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Microcredentialing at OHIO

by Emily Baxstrom
October 2017

Innovative and intriguing instructional ideas are gaining traction across Ohio University. From faculty developing strategies to increase student engagement, to new workshops that enrich teaching experiences, to gamification and immersive virtual reality, there are a variety of budding concepts ready to be explored.

But what do faculty and staff do with these great ideas? How are they put into action with limited resources? Imants Jaunarajs, assistant dean of students in the Career Network, had one of such ideas—to bring microcredentialing to the University—but it seemed stalled by a lack of resources and staff bandwidth until he applied for support through the Academic Innovation Accelerator.

Why microcredentialing?

Jaunarajs defines a microcredential as a non-credit bearing, performance-based, observable competency, which serves as a symbol of accomplishment. Microcredentials are issued when a student completes a set of activities successfully and then demonstrates the competency.

Microcredentials are inspired by the badging movement, which has been used in the workplace and recreational activities like gaming. They offer learners opportunities to absorb their formal and informal learning in digestible “chunks” (Berry, Airhart & Byrd, 2016).

Jaunarajs saw a need to fill a major gap in recent college graduates’ ability to demonstrate leadership skills. (Reach out to Jaunarajs for sources/details on this.) While hard or technical skills (highly specialized tasks that are unique to an occupation or industry) are typically taught in the classroom, soft skills (leadership, teamwork, adaptability, interpersonal development, etc.) are typically developed outside of class.

The digital microcredentialing movement is gaining popularity for several reasons. Microcredentials are part of the current-day movement of personalized learning, and they are “designed to be tailored to what a teacher needs or wants to know,” (Madeline, 2017). Four main advantages are that they are competency-based, personalized, on-demand, and shareable (Berry, Airhart & Byrd, 2016).

“There’s all this research that found employers constantly say their new employees are not good at these leadership and other skills while students believe they are, so I thought, ‘What do we do with that?’” said Jaunarajs.

To bridge this gap in leadership skill sets in Ohio University students, Jaunarajs and the Division of Student Affairs (DOSA) designed a microcredentialing program: the Ohio University Leadership Endorsement. This program will enable students’ development of eight major leadership skills in the areas of self-awareness, team development, interpersonal communication, intercultural competency, innovation, adaptability, problem solving, and wellbeing. He noted currently there aren’t many opportunities for college students to intentionally develop these skills and connect what employers want and need with what students think they already have.

Visual illustration of the micro eight competencies.
DOSA selected the Leadership Endorsement program’s eight featured skills after five years of extensive research. They narrowed down consistent themes from studies throughout the past decade.

“There isn’t one central place right now that tells students, ‘You’re going to get really good at these eight competencies as part of this experience,’” said Jaunarajs. “Employers want these skills, they want this clear connection, so students should have it.” Jaunarajs also noted an important element is that students need to develop these eight competencies in particular to be successful after leaving OHIO.

Microcredentials “give employers deeper detail about a student’s abilities” (Zalaznick, 2017, p. 37). Most of today’s employers do not get the information they need from people coming from higher education through resumes and applications (Zalaznick, 2017); adding microcredentials and badges changes that.

Jaunarajs credits the microcredentialing trend to a desire for a less linear model of education; many of today’s students are working full or part time and are not the traditional-aged, campus-based college student. (For more information on microcredentialing, see the articles listed under the literature review in the sidebar to this story.)

Packaging a proposal

Jaunarajs’ interest in microcredentialing started in 2015 when he was part of a committee that focused on academic curricular types of credentialing. Jaunarajs did a great deal of research and homework and thought of how DOSA student employees could be leveraged in a co-curricular way through employment to increase certain types of skills. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have something to give them? Like a badge, a credential, some kind of way to showcase what they’ve done?’” said Jaunarajs.

Jaunarajs then chaired two committees in DOSA that focused on assessment and process engagement, respectively. The committees were charged to develop a way to make DOSA student employment a more consistent, measurable experience. Over the next year, these DOSA committees created the framework of what the microcredentialing project could look like — how their student employees could get something more out of their employment.

These committees eventually hit a wall when they were unable to further their project because of a limited amount of staff time and funding. This is where the Academic Innovation Accelerator (AIA) came in.

Wes Bonadio, associate director of programs in Campus Recreation, was initially a part of the two DOSA task forces. “Through our efforts, we felt we had a vision for what needed to be done. However, we did not have the resources,” said Bonadio. “This resulted in our application for the AIA grant funding and eventually what is now our AIA microcredentialing team.”

