On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Bryan Blakeley to discuss the explosion of microcredentials across the higher ed space and how credentialing can keep pace in this rapidly evolving environment.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Brian, welcome to the Illumination podcast. Thanks so much for joining me.
Bryan Blakeley (00:05):Thanks for having me.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:07):Absolutely. Well, you know, we, we've got a lot of, of, of material to, to dive through here, so we're gonna jump right in. I, I'm so glad to be chatting with you. 'cause The, the work that's happening in the micro-credentialing space is, as you well know, it's something we, we, we watch closely. We're, we're very passionate about it as from where you sit, what role do you think continuing ed units at public universities play when it comes to leading broader micro-credentialing initiatives?
Bryan Blakeley (00:35):I think continuing education units are really well positioned in this space because we think a lot about skills and about the sorts of workforce based credentials that our learners really find useful. And so when we start talking about micro-credentials or any of the other permutations they're in, it's a really good opportunity for us to leverage a lot of that experience that we have and to bring it to a broader audience, whether it's across our own institutions or across state government or other agencies. And it puts us in a, a position where we can think hard about what's gonna be really most useful for students in a smaller format and provide that to them in a way they can make visible and that is also verifiable for them on the backend.
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:36):Absolutely. Well, I'm curious, 'cause obviously at, at a public university, at the University of Washington, there's a lot of, a lot of visibility and a lot of access created by the university across the state. And for those who maybe aren't familiar with, with the state of Washington, it's worth knowing that it's, it's a relatively, it is disparate the right word. It the population is dispersed in, in really interesting pockets across the state. And there's a, obviously the mountain range is, is I, I realize for those listening, you're not gonna see what I'm looking at, but Brian's got the University of Washington Zoom background on, which is a mountain. So getting working to create access becomes a really, really important and, and interesting challenge in the state. So across the d uw, how are you and your team working to create alignment when it comes to micro-credentialing across all three campuses?
Bryan Blakeley (02:29):Yeah, it's a really good question. And like you said, the state of Washington is actually has a number of different regions all with different types of employers and different folks working in different types of industries. I think when we look at the folks say in at UW Tacoma and we say, what are the, what are the folks in that region really interested in thinking with us? Hard about in terms of there's a, a large military base, for instance outside of Tacoma. So thinking about what are the specific needs of those communities. There's also sort of a obviously Seattle is known for technology. So what are some of the things that we're specifically doing to enable those workforce populations? And when I talk about alignment, what I'm typically talking about is less around the specifics of any given discipline or type of programming effort, and more about ways that we can connect these credentials in important ways to the ongoing education of learners across a lifetime of, of learning.
(03:49):And so in terms of the alignment, it's really how do we fit these into a larger ecosystem larger way of understanding how these skills are continually built over a lifetime that learners can move back and forth between different types of institutions, whether that's UDub or Washington State or any of the other fabulous higher education institutions in the state and continue to build on what they have already done in their previous educational institutions. And so that's sort of the, the frame on alignment is locally specific, helping those learners where they are to meet their needs, but also provide them the flexibility within this ecosystem to think about where they can take the next step for their own careers and education.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:42):Absolutely. Well, I mean, it, it's interesting 'cause that it, it leads nicely into the next question. 'cause Where we're, I think, you know, we, we as an industry of a tendency to think a lot about our, our operational infrastructure and, you know, but in terms of allowing the operational infrastructure to guide our decision making and our strategy and then having that as the basis of, of the experience we deliver learners, as opposed to kind of thinking about the other way, which is very much how, how are the learners experiencing the post-secondary institution and what do we do to, to make that experience make more sense to them now from the learner's experience, and this is something that anytime we're talking to folks in continuing ed, this is gonna come up. The student doesn't necessarily care if they're enrolling with the continuing ed college or the faculty of arts or the faculty of science. What they ultimately want is a relationship with the institution to achieve the outcome they've set out to achieve. And we have a tendency to make that somewhat complicated for them. So I'm just curious, you know, why is it so important, especially when it comes to scaling and launching a, a type of programming or a type of credential that we know creates a little bit of confusion for the learner themselves. Why is it so important to have a more seamless and straightforward administrative experience to learners looking to micro-credentials for up-skilling and re-skilling?
