Making it Stackable: A case study in increasing access and outcomes for learners
There’s little dispute about the potential of the “both-and approach” of stackablility that reflects value in short-form credentials and time-intensive degrees. The build-as-you-go approach is increasingly recognized as an innovative way to improve equitable access and outcomes in higher education.
However, you have to start somewhere. And those who see the value in offering stackable credentials may struggle to find viable pathways to drive adoption within their universities.
Fortunately, designing a stackable approach comes embedded with the opportunity to engage with critical praxis: Just as stackability offers many on-ramps and opportunities to learn by doing, there are a variety of ways to pilot a stackable program and to learn through iteration.
Demand for stackable options is on the rise.
More employers are seeing the enormous value education benefits can provide when it comes to retaining talent. Employees, for their part, want to take advantage of programs that unlock advancement opportunities in their careers and to do so in a way that allows them to take smaller steps toward a larger goal. In this context, learning institutions have an unprecedented opportunity to meet the needs of time constrained adult learners through stackable programs.
To learn what that looks like in practice, Guild Education interviewed Dr. Radhika Krishnadas, the Executive Director of Learning Design and Professional Development at LSU Online, a Guild partner institution. In the case study below, Krishnadas talks about how she helped her institution design and pilot a stackable credential approach, how it worked, and what advice she would give to those considering a pilot program.
Case Study: Starting LSU’s MicroCred® Program
The pandemic has become a weathervane for shifts in student and workforce needs. “It changed things,” Krishnadas says, “Students were looking at what could be done quickly to impact their work life. [Employers] are increasingly moving to skills-based hiring rather than depending on GPA and transcripts… they are clamoring for skills-based and work-ready clusters. So we asked ourselves ‘how can we align a program to be more skills-based so students can get what they need and apply it to their jobs?’”
Piloting a stackable program became the clear answer.
Before building out a stackable program, Krishnadas needed to determine her own initial point of entry within her institution. For a pilot, the strongest approach proved to be working with a department that already had alignment with the mission of a stackable solution, as well as evidence that stackable learning was in-line with student needs. “We are very mission-centric and the stackability approach fits well,” Krishnadas explains. “We wanted a wide array of offerings that would address social and economic challenges that students face, and opening up access to different student populations through stackable programs fit right in with that.”
There can be a perception, both in academia and in the corporate world, that short-form learning is almost exclusively intended for professionals who are in need of mid-career upskilling. In an equitable stackable approach, however, microcredentials and short-form learning can function as a way to help working adults at any point in their careers —especially in broadening access to those who have been traditionally shut out. As such, Krishnadas and her team chose to be intentional about designing for multiple student populations.
The construction management programs seemed primed for this innovation: Stackability had internal champions with good industry ties. There was a marked need within construction for upskilling opportunities, and broad interest among prospective students, which included high schoolers as well as professionals who lacked a degree or a specific skill needed for advancement. “We wanted to serve a range of needs,” Krishnadas explains. “Professionals who needed upskilling, but lacked the time and financing, and also high school students who wanted to get their feet wet and see if this was the right industry for them without committing to the full degree.”
Krishnadas, in collaboration with the department chair and key faculty, started the process by closely examining job descriptions in the field and comparing them with existing curricula to identify areas within the program that could be parsed into smaller, more manageable portions. Her team worked to determine how these program components could be offered in clusters relevant to the skills and competency demands they saw in real job descriptions for roles that had career mobility. The Intro to Construction microcred became the first credential stack with entry skills that could form a foundation to understand the breadth of their career options in the field. From there, her team looked at the curriculum to define the smallest possible clusters of subsequent courses that could stack into milestones that individually would be applicable for learners in the field.
Despite faculty and leadership support, there was still work to be done to reinforce and educate those new to stackability that it would not dilute the curriculum or level of academic rigor expected of students. Krishnadas worked with faculty to deconstruct learning journeys into scaffolds that would be more meaningful, immediately applicable and calibrated for a variety of learners. Yet the largest challenges tended to be more logistical in nature, including scheduling appropriately to allow different student populations to enroll in the courses they needed in the same term without increasing faculty workload or fiscal inefficiencies.
