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Podcast: How to Design Micro-credential Courses, with Dr. Luke Dowden

  • 38 Min Read

Join D2L for a chat with Dr. Luke Dowden about how to approach designing sustainable micro-credential courses.

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Welcome to Episode 13 of Teach & Learn: A podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

Episode Description  

In today’s show, we’re diving into how to the world of noncredit courses. The World Economic Forum highlighted the growing gap between the curriculum taught in traditional degree programs and the skills needed to work in today’s digital world. At the same time, enrollment in full-time degree courses continue to decline.

Much has been said about micro-credentials and alternate pathways being the solution to both institutional enrollment challenges and closing the skills gap, but designing and sustaining these programs requires a different type of strategy and leadership. How can universities and colleges create noncredit courses that truly meet the practical needs of learners and employers?

To discuss these issues further, we welcomed Dr. Luke Dowden, Chief Online Learning Officer at the Alamo Colleges District. Dr. Dowden and Dr. Ford chatted about:

  • Why institutes and organizations should design noncredit courses with validated personas in mind
  • Why credit for prior learning as an enrollment strategy is so important
  • The Alamo Colleges District micro-credentials briefs
  • The three key questions organizations should be asking with regards to creating sustainable micro pathway programs

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Show Notes

01:29: An introduction to Dr. Luke Dowden

03:22: Dr. Dowden discusses how the micro-credentialing initiatives came to fruition at his institution

06:26: Why building course offerings around targeted personas is crucial

11:55: Dr. Dowden on ensuring there is demand for the micro-credentials from the labor market

13:17: Advice to listeners looking to embark on creating workforce development programs

16:47: What Dr. Dowden learned partnering with healthcare organizations to create micro pathways

23:03: The Education Design Labs Community College Growth Fund and why micro pathways can help support equity among learners

28:29: Dr. Laura Rendón’s Validation Theory

32:17: The growth in enrollment at Alamo Colleges because of alternate pathways

34:20: Dr. Ford asks for Dr. Dowden’s tips on how institutions can best approach setting up sustainable micro-credentialing programs

Resources Discussed in the Episode

Learn more about the Alamo Colleges District briefs on micro-credentials

Learn more about Ed Design Labs micro-pathways cohorts

Follow Dr. Luke Dowden on Twitter

Learn more about Dr. Cristi Ford and the Teaching and Learning Studio

About the Speakers

Dr. Luke Dowden is the Chief Online Learning Officer at the Alamo Colleges District.  Prior to his current role, Dr. Dowden founded the Office of Distance Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and served as its Director for 8 years. Under his leadership, the Office of Distance Learning earned the 2013 Online Learning Consortium’s Award for Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Teaching.

Dr. Dowden was honored in 2014 as the inaugural recipient of the Online Learning Consortium Bruce N. Chaloux Award for Early Career Excellence in Online Education. He has also been honored by the Alamo Colleges District Emerging Leaders Program as a Trusted Leader, and the Alamo Colleges Academy for Leadership Success (ALAS) as an Essential Leader. In 2022, Dr. Dowden was named as a member of their distinguished 2022 Class of Fellows.

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

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Full Transcript

Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):

Welcome to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s Ed tech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils. Class is about to begin.

Listeners, as many of you may be aware, we spend a lot of time this season discussing the value of higher education through a series of episodes. A theme that I continue to think about that resonates in the focus and the needs of institutions is thinking about a skills-forward approach to meeting the needs of their learners. Earlier in the season, I think it was episode seven, Dr. Mark Brown, the Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning based in Dublin City University, gave us some really compelling research around blended learning and micro-credentials. And today I want to spend a little time talking about some of the implementation and the work in action around micro-credentials with my guests and friend Dr. Luke Dowden. Luke, really glad for you to be with us today.

Dr. Luke Dowden (01:25):

Thank you, Cristi. Looking forward to the conversation with you.

Dr. Cristi Ford (01:29):

Before we dive in, I’d love to introduce my colleague and friend, Luke Dowden. Dr. Luke Dowden is the Chief Online Learning Officer at the Alamo Colleges District. Prior to his current role, Dr. Dowden founded the Office of Distance Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and served as it’s Director for eight years. Under Dr. Dowden’s leadership, the Office of Distance Learning earned the 2013 Online Learning Consortiums award for excellence in faculty development for online teaching. Dr. Dowden has also been honored in 2014 as the inaugural recipient of the online learning consortium’s, Bruce Chaloux Award for Early Career Excellence in Online Education. He’s been honored by the Alamo College’s District Emerging Leadership Program as a trusted leader, as well as Alamo College’s Academy for Leadership Success as an essential leader. And in 2022, Dr. Dowden was named a member of the distinguished class of OLC Fellows. Dr. Dowden, really great to have you here with us today.