Bryan Blakeley (06:02):Yeah, it's a really good question. One of the pieces here is that there has been an absolute explosion of micro-credentials, as you well know. I think at a certain point recently, credential engine had had easily registered over a million different credentials available just in North America. And so when you start talking about engagement with these sorts of credentials and the the sort of weight or the sort of currency that they have, it's, it's sometimes really difficult for students to figure that out because they don't necessarily fit into what we've considered the coinage of the realm, you know, the degree or some sort of credit hour framework. And so when we're talking about administrative systems, and I would add in the ways that we talk about and market these sorts of microcredentials, it's really important that we're being specific about what are the things that learners will really be able to get out of these micro-credentials?
(07:12):What is it that we're setting them up for? How is it that we're helping them to then demonstrate the sorts of skills that will allow them to move forward in their careers? And some of that is the administrative infrastructure, both giving ways, easy ways for students to take those credentials and do something with them as well as if they return to our you know, we hope that we'll establish that relationship, like you were talking about with our institution and continue to circle back to us at regular interval intervals for the types of continual, continual skill development. It's important that we make that as low friction as possible. So from that perspective, I think it's, it's really important. One other place I'll, I'll sort of put a, a plug in here is when we look at the broader ecosystem, like I was talking about, thinking about how we can be creating lower friction, this seems a little bit counterintuitive, but I think it's really important from a learner perspective, trying to create as little friction as we can for learners who want to take what they've done at the University of Washington and take that somewhere else and continue to build on it.
(08:27):We're a state institution, we're not a for-profit entity. We're really interested in serving students, especially in the state of Washington. And it's important that we're helping to build the ecosystem, especially a skilling ecosystem that's really going to serve the state and the country and and so on. And so thinking about that from what kinds of credentials we issue, how we issue them, trying to make sure that, for instance, we're closely aligned to a variety of specifications, open badge initiative specifications, other things like that so that students can take those and continue to build on them up in the future.
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:06):Absolutely. And, and you know, by the same token, obviously the, the employer is a key stakeholder here as well. You know, and, and it's, it's interesting when you look at, you know, a lot of the data around employer perception on, on micro-credentialing, it's, you know, the, I think a, it winds up being that there's confusion until a one sentence explanation is delivered and then there's support. And I, you know, obviously this is exactly the kind of learning, the kind of training access that they've been asking for, for decades. So when it comes to that micro-credentialing strategy within a given institution across the system, how important is a cohesive micro-credentialing strategy when it comes to actually delivering on the outcomes and the needs that employers are, are letting us know that they have?
Bryan Blakeley (09:52):I think it's very important, but I also think it's very difficult to achieve
(10:00):One of the, one of the things that we as a, a higher education institution are obviously looking at is there are a number of ways to create and disseminate knowledge. There are any number of ways to help folks build the sort of life and career that they're really interested in. Some of those things work really well for micro-credentialing and some of them don't. And that's totally okay. There's nothing saying that you need to have a micro-credential for each of the pieces of your collegiate career or shoot if you're just a self-motivated learner and you are interested in various things. Having said that, it's really difficult to align around this sort of, what I call the, the grain size of skills. Some folks have taken the approach that you need to get incredibly detailed and you need to think about every specific thing that goes into a particular type of skill and have an enormous amount of skill statements related to that. Right. Other folks have gone the other direction and they want to talk about high level things like, oh, you have skill in Python programming. Well, I think both of these are probably difficult for employers to really wrap their heads around because if you talk about, say, needing a frontend web developer, you could actually be talking about seven or 10 or 50 different skills, but you're probably not talking about a thousand skills,
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:56):Right? So
Bryan Blakeley (11:57):We need to sort of find our Goldilocks zone here. And it's funny because talking about micro-credentials, aligning around what that means at an institution or a state level is, is difficult. But then talking about how we actually understand skills is maybe even more difficult. And that's one of the things we've been spending a lot of time on. How do we think about the skill statements and making them detailed enough to be useful and important and actually address some of the things that employers are looking for, but then also not so detailed that it becomes completely overwhelming.
Amrit Ahluwalia (12:38):Well, okay. And I, I absolutely wanna follow up on that. And then I wanna point out that you said a lot of really important things there, but the term goldilocks zone is something that I think is going to stick with me forever. <Laugh>, fantastic term of phrase. On the development of skill statements and, and defining clear skill infrastructure, I mean, this is one of those spaces where I start to get lost in the potential complexity. 'cause On the one hand, we recognize that, especially in the technical skill space, there's a very clear half-life of skills. And I mean, I, I think we can look at computer science degrees from the mid 1980s and say that individual, I mean, if they've kept up with changes in the industry, the, they have relevant skills for the computer industry of, you know, technological industry of 2023.
