a post-secondary institution can't continue to have meaningful value in the lives of previous students. Or, or you know, there was a, we published a piece some years ago now where the proposal was basically rather than thinking about, you know, students and then alumni, we think about learning in an open loop fashion and, and in an open loop learning model, no one ever really becomes an alumni. They become their relationship with the institution of evolves, but they still have a learning based relationship with the institution over the course of their lifetime. And it kind of touches back to the, the core concept of a six year curriculum.

Jon Harbor (12:17):Well, and, and I think if, if you extend that thinking, you know, they have both a learning and a teaching relationship. Yeah. Cause I talk to alumni, you know, often the beginning of that conversation is around ways in which they want to give back to today's students. And often that's mentoring. Sometimes that is, you know, oh, I'd love to be an adjunct and teach an occasional section and help students of today understand how, what their learning is used in the profession. And so they can be both learners and teachers iteratively throughout their lives in their relationship with the university.

Amrit Ahluwalia (12:53):Absolutely. Now I do want to touch on the point of cannibalization. Cause I think it's an important one to spend a moment on. And if I'm honest, and, and now our we're we're officially a no swearing podcast. That's, that's how we're rated on Apple podcasts. But that one, you know, the cannibalization argument just baffles me because we, I can't understand the, the perspective that offering people what they want is a bad thing. And that's, that's ultimately what it always comes down to when we talk about, well, you know, if we offer this alternative, then people will go to that instead of the thing I'm offering now. And my my perspective on that is that that seems like a net positive because the institution is offering people a pathway that better fits what they're able to do. And as a result you wind up opening access to people who otherwise wouldn't have considered accessing the thing in the first place. Or you make life easier for folks that are massively inconvenienced by doing things, the approach that didn't fit for them. How do you tackle that cannibalization argument in a, let's be honest, a productive play? Because I I, I think I'd really struggle coming up with, with a way to talk about that that's diplomatic.

Jon Harbor (14:10):Well, I think there are a couple of things and, and what you described is, is as is the classic argument. But the other parts of that argument is those learners have choices and if we don't provide them with what they're looking for is not as if they'll come and do the thing they're not looking for with us <laugh>, they'll go else.

(14:28):Right. They have, they have plenty of choices. Yeah. Now we may have a brand strength such they'll come to us to get something suboptimal cuz it's better than getting what they really want from a different brand. But very few universities are in that position of strength, right? Most, most universities aren't. And so you can, you can worry about the cannibalization, but then you'll have a student who leaves with what they were actually looking for and they're more likely to come back later than, than if they had to suffer through and get something that really wasn't what they were looking for. But it was all that you had to offer. I think there's another way of looking at cannibalization too. And you know, we, we offer a lot of micro-credentials, almost all of which are just repackaging of the courses we already offer. And so we, what we are doing is we're in a sense cannibalizing our material to provide more choices, which brings in more students.

(15:21):So rather than making it something that's going to be a loss, we are saying, look, by packaging it this way, we are getting additional students to come take advantage of what we provide rather than losing. And so, you know, we look for opportunities to say, look, you know, we already have a cluster of classes in this. We can call this a micro-credential and maybe we're already calling it a concentration or a minor in an existing degree, but we can also package it so that, you know, maybe with an employer partner they can come in and just take those courses and get that micro-credential. We have new people and new connections than we had before.

Amrit Ahluwalia (15:55):Absolutely. Now watch is the time, but I do wanna bring this one up as well because the, the, the point you made about micro-credentialing is as a mechanism that supports programming outside of just technical fields is a fascinating one to me because it starts to speak to some of the root of, I think people's true concern about micro-credentialing, which starts to get to the, you know, to a certain extent this is a competency based direction that we're starting to go in as, as an industry we're starting to look at programming in terms of the focus on outcomes. And you know, I'm the product of the liberal arts education. I, I treasure and I'm deeply grateful for that experience. But at the same time, the outcomes were kind of for me to define and for me to, to communicate and for me to explore and, and to really find value in, they weren't necessarily indicated in the program itself. They weren't necessarily the focus of assessment. And one thing that that fascinates me as we start to adopt a, a co a a micro-credentialing approach to the liberal arts is that it puts us in a position where we maybe have to be more meaningful about outcomes from those programs than, than we have been in the past. Is that something you're experiencing as you guys explore the development of micro-credentialing in, in the liberal arts space?

