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In the past decade, the introduction of learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, edX and other alternative credit providers have institutions of higher learning thinking about what it means to translate and interpret the credit that is earned from these nontraditional means. More recently, the increase in companies and organizations that are offering employees the opportunity to upskill in-house is also adding to this transfer credit complexity. Institutions of higher learning are increasingly being faced with how to meet the needs of a partnership agreement that does not fit the traditional approach. Technology innovation, diverse sources of credentialing and how to translate valuable experience are areas of higher education innovation that influence these nontraditional partnership opportunities.

These potential credit sources challenge institutions to translate nontraditional credit into credentials granted by the school while also trying to decipher how to operationalize the process based on what the student has earned and achieved. This is disrupting the idea that partnerships are only defined by relationships with other K-12 schools, community colleges and institutions of higher learning. In a landscape where the demographics of learners are changing to reflect a higher adult population, it will be crucial for degree-granting institutions to embrace these new pathways of learning.

Ben Wildavsky noted in a 2021 Chronicle of Higher Education white paper that “88 million working adults are in need of upskilling in order to compete in tomorrow’s workforce.” The need is there. Universities should anticipate what learners want from the institution and figure out how to accommodate students taking advantage of the plethora of learning opportunities available by a stroke of the keyboard.

How Do We Operationalize Nontraditional Partnership Credit?

University of Maryland Global Campus, a large public institution whose mission includes “improving the lives of adult learners,” has built over 150 educational alliances with employers and organizations that are committed to creating educational opportunities for their employees and community. Through building these relationships, we have learned that it is imperative to have those that negotiate the memorandum of understanding—the registrar and the academic schools—working in tandem toward achieving the goals of the MOU between the university and the third party. This ensures setting terms that maximize credit earned for a student, as well as ensuring that operational processes and policy support what the MOU is aiming to achieve.

A traditional transfer-credit experience assumes that the sending party and the receiving party both understand what the other is looking for: certain bio/demo data to match the student in a student information system, course descriptions, the expectation of transcripts from the source where the credit was earned. This is evolving and changing in the landscape of higher ed. Today, organizations that do not generate transcripts are giving students credentials digitally through badges or sending certificates by email, and there is an expectation that the student will share the credential earned. This opens opportunities for innovation and growth.

A good place to start is to ask the definition of a partnership in the context of higher education. What credential or badge is being sought? How can this be redefined considering the changes to how education is assigned credit? How can this change based on how we move credit from experience to experience? How can we be creative and compliant?

Another essential area to consider is how the memorandum of understanding can help outline the important strategic and operational details. In order to operationalize the items agreed upon in an MOU, consider the answers to these questions:

  • What outcomes are required to give institutional credit?
  • How do we define education to credit? Is the credential matching educational output?
  • How will this be stored in a database?
  • How will this be transcripted?
  • What kind of documentation will the institution be receiving?
  • Who will be sending it?
  • Will it arrive in a secure manner?
  • What is considered official and do these documents become stored as official?

Revise Beyond the Initial Review

Historically, partnership agreements are reviewed at signing and again when the program ends. An often-overlooked approach is a mid–partnership review: a point in time decided as part of the formal agreement that brings both parties to the table to debrief and assess how the new, innovative and creative approaches to credit and credentialing are working for the partnership. At this point, you will have some data to review from those that are taking advantage of the original proposal and can use this information to make improvements to what was originally designed. This review can ask critical questions such as:

  • Are the needs of both parties being met?
  • Where can we improve our procedure?
  • Do we feel comfortable with the secure transcript exchange process?
  • What lessons have we learned so far?
  • Where do we have space to innovate this agreement further?

Embrace the Change

Today’s focus on skills, competencies and acknowledgment of learning will continue to grow and evolve as technology has ensured that “learning is everywhere.” Institutions of higher learning need to be able to scale the intake and review of this potential transfer credit. Asking the critical questions mentioned throughout this article leads institutions to start developing standard operating procedures and accepted practices throughout the higher education industry. Embracing this type of mind-set may potentially lead to new revenue streams and credential offerings for the institution and creates educational opportunities for those who at one time may have felt that a path forward to meet their goals did not exist.

Insiya Bream is the registrar and associate vice president at University of Maryland Global Campus. Katie Schwienteck is the registrar at Pennsylvania State University at York and an adjunct faculty member in communication.

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