Helping Post-Traditional Learners With Badges & Progressive Credentialing

According to Louis Soares in Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Post-Secondary Education, only 15% of those pursuing a college degree today are seeking a traditional residential college experience. The other 85% are what some refer to as post-traditional. They are working people who want a post-secondary credential but they don’t have one. As Soares points out in the article, this is also the population of college student that is less likely to complete. Life challenges, family circumstances, the demands of work and other factors combine to create barriers to achieving a college degree for some people. It is this 85% that most benefits from the many higher education innovations over the past fifty years: night school, one-day-a-way programs, weekend cohorts, blended learning programs, low residency programs, competency-based programs, as well as the many online programs available today.

It is not that this population is unwilling to work hard. It is that the traditional full-time college structure does not align with their needs, nor is it flexible enough to allow them to meet the other significant demands in their lives. However, the “non-traditional programs” make college a possibility: allowing students to to work at their own pace, to study and learn during evenings and weekends, or to do the bulk of their work after 10:00 PM each night (once all the kids are in bed).

Even with such flexibility, there is a greater chance (than with many traditional undergraduates) that these post-traditional students will not persist and graduate. That is why many top programs targeted at this population invest extra time and effort in retention plans: adding teams of success coaches, building advanced learning analytic tools that trigger automated alerts to advisors and faculty when a student is “at-risk” of dropping out (as indicated by the student having one or more at-risk behaviors: not logging into the online course often, missing due dates for assignments, not clicking on or viewing important documents or sections of the course, getting one or more failing grades, etc.).

Along with this, the design of programs, courses, and learning experiences play an important role. These learners often have rich and diverse life experiences that they bring to the classes, they seek knowledge and skill that they can readily apply to life and work, and they benefit from the confidence-building and input that comes from frequent feedback on their work. Of course, this is not specific to post-traditional learners. Most of us value and benefit from such features.

What else might be distinct about educating this post-traditional population? If they are already in the workforce, possibly full-time, part-time, or underemployed, they are in a place to leverage their new knowledge and skill right away. They might use it to solve problems on the job, improve the quality of their work on the job, to gain the knowledge and skill necessary for a promotion, or to get what it takes to be eligible for a similar or altogether different position (if they can show what they’ve learned). This is where I see a potential affordance to the use of competency-based digital badges, progressive credentials, within degree programs for post-traditional learners. As a learner demonstrates new knowledge or a new skill, a micro-credential is issued to the students. The students have not even finished an entire course or program, yet they have earned a credential, one that they can push to their backpack and display online. In other words, they can benefit from progressive credentialing (a concept referenced in the Soares article mention at the beginning of this article). These micro-credentials can build up to progressively larger credentials (unit level, course level, and finally program level). Courses and programs are already divided in such ways at times, but adding credentialing to each new knowledge or skill acquisition provides a visible sign of progress, adds new and identifiable credentials to a learners resume, and potentially helps the learner recognize that coursework is not just about getting passing grades or jumping through hoops. It is about developing real, valuable and documented competencies.

The goal is typically for each student to progress through and entire program and walk away with both new knowledge and a valued credential called a diploma. However, with the use of progressive micro-credentials, even when life’s challenges leads one to set aside the goal of earning a degree, the learner does not walk away entirely empty-handed. That learner still has micro-credentials to show for the time and effort, not to mention the actual knowledge and skill that can be demonstrated right away. Such an approach adds a new dimension to the questions about the value of a partially completed degree, which many students may see has having nothing to show for their efforts.

This does not mean that all employers will trust or assign value to these micro-credentials. That is larger issue of trust networks. However, this approach has potential benefits even in the absence of such trust networks or perceived valued of badges by employers. By structuring the programs around such competency-based badges, we are also designing the learning experience in a way that makes it easier for learners to recognize and be able to represent the discrete knowledge and skill acquired along the way. Even without displaying badges, such knowledge and skill can be explicitly listed on a resume. This approach might make it easier for the learners to verbally communicate what has been learned an what evidence they have to provide evidence of that learning. From this perspective, progressive competency-based credentials are giving the learners the vocabulary to represent themselves well to current or prospective employers. 

This is not a claim that progressive competencies will solve the issue of dropping out of college, but such an approach does seem to provide some help, especially given the distinct needs and life circumstances of the post-traditional learner. What do you think?