Jon Harbor (17:19):Well, I think it's a more general question about, you know, what are we assessing and what are we helping a student understand that they're gaining from their education. I mean it's interesting. I I was reflecting on the fact that my, my undergraduate education when I finished I got the degree

Amrit Ahluwalia (17:37):Yep.

Jon Harbor (17:38):My institution didn't even produce a transcript when I came to the states. I had to ask them to produce us something. So, and there was almost no information about what I gained. Right. No. And now you look what we are doing today with very rich transcripts. We're giving people certificates and micro-credentials and all sorts of additional ways of demonstrating what they've learned. And we are doing assessments around that. We are doing credentials and around teamwork and we are mixing both the curricula and the co-curricular assessments together so that we have a much richer sense for a student of what it is they've been achieving. And at Purdue Global we have a, a skills report for each of our students. So we are assessing skill at different levels throughout the curriculum and we are mapping those skills onto what employers are looking for.

(18:30):So it is I think an important evolution in helping make sure that students understand what they're getting from an education and commu can communicate that to employers. And the fact is that universities are big employers as well. And when I asked my colleagues, so what do you look for, you know, when you're about to hire someone? Well yeah, the degree is sort of in there important, but then, you know, if that's all you have, you're not gonna be one of the finalists. We're actually looking for those additional indicators of skillset sets of capabilities and have they shown this interest in continuing their education and skill development. So if we are not expecting it our own people, which we are, then, then why should we be develop developing?

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:11):Absolutely. Culture eats strategy for breakfast every month. Yeah.

Jon Harbor (19:14):Yeah. 

Amrit Ahluwalia (19:16):You know, it's interesting that it, you've teed up my next question beautifully because in discussing the range of assessment models, the range of credentials, the range of programming, the complexity of that management, I love our industry dearly, but we're not necessarily equipped for that level of complexity to be managed without significant staff effort. So as one example being I guess the efficiency or the effectiveness of the operation, I mean, what are some of the biggest obstacles that stand in the way of scaling micro-credentialing initiatives in a way that's meaningful?

Jon Harbor (19:57):Yeah, I mean I think there, there are sort of two levels of answering that there's the in at an institution level and then there's for higher education and, you know, we are, we're at a phase with micro-credentials that it's a little bit like the wild west. I mean there, there aren't, there isn't a well agreed upon set of standards and definitions. So it's really hard for a potential student to navigate it for an employer to navigate it. And so, you know, as we move towards a more common language and agreed upon set of standards and definitions, I think that will allow us to more effectively scale because it will allow employers and, and learners to have a better sense of what it is they're getting and how to compare things and evaluate things. I think, you know, another barrier for scaling at that level too is, is funding for the students.

(20:48):Yes. So not all sources of funding from the federal government, from employers, from, you know, for, for veterans includes these shorter form micro-credentials. And so that's another barrier to sculling. But I, you know, there are obviously efforts to work on that. But when you get to the level of an indi of an institution, I mean, you put your finger on something important, what are the data systems? And I think as, as we all adopt way more sophisticated data systems with, you know, AI running underneath them, that a lot of that will go away. I mean, it, it shouldn't be a hard problem to solve once we have the definitions and the systems in place. But if you are in an institution that has not invested in keeping up with modern information technology and, and systems, then you're gonna struggle in this area to be quite honest.

(21:40):You know, at, at an institution too. I mean it's, it's a big institutional change problem. I mean it's a very common thing in terms of if you are, if you grew up, you know, maybe decades ago and went to a very traditional institution that only gave degrees, how do you get your, you and your colleagues get your head around this changing landscape of micro-credentials that might be embedded in degrees or as well as separate and different types of students coming in and out. And so helping an institution through change management, I think is the important part of scaling as well.

Amrit Ahluwalia (22:12):Absolutely. Well, as you think about your role as the leader, academic programming, the leader of the, the institution's academic focus, how can provost specifically but senior institutional administrators more broadly start to create more space for collaboration between administrative leaders and academic leaders when it comes to developing and scaling micro-credentialing initiatives?

