Microcredentials in higher education: a path to learning for in-demand fields


    Microcredentials are short courses that arise in key areas of need for employers. They are often a collaboration between employers and a university.

    The GAC in Data Analytics is an excellent example of a microcredential. A key benefit is that companies can use it to validate the competencies of data analyst job applicants.

    Although microcredentials rarely require a significant time-investment, it is important to define your goals and do your research to pick a program that makes sense for you.

    Many aspiring graduate students are interested in “microcredentials,” certificates and badges that provide credit for short-term learning experiences.

    While microcredentials don’t bear as much credit as a degree, they may, in some circumstances, “stack” to a degree program. This means the student can acquire enough credit through microcredentials to enter a degree program with learning experiences that count toward degree completion.

    In essence, these smaller building blocks can help a student acquire new skills that may help them advance in their career, or begin using these blocks to build to a full degree.

    What are microcredentials?

    Microcredentials are short industry-recognized programs aimed at building a specific set of competencies. Microcredentials can be stacked and used as credit – either to enter a graduate program or as part of the degree itself. 

    what are microcredentials

    Who offers microcredentials?

    Microcredentials are emerging in key areas of need for employers, and often require collaboration between employers and university. My university, the University of North Texas (UNT), offers several examples of such programs, each serving a targeted industry area and leveraging established graduate programs. For example, the Advanced Data Analytics (ADTA) program offers a variety of microcredentials to meet the needs of UNT students and employers.

    GAC in data analytics – an example of a microcredential option

    One of the most common microcredential options is a graduate academic certificate (GAC) composed of 3 or more graduate courses. The 5-course, 15-credit GAC in Data Analytics was created in response to corporate demand from JPMorgan Chase (JPMC). The company was committed to increasing employee retention by providing career pathways in high-demand areas, such as data analytics.

    The GAC in Data Analytics was developed along with a parallel undergraduate Certificate in Data Analytics. These concurrently developed options allowed UNT to serve JPMC employees at multiple levels in their education attainment. The majority of JPMC employees have enrolled in the GAC and most have gone on to “stack” the GAC to complete the full M.S. in Advanced Data Analytics.

    What is the purpose of the GAC in data analytics?

    While the GAC was originally motivated by employers’ interest in developing skills in data analytics, the certificate also serves the interests of students not currently employed, including students wanting a more gradual pathway to a master’s degree, and students who already possess a graduate degree and want data analytics graduate training to support their research or career goals.

    Data analytics competencies are increasingly important for advancement in nearly every industry as businesses seek to remain competitive. There is also exceptionally high workforce demand for well-trained data analysts. An EMSI job posting data analysis indicates that Texas businesses tried harder (as measured by postings to unique jobs) over the last year to hire data analysts than any other occupation.

    Businesses are also finding it increasingly difficult to validate the competencies of data analyst job applicants. The ADTA faculty and chair have established strong connections to regional businesses, leveraging 1 program to build another. For example, the certificate programs initially developed for JP Morgan helped establish a relationship with Toyota Financial Services which has led to the development of short, focused data analytics training modules delivered by the ADTA faculty to Toyota employees.

    The addition of accelerated microcourses

    The ADTA program has built upon the success of the Toyota training modules to help meet the broader workforce demand for data analysts and to address business needs for certified competencies. They are currently developing suites of digital, accelerated microcourses that can be stacked into academic certificates, which could further be stacked to complete a degree.

    These 4-week, 1-credit microcourses are aligned with key competencies in the Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) certification developed by the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science. Completion of the certificate programs prepares students for successful completion of the CAP exam. The digital microcourses leverage existing content in the UNT undergraduate and graduate analytics certificates.

    The microcourse format makes the degree accessible to more students and is better adapted to the needs of working learners than traditional academic programs.

    The microcourse format makes the degree accessible to more students and is better adapted to the needs of working learners than traditional academic programs. For-credit versions will allow multiple entry points throughout the year. Not-for-credit courses will be offered online in an on-demand format through Coursera.

    We are also making the outcomes of this learning more transparent for employers. In addition to aligning with CAP exam competencies, content for each of the microcourses have been validated through a collaboration with industry partners as part of a national initiative to develop educator-employer competency frameworks.

    Things to consider before pursuing a microcredential

    After creating the GAC, we became aware that the pathway to graduate school is not as obvious to some students as faculty and graduate deans might wish. These microcredentials make that pathway clearer and provide a short-term, low-stakes way of beginning a graduate school experience.

    Students considering a microcredential can benefit from keeping the following things in mind.

    what to consider before pursuing a microcredential

    1. Define your goals

    What are you seeking to do in your career, both short and long-term? Knowing this will help you select a credential program that is well-suited to these goals.

    2. Do your homework

    Does the kind of credential you are seeking really support your goals? If you are seeking to advance in your career, will your current or future employer be likely to recognize the credential you would like to complete? This is a question to ask colleagues and supervisors, as well as the university to which you are applying.

    If you are seeking to change careers or begin a new one, will a single microcredential be enough to make that change? If the answer is no, look for programs that “stack” into full degree programs.

    3. Give yourself the time to experiment

    One of the most appealing aspects of microcredentials is that they don’t require a significant investment of time and resources compared to a full degree program.

    A microcredential can provide a taste of graduate school, help you confirm your interest in a topic, and give you confidence to acquire and try out new skills and knowledge. What you learn from this short-term experience may help you to further refine and develop your plans for the future.

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