It was worth the effort. Departments that were not initially keen on stackability saw the construction program drew strong enrollment and student interest without compromising on rigor and academic principles. The success of the pilot let other programs express interest in exploring the same. “There has been a slow culture shift,” Krishnadas observes, “Faculty saw more could be done virtually and equally well as traditional face-to-face courses. They’re seeing the value in providing pathways that enable students to access required learning, apply it to their workplace, and return when they are in need and able to continue learning. Faculty are seeing internal success, as well as the change in both the higher education landscape and the workforce.”
Building on the Right Foundation
For schools interested in pursuing a stackable program pilot, certain conditions can prove more conducive to success. Krishnadas outlined her three “must haves”:
- Leadership support and faculty champions: Target programs that already have some leadership backing and alignment from internal faculty champions. Although there will always be a need to help educate collaborators on value and approach, there has to be enough initial willingness internally to go forward.
- Well-defined entry points and student need: Look at target student populations that stand to benefit the most from stackable offerings, and assess the skills, knowledge, and ability these students come in with. This will help with personnna development and, more critically, with determining entry points in a stackable setting.
- Clear work application: Look at positions that both have mobility and are in demand within the industry and their affiliated job descriptions. Define the skills outlined in the descriptions and compare them with the skills that students already have. This will help with mapping student outcomes directly to the competencies they will need to demonstrate.
The more that institutions acknowledge that learners represent a variety of backgrounds, identities, education levels, and professional experience, the better positioned they will be to understand and address their unique needs. Guild leverages its expertise in working adult learners to advance insights and approaches proven to better position students to create their own opportunities through education attainment.
When the conditions are right for designing a stackable pilot, Krishnadas recommends the following initial steps:
- Existing curriculum: See if there are natural milestones of learning within the curriculum that can be targeted to create relevant units of learning. Milestones are not necessarily synonymous with accomplishments. Instead, think of them as specific skills and competencies that align with advancement in the field. As students complete these, they can be validated with a digital badge or something they can display as evidence of their learning or acquisition of a specific set of skill cluster.
- Formalize milestones: In addition to each milestone needing to mean something relevant to the field, formalizing milestones means taking an objective look at the assessments: are they really helping students demonstrate what they need to demonstrate? If that isn’t the case, work with faculty and course designers to determine ways to tighten assessments.
- Start determining noncredit pathways via PLA: For institutions that do have a continuing education unit, determine whether there are offerings on the noncredit side that can become a pathway to the credit side using Prior Learning Assessments (PLA). Krishnadas refers to these as “crosswalks,” in which faculty can help validate mastery of a given skill, saving students time and money.
Ideal State: Career Services Integration, Broad PLA, and Industry Partnerships
The main driver for working adult students to pursue education, particularly in microcredential and stackable formats, is career advancement. It’s for that reason that stackable pathways, once proven, should eventually be integrated into career services for online students, Krishnadas says. “A student could be directed to the right pathway and [see] what positions might be opening up in a given cluster. If that can be done for online students as it is for traditional on-campus students, it creates a sense of belonging.”
Additionally, Krishnadas recognizes that there are many more options to explore in the PLA space, including providing credit for training and validating prior learning that may have taken place at other institutions and workplaces. One approach she has taken for the construction management program is to partner with NCCER, a national provider for construction management, on courses that many students may take as a requirement for work and could provide on-ramps into the program's stacks through PLA.
Stackability is an equitable solution that can address student need and industry demand while protecting the integrity of a program’s academic rigor. “The MicroCred® Program empowers students to go to employers and say ‘here’s what I can do on day one,’” Krishnadas says. “Being able to convey that to an employer is very relevant to students today.”
As more working adult learners look for programs that will help them realize their career ambitions, higher education has an opportunity to steward that attainment in a way that makes learning more accessible to everyone.
Alex Cannon and Mackenzie Jackson are senior content marketing manager and research and content developer, respectively, for Guild. Guild’s mission is to increase equitable access to education and unlock opportunity for the 88 million Americans who are in need of education or upskilling to compete in the future of work. Click here to learn more.