Types of Alternative Credentials and Non-Traditional Programs


In the previous post, we discussed the growing interest in alternative credentials. Because a traditional degree doesn’t tell a complete or specific story of a student’s ability, the skills and knowledge gained through nontraditional coursework are becoming increasingly important. This is especially important to adult learners, who can focus on coursework that is most relevant and valuable and learn at their own pace.

More and more colleges and universities are partnering with businesses, professional organizations, private foundations, public policy groups and even the U.S. Department of Education to create alternative credentialing programs that support competency-based education and other modern learning models. These programs take a number of different forms.

In professional boot camps, for example, students are typically taught specific skills required to meet an employer’s job requirements. Boot camps originated in the technology sector with coding boot camps, which provide specialized computer programming training based on current market conditions. Many schools are using massive, open online courses (MOOCs) that provide students with free access to a year’s worth of educational content. On-demand learning programs provide the flexibility of self-paced, online learning, while many offer the option to remotely participate in a live session. Shorter, highly specific microlearning programs often use video to educate in short bursts.

When students demonstrate mastery of certain knowledge or skills by completing some type of non-degree coursework, they earn alternative credentials. Different types of alternative credentials include but are not limited to:

Digital Badge. A digital badge is a verified indicator of accomplishment, skill, knowledge, experience, etc. that can be earned in a variety of learning environments. Digital badges are awarded based on competency, not necessarily the completion of a program. The badge itself is an icon that can be displayed on a website, profile, email signature or anywhere else on the Internet.

Verified Certificate. A verified certificate is awarded to indicate completion of an online course, especially a MOOC. Students must complete all program requirements and then verify their identity before receiving the credential. Course sequences are a form of verified certificates that indicate a pathway of courses for learning a specific topic.

Micro-Credential. As the name implies, a micro-credential is a highly specific, competency-based degree or certification. Micro-credentials are often created and chosen to align a student’s needs with instructional goals. The credential is earned upon the completion of certain activities, tasks, projects and/or assessments.

According to LinkedIn Learning’s Insider Survey of learning and development experts, 57 percent of respondents believe businesses will increase education benefits more than traditional benefits in 2017 as a way to retain their best employees. Seventy-one percent believe partnering with outside training providers will be the optimal approach to closing skills gaps. A recent market study from Technavio found that the global alternative credentials market for higher education is expected to grow at an annual rate of nearly 32 percent through 2021.

Higher education institutions need to make sure their information systems are capable of tracking and integrating non-credit, non-degree programs and alternative credential data with traditional coursework. Schools also must consider how this data will be stored, managed and reported. As adult learners become an even larger segment of the student population, colleges and universities can use alternative credentials to meet demand for more flexible, personalized learning.