Polytechnic institutions paved the way for microcredentials

Polytechnic institutions have been pioneers for developing microcredentials, stackable credentials, and other programs that don’t come with a four-year degree. This focus on digestible, shorter credentials, is preparing graduates for the workforce like never before. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher education institutions to offer a full range of credentials rather than focusing exclusively on degrees and credit-bearing diplomas?

Tom Roemer (TR): There’s actually a couple of reasons for that. BCIT is a polytechnic institute, so in the technological knowledge spectrum we are located between the traditional community college, which is tasked with providing access to post-secondary education, and the traditional research university, which is tasked with discovery research. Our mandate is strategic Workforce Development. What does that mean? Well, on one end, you are looking at what industry needs to function and stay competitive, what new trends are emerging and which technologies are poised to be disruptive. But we also need to serve different generations of learners. While many people come to a polytechnic to upgrade or reskill, you will also serve, of course, recent high school graduates. Currently, our high school graduates belong to a generation referred to as  gen Z.

And gen Z exhibits certain sociological and behavioral patterns that baby boomers don’t necessarily share. So, that begs the question, why do we suddenly need a new product? Haven’t the degrees served us well for the last 40 years? Very much so. They have, and they still do. They’re still valid and sought after. What we’re doing at the moment is complementing the traditional system—the degree system—with a new one. We’re not replacing anything. We’re not substituting anything. We’re complementing it. And the reason for that is twofold. One is that modern learners don’t broadly gravitate to  four-year degrees anymore. Or, as we sometimes call it facetiously, sell their soul to the institution and a rigid program with very little flexibility. The old adage of “all knowledge is good knowledge, so I give you four years’ worth of content, some of which you will use down the road ” doesn’t broadly sell anymore. A younger generation now says, “No, I want to assemble my own custom skillset because I know exactly where I want to go with this, and I’m not willilng to take three complete programs to get the right mix. I want to achieve that palette of skills in the shortest time possible.”

Our world is so fast-paced nowadays that often the degree programs are lagging behind—and not necessarily just the four-years. Many of our institutions have certain quality assurance mechanisms, and significant effort is required to update an entire degree program. Conversely, I can switch a microcredential on the fly. And this way I can keep it relevant and link it to something trendy out there right now. And that is exactly what we’re seeing with a modern learner at the moment.

Evo: Why is there such a cultural lag in creating a relevant value proposition for the customer we serve?

TR: Any perceived reluctance is actually not really deeply rooted, to be honest with you. Many in our industry are very excited about that new development. For us at BCIT, it is more of an evolutionary than a revolutionary process. We serve 50,000 students each year, of which 30,000 are enrolled in part-time studies. , Which is not to be mistaken for Continuing Education, by the way, as I’m not talking about the “introduction to computers for seniors” kind of program. — I’m talking about industry-level skilling programs delivered in a flexible and sometimes extended format, after hours or on the weekend, for example.

Not surprisingly, part-time is very popular for upskilling and reskilling. The microcredential only takes that concept to the nth degree It now breaks down the part-time courses, which may already be more condensed than full-time courses, makes them more granular and targets the individual topic, then the individual skill and competency conveyed to the student. Industry has always bought into that model, since it clearly prescribes outcomes.

Many of our part-time courses are filled by mature learners, i.e. not recent high school graduates but 35, 45, 50-year-old industry veterans going back to school to take their next career steps. The type of institutions for which microcredential are more unfamiliar territory typically are the established research universities, who have traditionally offered complete degrees and who suddenly find themselves faced with a new product. Work-integrated learning is another product that many research universities had not necessarily pursued at the level that polytechnics have for a long time.

Any reluctance, perceived or real, is linked to the newness of the product, while our employers know that the familiar quality is still ensured. We recently offered a course on mass timber construction, and we were estimating about 50 people to take that course when we developed it. Ultimately, we ended up with over 200, largely sent to us directly from industry. So, no, it’s actually not that the industry is reluctant to adopt that model.