Dr. Luke Dowden (02:33):

Thank you very much.

Dr. Cristi Ford (02:35):

So, let’s talk a little bit about your background and some of the work that you’re doing. I’d love to really start with some of the work happening in Alamo College and the work that you’re doing in the district. Can you give us a sense of foundationally, how did work come to be in fruition around micro conditioning? And just tell us a little bit about how this all started.

Dr. Luke Dowden (02:56):

Sure. So I want to acknowledge the district San Antonio is great place to live and work. The Alamo College’s District has five independently accredited community colleges. All of them have a Hispanic serving institution designation. And one of our colleges is the only one in the United States that also holds the historically black college designation along with an HSI designation.

Dr. Cristi Ford (03:21):

I don’t think I knew that.

Dr. Luke Dowden (03:22):

Yes. St. Phillips College and they’re 125 years old. And so lots of rich history here. We are live in a majority minority city and the majority of our learners are Hispanic. And so one of the things that we constantly are aware of and we’re very centered in our work on economic and social mobility by our chancellor, Dr. Mike Flores. And Dr. Flores is an amazing leader. And really what the vision he’s articulated for us is, our enemy is really poverty. And that’s what we’re fighting on behalf and with our community.

We unfortunately have the designation of being the city in the United States with the highest amount of urban poverty. And as you drive around our city, you can see it. And I do. I drive around our city, I visit our colleges and we all participate in different ways.

So, in 2021, chancellor came to me and said, “Luke, what are you hearing? What’s happening in digital learning and online learning?”

And I said, “I’ve been tracking the uptick in alternate credentials and micro-credentials,” and he said, “great, I’d like you to have a presentation to our board ready in three weeks.”

And you know this, when your leader comes, you say yes, and you go about it and do the work. Long story short, Cristi, we were able to put together a design team of amazing individuals. They’re listed in our micro-credential site and I’ll share that as we go through this. And they gave 18 months of their best thoughts, participation. And then as they were doing that, we were trying all kinds of things. And I know we’ll get into that, but that’s a little bit about who we are, where we live, why we’re doing this. This is about people that are at a certain place in life that want economic mobility and stability. And you know how I feel about the importance of stability and thinking about that as we design learning experiences.

Dr. Cristi Ford (05:24):

Yeah, I really appreciate that context because it helps us to realize the rich history and value of how this program and project came to be. And I appreciate your thoughtfulness around focusing on that it’s not just about helping Alamo College to get ahead. It was really an impetus around helping to close the poverty gap and really giving people opportunities. And I think that that is the greatest catalyst that education can provide.

So, as you talk with us a little bit more about the micro-credentialing project and the great work that happened over those 18 months, one of the things I want to applaud you for is your documentation of that process. I find that in talking with many institutions, they can share with me a lot of the piloted work that’s happened. But can you talk to me a little bit more about the Alamo College’s micro-credentials briefs and how that came about as a result of the project and really share with our listeners what that actually means.

Dr. Luke Dowden (06:26):

So, we went through a real design process and I have to give sincere thanks to the education design lab. They came in and helped me. I needed help. I said, “I need a partner to take us through this kind of design process.” We went through journey mapping; we went through persona work.

I cannot say enough Cristi about persona work and the power to really serve a diverse population through using personas, to put yourself in the place of the learner you want to serve. And keeping them at the center of work. They helped us to think of to see what employers were doing. So, we were fortunate to have someone from IBM come in. And this was at the time that IBM was removing the bachelor’s degree from 50% of their job descriptions nationwide. So, this was kind of occurring as we were starting to see the rise in skills-based hiring, we were doing this design work.

I felt it was imperative because I have long believed that the problem of some college, no degree, of people not accessing higher ed is not an oversupply of opportunity, but the know-how of getting the right opportunity at the right time into someone’s hands.

So, we felt it was imperative to share our thought leadership. We do believe that we are thought leaders in this space. There are many others. We’re not claiming to be the only one, and we do not want to be the only one. But we felt it was imperative. So ,we have these very consumable briefs about persona work, about the importance of credit for prior learning. And isn’t it funny, right? You and I been in this industry for what, over 20 years, together, that what was old is new again.

Dr. Cristi Ford (08:04):

Yes.

