The notion of the stackable credential may have been unintentionally invented by the part-time working student. For many years, individuals seeking an academic credential have used the strategy of taking one course at a time, over a long period of time, to accrue the necessary credits to achieve they degree they have sought. More recently, with the push for degree completion in a timelier way, specific degrees have been offered to streamline the path to completion through distance learning, onsite cohorts, and other methods for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. One problem with the part-time model was related to the fact that at “one course at a time,” students might complete a set of courses only to find the program requirements had changed (as it does with dynamic curricula) and courses taken for credit might no longer apply toward a degree. In addition to being costly, this method was inefficient and did not acknowledge or map skills and competencies to a credential outcome.
A more contemporary approach has emerged from this dilemma in the form of stackable credentials. Continuing education has been a form of stackable credentials in nursing for a long time. Continuing education is easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, and usually relevant and timely. Entry into degree-seeking programs is generally more bureaucratic, more rigorous, and more difficult, including such limitations as admission criteria, limits on enrollment capacity and limited flexibility for attendance, and program requirements. Continuing education still has rigorous content and development oversight requirements (program quality), but student access is much more open and accessible. Although these courses are convenient, relevant, and usually of high quality, they are outside of a degree and do not map to or count as academic credit.
Today's stackable credential strategy attempts to combine the benefits of both degree-related education and continuing education by mapping and stacking learning outcomes and credentials to improve accessibility. Stackable credentials generally fall into three models: vertical stacking, horizontal stacking, and value-added stacking (Hanover Research, 2017, p. 3). Vertical stacking refers to the more traditional method of stacking (or mapping) credentials into an academic credential or degree. Horizontal stacking is more about adding skills within a credential level. The new knowledge is not dependent on following a specific order or pathway, and new knowledge is more about re-tooling. Value-added stacking focuses on adding skills or expertise for individuals who already hold an academic credential. Each of these models has different applications for workforce development, both in developing new pipelines of workers and in developing expanded talent within incumbent workers.
According to Ryerse (2017), “A micro-credential is a certification indicating demonstrated competency in a specific skill. Micro-credentials are also on-demand, shareable, and personalized. Learners have voice and choice in what credentials they want to pursue and can create their own education playlists” (para. 6). Professional education in nursing, medicine, and other health care roles has always been accomplished through long-form education. This means traditional Bachelor's, Master's, and other postgraduate degrees. There will always be a need and a place for these traditional education models; however, as concerns grow about workforce shortages, greater needs for diversity in the workforce and more accessible pathways for nontraditional learners, microcredentials may be a solution whose time has come. Massive open online course-based Master's degrees and micromaster's programs are being offered by such notable academic institutions as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. On a platform developed specifically to distribute high-quality education through courses and certificates called edX®, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a movement toward these new education models. A search of health topics on the edX website revealed more than 90 current courses and another 100 others available at specific enrollment time frames covering topics that range from human anatomy to health care finance to global health, and many more. As an example relevant to educators, the University of Maryland offers a micromaster's certificate on Instructional Design and Technology. This program combines the basics of learning theory with digital design and evolving online learning platforms to develop new skills for instructional design. This course is an excellent example of high quality, relevant learning available at a fraction of the cost of a degree. It is an emerging skill that is needed by educators and can be accessed without applying for a degree program, and it is an appropriate add-on to the competency portfolio of a professional educator.
What's a Professional Education Leader to Do?
As new professional primary education and lifelong learning models emerge, professional development educators need to understand how these new models can be leveraged to accomplish strategic learning goals. Microcredentials can be valuable for individual or group remediation or redevelopment around a specific set of skills or competencies. Identifying and developing strategies to evaluate which high-quality education resources can be curated for various education needs is a strong contemporary competency for professional educators. Building a library of tools that can be used to achieve learning and the skills to vet and curate them is an important competency for todays' professional development leader. Whether the goals are to support new pathways of education to entice incumbent paraprofessionals to take a course to test their commitment and interest, or develop value-added skills for current workers, or even to build new competencies for advanced leaders, professional educators often have diverse and far-reaching responsibilities. Being able to tap into a larger toolkit of resources can only help to extend the scarce development resources educators have for the education priorities of the organization. Building a library of education resources using free and low-cost resources from groups like edX, Coursera, and Udacity is a way to meet more needs more efficiently. Professional development educators should first consider a strategy or rubric for evaluating (curating) external educational resources and then mapping them to the known educational development needs within the organization.
Although curation still takes time, judgment, and a strategy for alignment, it is important for professional development educators to learn how to effectively screen, curate, and re-purpose educational materials to tap into a deeper well of knowledge and expertise in designing and implementation organizational education plans.