In fall 2016, Jaunarajs submitted a formal proposal for the microcredentialing pilot program to the AIA, as a chance to move the project forward. This proposal was selected to receive financial and staff support and other resources.

Microcredentialing at DOSA

The intent of Jaunarajs’s microcredentialing pilot program is to provide an opportunity for students to develop and articulate transferable leadership skills. In his AIA proposal, he outlined how a microcredential would be issued when a student completes a set of activities successfully and then demonstrates the competency.

“This idea of how you capture and collect certain types of experiences will help students be more introspective,” said Jaunarajs. “It also helps them better articulate experiences and what they’ve done at OHIO; it’s no longer disparate activities with student organizations here and classes there. They understand how all of it links together.”

Illustration of the three levels of the microcredential students complete.
Students receive a new version of each badge as they complete each level of the microcredential. The border fill indicates the level of completion.

Each skill’s microcredential (or badge) is composed of three levels: level 1 (basic badges), level 2 (intermediate badges), and level 3 (advanced badges). These areas are related to the type of activity for each area across the platform based on the “learn, act, lead” focus. Level 1 includes learning activities and a quiz to assess knowledge in the skill area. Level 2 requires students to act by participating in learning activities, programs, or events. Level 3 challenges students to demonstrate leadership in the skill area, through deep reflection of skill development and leading an activity related to that skill area.

Once the student completes a full badge, they receive that digital badge to display on social media, digital portfolios, and other platforms to represent their skill set in that area. 

draft of the leadership endorsement program guide which provided framework for the Fall 2017 pilot (PDF)

The pilot launched fall semester 2017 in Blackboard, but the platform currently is under consideration to see if it is the most effective and efficient avenue. The program is set up like a traditional online course would be set up — students must go through certain “steps” to get their assignment, then they get their badge at that level and move on.

Ultimately, DOSA would like their student employees to complete level 1 of all eight badges as a part of onboarding. “Then it would be up to the student to do levels 2 and 3,” said Jaunarajs. “That’s what we’re also testing now is to see if there is interest, how many are doing it, what they need to help them do it effectively, and how much supervision/prompting it takes.”

Currently, the program is being piloted using student employees in Campus Recreation and Event Services, with two of the eight skills: intercultural competency and team development.

Carley Terry, a senior in the College of Business and a Campus Recreation employee, is participating in the pilot program this semester. “The Leadership Endorsement program has allowed me to grow my leadership skills through multiple areas,” said Terry. “This program enables me to grow my soft skills in a way that isn't often taught in the classroom. Plus, I'm able to put this program on my resume to show my employers how I'm growing my leadership skills.”

Jaunarajs hopes to learn more about Blackboard’s fit with the program in the next month or two. After that is established, they will use students from most of the units across DOSA to pilot all eight of the skills. It is anticipated the program will be fully launched to include all DOSA student employees in fall 2018. Currently, DOSA employs 3,000+ students.

Assistance from OII

Jaunarajs noted the support he gained from the AIA and the Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) has been integral to implementing the pilot program. “Without OII, we wouldn’t have been able to fully pursue the project,” he said. “We tried and we found that we couldn’t after a certain point because of a lack of resources.”

The funding DOSA received from the AIA has allowed the hiring of a graduate assistant to complete assessment of research and evaluation, which will provide essential data to inform the next steps in the program; DOSA already had experts in these areas but not the bandwidth to spend on it. “The expertise of the various OII staff members, be it project management, communication, or design elements, has been extremely beneficial because that’s not our expertise,” said Jaunarajs.

Screenshot of the Leadership Endorsement Blackboard dashboard.
The pilot of the Leadership Endorsement program is being hosted in Blackboard. The Office of Instructional Innovation assisted in design, implementation, and more for the program.

For others seeking to take an idea or project to the next level, Jaunarajs recommends they seriously consider the AIA. “The advocacy and support has been beyond valuable,” he said. “Now we truly have an opportunity to see if this project will work; there won’t be excuses for ‘We didn’t have this or that.’ We have what we need now, and it may work and it may not, but now we can truly test it.”

The 2017 cycle of the AIA is currently accepting proposals. Submissions were accepted for priority review through November 3, but OII is still accepting proposals throughout the year. The AIA was created out of a grant through Ohio University’s Innovation Strategy program, which supports creative, interdisciplinary approaches to issues in research, creative activity, teaching, and institutional operations.

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.