Dr. Luke Dowden (08:06):

And I would say to you, I heard it at a conference multiple times that this credit for prior learning as an enrollment strategy is so important. And for institutions that have underdeveloped credit for prior learning ecosystems. Because there’s lots of ways too that we can choose to consume credit are not going to farewell as we moved into skills-based hiring.

Dr. Cristi Ford (08:32):

Right.

Dr. Luke Dowden (08:33):

So, I’m sorry I went into several topic areas, but we’ve got a lot to share, we shared it. The other thing we did, so I talked about persona work, and I’ll say this and I’ll stop. We wanted to prove that our personas were valid. So we went and tested products marketed at those personas. So, we tested products, marketed at those personas and found that they were valid. The people who we were designing for showed up.

Dr. Cristi Ford (09:03):

That’s good.

Dr. Luke Dowden (09:04):

And I’m fortunate again, I want to highlight not only the leadership of our Chancellor, not only the partnership of people across our colleges and our district, but our board of trustees, our elected board of trustees, provided us the seed funding to do this type of design work that has given us the foundation for our employer partnership. So, I don’t want people to listen to this and say, oh, that Luke Dowden guy, It’s like, no, it’s beyond me, I’m just fortunate to be kind of a fulcrum, a pivot point, a change agent that’s allowed to do the great work with lots of other talented individuals and with the support of leadership at multiple levels. And I think that’s the key, right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (09:48):

That’s huge.

Dr. Luke Dowden (09:50):

You need institutional buy-in from the faculty member level all the way up to your board.

Dr. Cristi Ford (09:57):

That’s really huge. And as you talked about the history of the colleges, I really appreciate the shout out to building capacity at every level. But what you also are highlighting for our listeners is that sometimes when we’re thinking about a project like this, we’re thinking about the data points and sometimes we come from a deficit thinking model.

And so, what you’re offering with the persona work, and maybe you can say a little bit more here about how you measured success. It’s very different from thinking about DFW rates, right? It’s very different from some of the traditional data points that we utilize. And so, as listeners are thinking about how do I figure out how to work with typically marginalized populations or getting access and reach to populations that maybe you didn’t serve before? I don’t know if this project also allowed you to reach new populations. And if so, can you talk about those data points in terms of measuring success?

Dr. Luke Dowden (10:58):

I would say this, I think that what the personas allowed us to do was design from a place of instability, not instability as an organization, but thinking about the learner. What are they experiencing if they’re displaced from their job, they’re separated or they’re furloughed, which is different experiences or their job just doesn’t even exist anymore because of some force, even the pandemic or there’s been some life change. So, the importance of designing systems, processes and learning experiences from a place of the people you choose to serve’s life experience is so important. I would just say that I can’t say enough about, I think it’s easy for us to design, and I hear this in conversations I have over my career and I’m sure you have too, where people are just making assumptions that just aren’t real for the learner we want to help. Right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (11:54):

That’s true.

Dr. Luke Dowden (11:55):

That was one. We tested lots of innovations. One that I’m really proud of is that we had these paper applications for some of our short-term training products. Those all went away. We have easy electronic forms now, things that can be done on a mobile phone, they’re like, oh, that’s not innovative. But it is when you’re looking at the scale we’re trying to serve, right? Thousands of people. So, thinking about when we design our content, if we’re not buying or partnering from another, can a person get it on their phone? What is the smallest way that you can deliver the learning and the shortest amount of time? The other piece that I would say to you is we are very serious about livable wage here. We watch the livable wage, we pay our part-time employees a livable wage.

So, we not only talk about it, but we do that as an organization. And so one of our litmus tests is does this training, does this micro-credential get a person into a job that has a livable wages?

Dr. Cristi Ford (12:58):

That’s great.

Dr. Luke Dowden (13:00):

Is there a demand for it? So you have to be very attuned to your labor market demand. So if you come out of the training that you and I’ve come out of, maybe not have done a lot with workforce, you have to gain that skill set really quickly to be able to talk workforce professional language.

Dr. Cristi Ford (13:17):

Yeah, all of that is so relevant as I talk with institutions and hear from institutions that after the pandemic have really focused in on, now more so than ever, the need to reconsider the value prop, quite frankly of higher education for the learners that we serve. Because you’re talking about this process, you’re talking about championing the Chancellor, the Board of Trustees, Faculty, all of this work that you’re doing. Can you talk a little bit about, as a leader, so as we’re thinking about listeners who might want to embark upon this work themselves, what are some things that you had to deal with as a leader and what are some recommendations you have to share there?

