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Traditional colleges have been mostly on the sidelines for the early development of online microcredentials or badges -- the kind that aren't linked to conventional courses and the credit hour. Educational technology companies and other alternative providers have taken the lead in working with employers on these skills-based credentials.

A new prototype from a group of seven brand-name universities could change that.

Tentatively dubbed the University Learning Store, the project is a joint effort involving the Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the University of Washington, the University of California’s Davis, Irvine and Los Angeles campuses, and the University of Wisconsin Extension.

The partnership remains in its early stages. Officials at Wisconsin Extension, which is playing a prominent role in the work, described it as a joint online platform that will feature modular content, skills assessments and student-facing services, such as tutors, coaches and counselors.

The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees,” said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin Extension.

As with a department store, Schejbal said, the University Learning Store is about offering students different products from different providers. Students will be able to use online content and assessments -- with pieces from different universities -- to prove what they know and can do.

“These should all fit you,” he said. “It would all work for the student.”

The plan is for some of the online content to feature modular instruction, said Schejbal, meaning instructors will interact with students as they progress through the material -- as with a conventional online course, but for a shorter duration.

Sometimes, however, the microcredentials will hinge on direct assessment, where students demonstrate their mastery in predetermined areas solely by completing tests, papers and projects. The University of Wisconsin System uses a version of this latter model in its Flexible Option competency-based programs, where faculty members function as academic support coaches.

The microcredentials could be in job-related soft skills, such as in communication, working with other people and customer relations, or in critical reasoning, logic and problem identification, said Schejbal. They also could be more technical, such as content or assessments on climate science, geographic information systems, or agriculture.

The platform would be aimed at entry-level employees and students, as well as midcareer and senior employees, said Deb Bushway, interim associate dean at Wisconsin Extension. That means it would seek to attract both bachelor’s degree holders and students who have not earned an associate degree, she said.

“Those distinctions start to fade” with microcredentials, Bushway said. “The degree is almost a distraction.”

For example, employees who are managers or even executives might seek out the online platform because they are interested in bulking up their skills in leadership or budget management. Or they might want to take and pass assessments to display what they already can do in those areas. And whether or not the project is successful largely depends on whether employers value the resulting microcredentials.

'Freemium' and À la Carte

The departure from the conventional college course is what sets this project apart from some of the much more established partnerships between MOOC providers and traditional universities, including some of the ones participating in this prototype.

MOOC providers also issue microcredentials. Coursera offers what it calls Specializations, which are sequences of related courses with a capstone project -- all created by professors at partner universities -- in topics such as cybersecurity, data mining and entrepreneurship. Successful completion leads to a certificate from Coursera.

For example, Coursera offers a Specialization in digital marketing that features a bundle of five online courses from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It costs about $450. Some of the courses are self-paced and include 10 hours of videos and assessments. One course takes four weeks to complete.

Academic Partnerships, a company that helps colleges offer their courses online, provides similar bundles of courses that lead to certificates. So does edX, a MOOC provider, with its XSeries certificates.

The planned University Learning Store more closely resembles nanodegrees from Udacity, another MOOC provider. The company’s online nanodegrees are short-term certificate programs that can be completed in six to 12 months. They are skills based and designed in collaboration with employers, in areas such as Android development or data analysis, at a price of $200 per month.

Schejbal said the project’s pricing would be of the “freemium” model. That means some of the content would be free, but students would have to spend money when the universities do. Assessments would come with a price, he said, in part because they would be graded by people rather than computers. Tutoring or other support services would also be fee based.

“Students will be able to buy these à la carte,” said Schejbal, “or in a package.”

The planned online store would not be designed to be federal aid eligible, said Schejbal, even though the White House and U.S. Department of Education have expressed interest in experimental pathways to aid eligibility for some similar forms of nontraditional credentials.

“We’re imagining that this would be cheap enough for a student to afford without financial aid,” he said.

Bushway said it was not clear at this point whether the project would pursue credit-bearing credentials. That likely would require accreditation approval, which can be labor intensive to secure.

The quality of the microcredentials in many ways will hinge on the assessments students must successfully complete to earn them, said Bushway.

The project will feature “authentic” assessments, she said, that in many ways build on Wisconsin’s work on competency-based education. Wisconsin Extension is one of a handful of institutions to receive approval from the Education Department and its regional accreditor to offer direct-assessment degrees, which do not rely on the credit hour.

If a student passed an assessment in, say, customer service, that documented skill could be paired with related modular online content, Bushway said. Taken together, those pieces would stack into some sort of microcredential, badge, nanodegree or whatever term takes hold. Students would be able to display the credential electronically, as in a digital portfolio.

The project’s leaders had been working with an outside provider to help build the platform. But Schejbal said the universities eventually had to change gears and begin an open-bid process. That sort of red tape, which affects public universities much more than ed-tech companies, is an example of the challenges the University Learning Store likely will face. (All but one of the group of seven universities are public.)

That said, the assorted universities tout heavy-hitter brands. And the project shows that the group is willing to think beyond what Schejbal calls the “blunt instrument of the degree,” with a focus on students who are working adults, not just 18- to 22-year-olds on residential campuses.

“Students really do need to come in and out of education across a lifetime,” said Schejbal, adding that the microcredential project is “looking at people who need them regardless of their degree level.”

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