Jon Harbor (22:38):Yeah, I mean that, that's, that's a great question. And, and we all have different approaches to, you know, facilitating the success of our organizations. I, I prefer that to leadership cuz it, it sounds more like what we do and, and it is creating space, it's creating opportunities, it's creating the sorts of incentives and environments that allow people to come together and problem solve. Because the reality of someone like a chance or a provost is there's only so much you can do. The reality is the real work gets done at different levels. And so you have to empower and incentivize those groups of people who will really do the work to come together and co-design solutions and processes that meet the goals that you have for micro-credentials. So it's about communication, communication, communication. You are showing the alignment to mission and getting people excited about, hey, this is something that will help us be much more effective in meeting the goals we have for student success in meeting the goals we have to meet employer needs this, why in fact we want to get it done and we're gonna solve the problems that we start to identify as we work through it.

(23:51):So my approach is to tend to bring teams together from across the institution to take the lead in developing the solutions, but to bring those teams together, you've gotta give them space, they've gotta have bandwidth. And so that's something that we all have to pay attention to is if everyone is fully occupied with their day-to-day, we don't have the bandwidth to do this type of design work, this future thinking, then it's very hard for our institutions to change. So I think that's, you know, that, that's my approach to this is really setting the scene, framing the problem so that the people who really do run the university at the, at the middle level and low, that they're the ones who will actually design the most effective solutions to this.

Amrit Ahluwalia (24:36):Absolutely. I mean it's, it's an interesting point about the prioritization of the strategic initiative because that's ult ultimately that, that's the challenge, right? A strategic initiative might sit outside of what the institution does today, but put by the same token, define the institution in three to five years if it's done appropriately. So at, at how do you balance the need for continuous day-to-day operation while at the same time taking folks that might be among the best and brightest across, you know, not just within one particular team or two particular teams, but presumably you'd need a wide array of, of leaders from across the institution to get together to really piece this together. How do you ensure you're creating space for them? Like how do you balance the, the strategic initiative against the need to run tomorrow?

Jon Harbor (25:28):Yeah. And, and I've been in institutions that were in such a difficult situation that we, we could, it was really hard to provide that space. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> cause people were already really doing two jobs, sometimes three. But what I've found is that even in that situation, the people you want to have involved are so excited and inspired because they don't want to just do the same thing over and over again for the next 10 years. They're actually looking for the opportunity to continuously evolve the institution. And so finding that group of people in that, I was talking to two or three of them at my institution earlier today who'd identified a problem and said, no one's fixing this. And I said, we'll get together and come up with a solution and present it. Yeah. You've gotta empower people to do that. Continuous change management. We have a person at our, in our institution that we made up a, an interesting title, which she is the innovation catalyst and title, all title. And she does it really well, but it also sends a message to our institution that we are continuously asking people to put a little bit of their time into thinking about the future, thinking about something different and designing it and they can see that we then implement it. And that's what keeps your best people excited and engaged over time.

Amrit Ahluwalia (26:49):Absolutely. John, it's, it's been an absolute pleasure. I'm so glad we managed to, to grab some time to chat here today. As you well know, this is not just a higher education podcast. This doubles as a travel and food podcast cuz so many of us wind up bouncing around the country, <laugh>. So if someone's in West Lafayette for dinner, where do they need to go?

Jon Harbor (27:09):Well, I had a colleague come visit recently from another city. He said, I'm just going to be here briefly. I don't have time to see where should I go eat. And I said, you know, you should go to the Triple X. It's a classic American diner. It's just a wonderful atmosphere. You're not gonna get the absolute cutting edge gourmet cuisine of the finest restaurant, but you're gonna get great atmosphere. It's right close to the the university. You're gonna get reality there. And it's just a fun place to go. So that's, that's why I tell people have a look at that.

Amrit Ahluwalia (27:43):Awesome. John, it's been so, I'm so glad we managed to find the time. I really do appreciate you taking the time out. Thanks again.

Jon Harbor (27:50):Great. Thanks very much.

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