Dr. Luke Dowden (14:01):

You’re going to be asked lots of good questions for which there are no good answers at the time. I just want to say that again. And I actually would acknowledge that. I said that is a really good question for which we don’t know have information. For example, you and I were just at a conference recently where we now know employers are very interested in micro-credentials, they’re aware of them, they know about them. But for two years I was asked and I’m still asked in fairness, well what do employers think? Do they value these? Do they care?

Dr. Cristi Ford (14:33):

Yeah.

Dr. Luke Dowden (14:33):

Same question with students. Do learners understand these things and know what to do? And I’ll tell you, I think that’s a much harder question because when we use the term learners or worker learners or worker earners because they’re earning a paycheck and hopefully a credential of value, it goes back to the persona work, there’s lots of different folks that want to access these for different reasons.

So, I would say that the other is just get very comfortable with where you may not be in the same place you were three months ago, two months ago. And you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. So that’s just a thing that is a part of work in innovative spaces or change spaces, you need to have a high degree of patience for people that don’t have the capacity. They’re not comfortable being uncomfortable. So you have to be able to comfort or provide comfort or provide a vision of where you’re trying to go.

And then the other thing is we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had companies show up at our door and say, we’re ready. Right? We’re ready. Are you ready? So, as you are trying to build it, you also need to be prepared that the demand may reach your doorstep before you fully reach the product perfection that you’re looking for. So I hope that’s-

Dr. Cristi Ford (16:01):

No, that’s exactly what I was thinking. And as you were offering those inputs, it made me think about how many times we said we’re building a plane and flying at the same time. How many times have we talked about failing forward? I think it really is important to think about the kind of leadership expectations and qualities you need to be able to be successful.

But I want to go back to the work that you’re doing around the micro-credentials when you talked about the employer and that yes, we know that there is relevancy and value from employers around this work. How are you handling employers that want this work today? They don’t understand the prototyping, the iteration, the things that have to happen in traditional institutions. Can you share a little bit about that in terms of this work?

Dr. Luke Dowden (16:47):

Well, we’re fortunate. So, we’ve built, bought, and partnered for different learning experiences. So we are able through a partnership to provide professional certificates and lots of IT cyber training. And we are an approved training provider through that product line with the city of San Antonio’s Ready to Work process. We also have what we call an employability skills bundle. So, these are a series of micro courses, 10 to 15 hours that an employer can partner with us, they can choose any sequence. And we take learners through very quick up-skilling and resilience, oral communication, written communication, professionalism, work ethic.

Through a grant last year, we were able to work with a number of healthcare partners. So, we worked with two of our colleges, San Antonio College and St. Phillips College and developed contextualized micro courses around skills that healthcare workers need, empathetic patient care, therapeutic communication. So, we now have moved into contextualizing to the industry marketable skills. We also created micro pathways. How do I get into the profession of nursing? What do I do if I’m a medical assistant? Where do I go from there? Can I get into sonography? So, we created some micro pathways. We are in the process of making those visible for learners.

So, we’ve got lots of examples. We partnered with the healthcare system. They said, “we need to interview 300 people.” We said, “great.” They said, “we will interview anyone that completes your healthcare career management badge.” So, we marketed for two weeks, had people enrolled and the hospital organization followed through and interviewed everyone that completed. So, there’s lots of testing and this gets into the conversation you have with employers. And I want to pivot to that because I’ve been on a bit of a soapbox about, I’m very passionate about higher ed leadership as a discipline. I think there are competencies that we constantly are developing as higher ed leaders. And one that I’ve noticed that I think you and I should be championing in others are those business partnerships. How to ask the right questions was in a lot of rooms for the last year with businesses with a lot of colleagues.

And I’m not hearing enough of these kind of questions. How many people do you hire a year? That will get to your earlier point about sustainability. If somebody’s only hiring 10 folks a year, that might not be something we can invest in and sustain. So, you need to understand their scale to match and can you support that? Two, what are you willing to financially commit? There are organizations that not only have operational dollars, they have foundations, right? So, you also have to take on the mindset of a fundraiser of sorts. And the third piece is, do you have staff members? They have professionals that could be faculty members for us. And we don’t have enough of those embedded models. So, another thing that we did, I mentioned to you earlier about the healthcare micro-credentials, right? And gave you a few names of those.

