American University Launches Alternative Technology Credential

For a decade or more, higher ed has been talking about badges and alternative credentials in higher education. Sometimes, that’s turned into creating an alternative credential in a bubble and hoping it scale. But some universities are working directly with employers to develop new competency signals.

Jill Klein, Interim Dean of the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the generalist digital-technology credential they’ve developed in partnership with other local employers and universities through CoLAB.

Working with Employers to Develop New Competency Signals

The Greater Washington Partnership brought together a small set of leading companies in the region. They recognized that in order for the DC region to support the growth happening there, companies needed to tackle a lot of issues. One of the first was workforce development. 

“We have far more job openings for people in the digital technology than we can possibly produce even in our universities,” Jill said. 

Washington DC houses some of the world’s top universities, and yet how do we educate students and keep those students in the region? So the businesses came together, and asked themselves, “If we went to the universities how would they respond?”

“We started to coalesce around this notion,” Jill said. “Is there a way to recognize that a student, an undergraduate student graduates with what we call the digital technology credential skills, highly generalized?” 

The universities created a digital technology credential through an institution they called CoLAB. This credential essentially has six components to it– the role of data and analytics, statistics, data manipulation, visualization and communication along with data ethics and data security.

Incorporating a Technology Credential into Existing Degree Paths

At American University, Jill discovered they had already embedded digital technology competencies into many of their courses and degrees.

“We’ve created pathways,” Jill said, “so that if you’re a student, for example, in the business school, we’ve defined that pathway that’s been approved by the faculty. If the students take these courses, faculty members at American University can say to the CoLAB, “Our students have met the requirements of the credential.”

Most students take statistics as part and parcel of their degrees. Now enhancing that course with other classes in data analytics and visualization helps students both dig into their own academic passions and also have a robust technology background.

“The exciting part for us is we’re actually able to turn around to the businesses and frankly to families as well and say what your student is doing in a liberal arts degree it is preparing them for the workplace,” Jill said. “Now we’ve got a digital technology credential to just sort of prove that, if you will.”

Scaling this Technology Credential Outside of D.C.

Think about the businesses that are foundational in your community. Manufacturing? Service? Medical facilities? Every geography is different.

“We’re really doing things that we know are going to work for Greater Washington,” Jill said. “and we want to get that to work.” 

The Greater Washington partnership provides the professional guidance and leadership for the CoLAB. Leaders in a number of other cities and regions have approached them saying, “This is amazing.” But they’ll say, “It’s a workforce initiative, but it’s got to be regional.” 

Jill explained it as: Think globally, but act locally.

Right now, American University is still in the early launching phases. They’re talking about how to scale hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, and connect them to scores of employers. How do you do that in a way that the students want the credential, and the employers demonstrate interest in students who earn this credential? 

At American, Jill’s team plans to make it work regionally. 

“We’ve got our sleeves rolled up in a great way,” Jill told us, “because we’re just so excited for our students, and we’re excited that we’ve got this new way to connect students to the business community.”

Next-Steps for Institutions Interested in Incorporating Badges and Credential Within their Degree Programs

“If you think about the American higher education system,” Jill said, “we’re the envy of the world. All we’re doing here is taking the envy of our businesses, if you will, and the enormous success and potential of our businesses and marrying them.” 

Questions still stand out: How do we actually badge this credential?  What do we do with that? How do we create what Jill calls a durable ledger? 

“When we talk about lifelong learning,” Jill said, “we’re going to be learning for 40, 50, 60 years. How do we keep track of all these things that we have acquired?” 

One of the big frontiers is what do we do with badges and credentials. How do we integrate the degrees that we’re earning at a university? 

“That’s the next big piece,” Jill said, “but it’s exciting and it’s the future. We’re going to make it work.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Jill Klein from American University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

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Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.