Evo: Why are polytechs such pioneers in developing and launching microcredentials and other non-degree offerings?

TR: It largely stems from our mandate of strategic Workforce Development. Polytechnics have always worked directly with industry—all our programs are supported and reviewed by program advisory committees. When we develop a new program, based on a faculty or industry proposal, the first step always is to bring in the program advisory committee and get their feedback. And then the PAC, as we call it, will say, “, it is relevant and needed, make sure to include this, and don’t bother with that” and so on. Programs are usually vetted by industry before they become available. That’s not the case in traditional universities, where new programs are often proposed and developed in-house, without a preceding business case or a clear indication of whether there’s a market for it. And that’s where the two models diverge. Neither is superior per se, instead they serve two different mandates.

Once the programs are established, industry may come back to us and say, “This is a very relevant diploma. In fact, is there a way we could create subsets of it because at times we require only a particular competency conveyed by, let’s say, only four courses?” In response, we may decide to distill an associate certificate out of it, which instead of 110 credits might only have 15.” Microcredentials are the epitome of breaking things down into discrete competencies, making them very granular and then offering the option to recombine them to be beneficial for the individual, i.e. to provide the exact skillset needed for a particular environment or aspiration. It is the longstanding relationship that polytechnics and industry have that lay the foundation for this mutual benefit. The professional intertwining has been good for both sides.

Evo: What are some of the things you look for in a microcredential or non-credit offering that drives home its value to the learner and to the labor market?

TR: Interestingly, this was the one key concern our faculty had. They told us that they were certainly willing to explore and pilot this new model, but wanted assurance that we’re not “shoveling all microcredentials off the back of a truck” because they sell really well right now. In response, we tackled it the same way we do it with all our offerings. We have very strong School quality committees, and in my office I have a Dean for Academic Planning and Quality Assurance. Any new development will have to be vetted through those two levels as well. A microcredential, when proposed by a faculty member, is reviewed by the department before it is submitted to a joint paninstitutional quality committee before  our Education Council is notified.

As I mentioned before, we don’t run this through a Continuing Education division—which we don’t even have—but through the Institute’s professional divisions. I would stipulate that there is even more of an eagle eye on it, because we want to ensure the quality BCIT is known for is preserved and  that people are saying, “This might be only 120 hours of coursework, but I have really gained knowledge here.”

Evo: What are the benefits of that administrative model when it comes to managing non-degree offerings?

TR: Well, quality is certainly the first one. The second is that our Schools usually have a long-standing professional relationship with industry. Continuing Education in many colleges and universities is largely a revenue-generating element, often without tight and personal connections with industry. In some cases, they develop content almost like a third party. At BCIT, in contrast, it is the program advisory committees that influence the development of new courses. It is these tight relationships with industry that trigger course development while ensuring quality.

Our faculty clearly said that their engagement would rest on two conditions. The first: No compromise on quality. And the second: There is proven demand. As a result we won’t end up with a list of microcredentials that were developed because a single voice thought it was a good idea.—we want to have assurance from industry a priori that they require this particular competency. And that’s our underlying foundation for development.

Evo: Given the fact that a non-credit audience is so different from a credit-bearing audience, is there a desire to streamline non-credit programming?

TR: Because we don’t employ a Continuing Education division, the majority of our microcredentials are credit-bearing and designed to be stacked or combined with larger credentials. In reality, we never seriously entertained the idea of mounting microcredentials as non-credit programming. We decided early on that it is the credit that ensures depth and quality. If it is a learning module with serious and professional content, then cap it with a review and assessment at the end. And if you have an assessment, then give a credit for successfully mastering it.

This being said, you may find some courses offered on an attendance-only basis, but we usually offer those free of charge through our Open Education division.

For example, we carry a variety of excellent citizenship courses, which we offer as a service to the community..