We hired hospital nurses that were on the floor to help as subject matter experts and paired them with an instructional designer. So, we were using the employer’s employees to help to be subject matter experts for something that the employer was going to put future perspective employees into. And I just think they provided us talent because we were asking the right questions. And I’m not saying, “oh look at us. We got these things.” I’m saying, “Hey, let’s all ask the right questions. Let’s all understand that we need to show up different.”

And I know your next question. All right Luke, so what happens after you catch the bus and you get a couple heartbeats? And I would say this is the hardest part. There has to be a realization that those relationships take time and energy. And if you do not have an account executive model, and this is where I think we might be growing to, then you’re going to struggle to maintain your momentum. So, plan to be successful and realize that one of the assets you’re going to need in place as someone to constantly manage those relationships. Because businesses are moving fast, they are feeling the pressure to have competent, talented folks to serve us in whatever industry they’re in, right? Healthcare, if it’s IT, if it’s hospitality towards them, whatever it is.

Dr. Cristi Ford (21:42):

Yeah. So, you’ve said a lot and I have so many thoughts to say back to you. This is good, this is why you’re here. When you talked about hiring nurses off the floor, I think a lot of time in higher ed, we talk about the chasm between industry and higher education. If that’s not a way to close that gap immediately, I mean wherever is there going to be one if it’s not that? So, I think that that was really brilliant that you shared that. The other thing when you talked about coming and asking the right questions of employers is, for me, about changing the kind of dynamic around the partnership as opposed to what have you done for me lately?

What kind of skin do you have in the game? How much financial solvency do you have? What are the ways in which we can create a sustainable opportunity here? Those kinds of questions move us beyond just having this novice idea that maybe we’re going to do an MVP round to really being able to think about sustainable change in this work. And so, I really appreciate you touching on all those things.

But I want to go back to the micro pathways conversation. You talked about micro pathway in healthcare industry and you mentioned a little bit about this. Can you tell us a little bit about one, how this work started and a little bit about what you did over the summer?

Dr. Luke Dowden (23:03):

Sure. So the micro-credentials, insight briefs are all about the work we did in summer 2021. So that’s the foundation for success. The work we did last summer in 2022, again with the education design lab was around creating micro pathways. So what are the basic skills that you need to get the first job in the organization? And then how does that connect to the rest of the career path?

So, for a while, Cristi, I’m the biggest critic of myself. I was conflating micro pathway and career pathway, thinking a micro pathway will get you in the door. And you know what it really does? It gives you a new resource because employers, like I have never seen before, are investing in their employees. They have tuition assistance, tuition reimbursement. They’re partnering with intermediaries to help them to administer those dollars better. We have relationships with lots of those. I want to credit employers, they’re doing the right thing, but we need to get the person hired so they have a livable wage, right?

And they’ve got access to funds to pay for our continued training. So how I would respond about the importance of micro pathways, the education design lab has something called the community college growth engine. We’re proudly a part of Cohort three. They’re very large state systems and systems like ours that are a part of Cohort three to do more of this at a larger level. And there’s a link I know you’ll share with your viewers about some micro pathways that exist. I’m proud that we get to learn from places like Pima Community College who have done really great work in their area and others. And others that were in the first cohort. So, we’re in that third cohort. So that’s where we are. It’s a blend of micro courses that lead to some type of micro-credential, micro pathways that are really focused on industry specific roles that open the door for someone but get them visibility to what can be next.

And what we heard from employers is that they said, “I don’t know that we do a good job of doing that for our own employees, like that our own employees don’t have visibility of how to navigate, navigate in their system.” I did not know that a medical assistant could actually specialize because we think of a medical assistants taking blood and checking blood pressure and answering questions. No, they could actually specialize just like a medical doctor does. No, I’m going to be a medical assistant for OBGYN office. I’m going to be medical assistant for oncology. So, there are these things that we don’t know and learners don’t know. And what I love about micro pathways, here’s the basis of it, it’s all about visibility. Just like digital badges are trying to make visible our competencies and skills. Micro pathways are trying to make visible opportunity. And if you can make something visible to someone to, it’s not the silver bullet, but it’s a step towards equity, right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (25:58):

Yeah.

Dr. Luke Dowden (25:59):

Because if you can’t see it-

Dr. Cristi Ford (25:59):

Yes, it is.

Dr. Luke Dowden (26:01):

Then you can’t participate in it. And for me, all this work is about increasing diversity in our workforce, right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (26:13):

Yeah.

Dr. Luke Dowden (26:13):

It’s not separate-

Dr. Cristi Ford (26:14):

And getting people to a livable wage.

Dr. Luke Dowden (26:18):

Right.