(13:27):But if someone was to come into a job interview with, I have a computer science degree from 1983, therefore I'm, I am equipped for the modern technology industry, I, I think we'd have some questions and I, you know, so, but then on the flip side, you have the clarity and the, the critical value of durable skills and, and their name being durable skills. Now. And obviously when we use that term, we talk like soft skills, professional skills, call 'em what you will, but as skills that don't necessarily have a half-life, I mean, the capacity to create collaboration, the capacity to communicate clearly, these are things that don't necessarily diminish over time, but can be enhanced by staying up to date with or, or aligned with technological shifts. So when it comes to building these kinds of skills frameworks, how do you differentiate between skills that have a clear half-life of usefulness, quote unquote, as opposed to skills that can be enhanced by improvements in, in technology or the, or the world surrounding the skill itself?
Bryan Blakeley (14:27):That's a really good question. Honestly, mostly we rely on subject matter experts to help us suss that out because it's important for us to think about the frameworks flexibly from a design perspective mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, but then also rely on the folks that we're working with who know those fields and can tell us, you know, this particular framework is going to be useful for somebody for a certain amount of time. And then that, that that badge or however we're doing this should actually expire. It should need to be re-upped. Or there should be some sort of mechanism that shows that, like you said, it has a half-life, we can do that actually baked into the open badge specification, which is a really nice feature. The question of whether we label those things as durable skills or label them as sort of things that need to be built over time.
(15:29): We haven't gotten that specific yet in, in what we're doing. I think part of what we need to determine is whether we are building those sorts of durable skills across a wide range of programs and want to be calling those out specifically mm-hmm. <Affirmative> or whether we're making certain assumptions about how those skills are built or where they're being built, and really focusing more on what we would call the kind of hard skills. Now that's just within the continuing education unit in some consultation work that we've been doing with folks across the university. What we're finding often is that your, to use a very common example, your critical thinking skills or your ability to make inferences from data or those kinds of things, those are taught all over the place and are core to a number of disciplines. So my academic home is in history, thinking about how I was trained to read and interpret primary source documents and create narratives and think hard about those things, interrogate evidence.
(16:47):Those are really important skills Yeah. That I bring to my work. And I think that we could do a much better job of helping our students make those more visible in the future to folks. And so when we talk about micro-credentials, there's a little bit of this, are we talking about a specific individual course that leads to a micro-credential? Or are we talking about recognizing and validating skills that are being built through a variety of experiences? I tend to take the latter view that we should be capacious in the way that we look at this. And so to that end, I think your distinction between these types of skills can all fit within a con a good conception of a micro-credentialing initiative across an institution.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:40):
Do you wanna know? I, I think that it's such an interesting perspective. 'cause That's where like I am, I too a proud liberal arts graduate. I will, I scream it from the rooftops. It's, it's, I think at, at the very core of why I think I'm, I, I enjoy what I do is rooted in that experience that I've had. But, you know, to, I think that one of a common critique and a fair critique is that we post is as an industry kinda leave it up to learners to figure out what they're good at. Where if we have clear learning objectives and we have a clear sense of what that individual is developing, you know, thi this is the difference between like, are we training academics or are we educating people? And that's, you know, I I've always hated the dichotomy between training and education, but this is one of those places where I actually think it's a, it's a relevant exercise because it comes back to that core question of, you know, what are we trying to accomplish and why can't it be both? But if it is gonna be both, if we are both training and educating, then we do need to highlight those outcomes in a more discreet manner than than we historically have. I, I am curious, as you start to think about the, the process of rolling out a model of, of this scale and this veracity, what are some of the most significant strategic obstacles that leaders can really face when it comes to, to making a comprehensive micro-credentialing strategy or reality?
Bryan Blakeley (19:09):One of the largest challenges from my perspective is trying to help folks conceptualize the various range of possibilities that are included, say in a micro-credentialing initiative, sort of like we've been talking about. There are probably just about as many definitions of badge or micro-credential as there are folks within an institution. And I think that is a real strength there potentially, because folks can think really in really interesting ways about what is it that they want to help students make more visible. And so starting from that kind of a a, I guess a starting point, if you will, helps to get people thinking in different ways about how you could build a set of micro-credentials that are, that are useful for students. One of the other things is kind of this tension that we've been dancing around a little bit between a more instrumental view of of college or of education and a view that is about education for its own sake, right? And I think that's probably why I've developed this idea that you can do something that looks more instrumentalist within a broader educative framework.
