Monday, December 5, 2011

Alternative Certifications in the Disruptive Environment

Check out a piece in Inside Higher Education, titled “How will Mozilla’s open badges project affect higher education.” ( The term “badges” refers to earned credentials that document specific competencies, similar to the way continuing education units sometimes offer completion certificates. The Cisco Certification, which was developed by Cisco, but delivered in partnership with educational institutions, is a closer example.

Even as people consider the possibility of a Christensen-style disruption in higher education, most assume that established, accredited institutions will maintain their near-monopoly on credentialing what is learned. However, what if employers began to favor specific skills or knowledge sets over degrees? If other, reliable entities offer badges or certificates that meet the needs of important audiences, we might see a much less expensive option for people than attending a brick and mortar institution, with all of its expenses that are of no value to students at a distance.

In my consulting work, as well as in my blogs, I’ve encouraged institutions to consider offering more online or hybrid certificate programs that would appeal to this type of audience. Boomers seeking an encore career are a great example of an audience waiting to be served. When I “retired,” I had no need for another degree, but I did want something to document that I was a certified professional coach. In my case, I obtained that credential through the College of Executive Coaching (a business, accredited by the International Coaching Federation), and it fully met my needs.

To be sure, there are colleges and universities that offer coach training programs, but that just makes my point: In the disruptive environment there may be a variety of competitors, offering programs that appeal to diverse audiences, affecting programing strategies and financial models. Speaking to branch campus leaders, if certificates and badges are carved out of existing programs, development costs could be minimal, while attracting an audience your campus otherwise will miss. Given the increasingly difficult challenge of balancing the budget from traditional enrollment, many campuses could benefit from this opportunity.

Bluntly, if you are in a leadership position at a branch campus, you should be keeping a close eye on emerging options, such as badges and certificate programs that document knowledge and skills. My guess is that branches may find that the political challenge of creating certificates will be less than trying to convince the main campus to support entire degree programs, as well.

It is time to get creative and to think about your student audiences in a nuanced way. Putting the pieces together effectively will determine whether or not your campus competes effectively, and that will be more important than hoping that your brand will save the day.