But I mentioned stackability earlier. In conjunction with microcredentials, we designed another product: our open multidisciplinary credential or OMC, which again aims to be responsive to a shift in our audience. In the traditional model, students pick a field and that’s the track they follow. Nowadays we find more and more people, especially young entrepreneurs, who have an innovative idea and might say, “I need an introduction to mechanical engineering. I need a little bit of machining and electrical, which are trades. But then I also need the basics of accounting and marketing, as well as an exposure to software development.” We looked long and hard at that trend and finally asked ourselves, who are we to tell people, “You took ten university-level courses, designed with academic rigor, and fully assessed. But we are not willing to grant you any academic standing because they all were in different disciplines.” That is nonsense. Many entrepreneurs need to be generalists to be successful, and the world needs people to translate at the interface of dissimilar fields.

So, we designed the OMC as an interdisciplinary vehicle. If people successfully master microcredentials (or individual regular courses, for that matter), and they come from BCIT or a source that we accredit, then they can combine them and achieve a certificate and documented academic standing. This is not to be mistaken for a backdoor certificate in accounting or engineering. It is a certificate in open studies, in interdisciplinary studies.”

And where this becomes even more powerful is when people acquire knowledge in non-academic environments. For example, a person may come from the armed forces, where they took a leadership course. It may not exactly be the same leadership course we offer, but it had rigor and certifiable content. Bring it in. The OMC may have a place for that. We have a Prior Learning Assessment  function to verify whether the academic rigor was there, in exchange for one, two or three credits for it, depending on what it is.

And that is modern learning—it is the recognition that knowledge can come from very different sources. It could be indigenous knowledge, industry knowledge or international knowledge. You may have served on an international development project in Africa, where you acted in a logistics function. You may have never had an official supply chain course, but after six months in the field, you have a good understanding how the supply chain works in complex environments. There has always been a reluctance to credit this kind of experience. Now we have a mechanism to evaluate the associated experience, conduct a proper assessment, and potentially credit it. And it goes hand in hand with microcredentials, or their constituents – badges.

Evo: What does that mean for the institution’s broader role? And as that shift carries on, how do you expect that role to evolve?

TR: I must always strongly reiterate that it is not replacing traditional learning but complementing it. An accountant will always need an accounting certificate and a nurse will always have a nursing degree. But we estimated, and this is a very rough calculation on our part, that approximately 15% of our market would prefer to gain knowledge in different settings and combine individual channels of knowledge.. They see life-long learning as simultaneously and constantly learning and working, experiencing and applying.

And in that applied world, polytechnic institutions are tasked with verifying quality and attributing credit. You might be a firefighter who has taken a particular course on the behavior of materials. This may have included components of physics, chemistry and safety. Let us evaluate the contents and bestow credit in good conscience. if it was difficult to learn and you mastered it, this probably is something that sets you apart. So that is where the role comes in. It is complex and requires collaboration with business and industry.

But again, this is not really new territory for us. For one, BCIT hosts the International Credit Evaluation System (ICES). When a foreign trained professional comes in, we look into their skills and certification, and we translate that into a Canadian context. And then we have a specialized unit called the SITE center, where they have been working with the armed forces for many years on exactly that issue of prior learning assessment. SITE aims to provide advanced standing, often in business management courses, and they have earned national awards for their work.

So, no, it’s not really revolutionary for us—it’s evolutionary. But for many research universities, this may constitute a new field of engagement, which is harder to anchor in a traditional structure. While it’s not much of a stretch for us, it is very exciting nonetheless –  a new way of doing business, and we enjoy it tremendously.

About the Author

Tom Roemer, Vice President, Academic, British Columbia Institute of Technology

Tom Roemer is the Vice President of Academic and Research at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Previously, he worked on the Board of Directors for Innovative BC, an organization that connects innovators to the provincial government for funding and access to tools. Roemer also worked an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University, where he taught Masters programs covering polytechnic educations.