(20:45):So we're not telling the history professor, well, we're not telling professors much of anything, but when we invite a history professor in, we're not saying you have to devolve everything that you're doing to this essentialized set of skills and that is going to be your curriculum. What we're saying is actually, what are the pieces that you think would be useful? Or what have we heard? Here's what we've heard from employers that they think would be really useful to know about in folks who may be looking for employment in the region. We think that what you're doing is really valuable and we'd like to help make it more visible. That's kind of the core message we're trying to go in with.
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:35):Right.
Bryan Blakeley (21:36):That's an easier sell than we'd like to essentially collapse everything you're doing into this essentialized framework that doesn't respect the liberal arts tradition and so on and so forth. Right.
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:48):Yeah. We can expand upon not restrict.
Bryan Blakeley (21:51):That's right. That's right. But again, we have languaging problems. We have problems of the size of skills like I was talking about. We have other issues like some of the, some of the technical systems that we'd really like to be able to feed these sorts of credentials into are not currently set up for it. One of the things that's been on the radar for a long time is human resource systems that can actually ingest these, especially open badges or other things like that and, and do some of that work for students or for applicants in that case so that they're not constantly dealing with their badge wallet or whatever. And, and trying to make sure everybody has access to the right thing at the right time and so on, but actually integrate that into these different H R M systems. So yeah, I could, I could go on with this, but it's still a really interesting time in the landscape as far as understanding how best to do this. And like I said, we've been taking a much the view that we need to be capacious in how we think about this.
Amrit Ahluwalia (23:00):Well, and, and I think that leads to the more operational and technological challenges. 'cause On the one hand, we're trying to create an environment that's expansive, it's flexible, it's supportive of very different viewpoints and visions of what a comprehensive and seamless flexible learning environment can look like. On the other hand, you know, not to dive too deep into the <laugh> systems conversation, the fact of the matter is that most post-secondary institutions aren't equipped with technologies that allow for even programming to exist outside of or across multiple semesters. So how are you addressing, or how are you sort of navigating some of those technological hurdles in, in trying to do this at scale?
Bryan Blakeley (23:50):Yeah, it's a, it's another really good question. We've been really fortunate in having support from our, well, our L M Ss vendor now who also recently acquired one of the leading badge platforms. And so a lot of what we've been doing has actually been based on the l m s that is standard across the institution. So from that perspective, even doing things like automatic issuing of certain types of badges has been really straightforward for us. As long as what we're working on is based in the l m s, what we've struggled more with is around creating skills libraries and redeploying things that have been maybe built at other institutions. The the technological landscape for that is still really young. And we've also, you know, looked into various machine learning based solutions that would say allow us to quickly figure out what the major skills are that are in, say, a curriculum.
(25:04):So far those have been somewhat lackluster and they haven't done as much to help us unpack the skills that we're already teaching as we'd like. So yeah, I think it's still an area of of need as far as the, the technological landscape is concerned. The other thing I'd mention here is we have relatively straightforward criteria as it were for when we would advise the issuance of a, of a badge or a micro-credential. Yeah. So we have things like evidence frameworks or, you know, assessment that we, we really think is important because ultimately we're, we're standing behind this and saying, this person can do this thing from a skills badging perspective. And those assessment regimes are often different than our traditional, more traditional higher ed colleagues are used to implementing. And so that raises both pedagogical and technological challenges that we're still working through.
Amrit Ahluwalia (26:20):Well, Brian, I've so appreciated your time here and thank you so much for, for diving into this. You know it, and it's funny 'cause for listeners benefit, this is something Brian and I have probably connected every few months just to kind of chat about at a high level. And I think in the last conversation we had, you're like, you know, we should really, we should really sit down and record some of, so I, you know, I, I appreciate you taking the time out and I got, I gotta ask you, you're, you've come prepared. If someone's going out to dinner in Seattle, where do they need to go?
Bryan Blakeley (26:52):Seattle has a fabulous Japanese restaurant scene and one of my very favorites is called Rondo in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It's definitely, definitely worth a visit.
Amrit Ahluwalia (27:07):You wanna know that Again, it's funny 'cause that Japanese cuisine is my fa it's one of my favorite cuisines. There used to be an is kayah near us. That was unbelievable. This is when, when we still lived in Toronto. And it got to the point where when my colleague and I would walk in there for lunch, they would just start making our, our meals. And I love that when we knew we'd gone too far. So that, thank you so much for, for the suggestion. Thanks for the recommendation. Thank you for your time, Brian. It's been a pleasure, my friend.
Bryan Blakeley (27:36):Likewise. Thank you Amrit