Dr. Cristi Ford (26:19):

So that they can be contributing parts of our society. And I appreciate the breakdown between micro-credentials and micro pathways and career pathways, but one of the things that you were really attuned to bring up here is that employers have done some really great things in terms of creating benefits, that piece around tuition assistance. So, if I can get you in the door through a micro pathway to get you that entry level job to then help you think about how you want to create a career pathway utilizing tuition assistance from the employer that you now are creating a livable wage, it’s golden.

As opposed to thinking about, I sometimes think in higher education we are looking, and we don’t mean to, but we design for the gold standard, we end up designing for a student or we design for the traditional college student, or we design for individuals who have ailing parents or have children at home who are trying to maintain two different careers. So, I think all of what you’re offering is so tangible and relatable to changing the regional economy. And so, I know that you’re working in healthcare and IT and other places, but what is the goal here in terms of when you think about the regional economy that you serve and where you want to go or where the colleges want to see growth around this work?

Dr. Luke Dowden (27:47):

Our Chancellor says it best. We want micro-credentials infused into all of our certificates and degree programs because we want anyone that is our student to always leave with something, whether it’s a digital badge, a micro-credential, a certificate, an associate’s degree. But when you come to Alamo, you’re going to leave with something and you’ll have evidence of it. And I think that for us is the bigger goal. You’ll be able to compete for a job that has a livable wage. You’ll be able to understand your own skills and articulate them in a way that you can compete in the 21st century economy where we are going to be faced with AI, it’s here right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (28:27):

Going to be? We are faced.

Dr. Luke Dowden (28:29):

We are faced, right? You’re right. And so, we have to prepare people that can be flexible and resilient. And I would say this, haven’t made this comment in a long time. We have a researcher here locally that we’ve had speak to, our district, her name is Dr. Laura Rendón. She has a theory called Validation Theory. And one of the things I believe strongly is that when you could help someone acknowledge their own skills, you can provide them something portable, meaningful, not a digital sticker that’s got metadata that they might not fully realize. But the validation factor of this, and especially for people with some college, no degree, I’ve seen this a lot in my career working with adult learners, that validation can unlock a misbelief people may have in their own ability to learn. I mean, you and I are confident people, but there’s lots of people that we serve that lack confidence in their own ability.

And our Chancellor said this a lot, right? That, “talent is equally distributed but opportunity’s not.” And our way to distribute opportunity is through micro-credentials, short, consumable, meaningful, and should track you to a job. So, you asked your question earlier, I don’t think I answered well about outcomes and I wanted to try to address that now. I said something else and I would want your listeners to know, these are the type of questions you’ll be asked, right? Why are we doing this? It should be about opening up new markets or better serving a market that you realize you’re under serving. Those could be one in the same or different.

It may be about what’s my return on investment, meaning that have you monetized this, and some of your offerings you may be able to monetize more than others. Some of it you do to fulfill your mission. You’ll be asked those, right? You’ll want to have data about how are people using these? And I’ve seen some models, Cristi, but that’s the hardest piece. I will tell you, I don’t know if it’s technology, but there are some techniques where there’s scraping of information that can be done and you can make a guesstimation that someone earned this. But I think the hardest data point for all of us, and I’m excited about this and I’ll point out John Gallagher’s research, the new frontier for all of us is human resource information systems.

We need to be sitting at the table as employers, all of higher ed and talking to our own systems about how do we get these credentials in hiring systems. And we get information back from those digital credentials that tells us how successful a person was with them. I think the technology’s available, but the ecosystem doesn’t exist. And there are people that are keenly aware of this. They’re all into this rich skills descriptor language. We’ve got great work at the Open Skills Network and Credential Engine. But I think the next frontier for us, if we really want to be about equity and equitable opportunity and more opportunity is, we got to make sure that the systems we’re using to hire are not leaving people out. And if we take that research from Northeastern, we know that it’s actually doing that.

Dr. Cristi Ford (31:49):

Yeah. So let me ask you a question and then I want to be able to help to inspire listeners to think about how they might do some of this work as well. But one of the things you talked about was equity and access. If you don’t mind sharing, as you think about the work that you’ve done over the last 18 months or two years, where have you seen exposure to new populations that Alamo Colleges District is serving? And if you could just share a little bit about that based on these initiatives that you’re undertaking.

Dr. Luke Dowden (32:17):

So, I was originally brought here and still am happily the Chief Online learning officer to grow our online market. We have over 75 online programs. And when I got here, we were serving almost 7,000 learners fully online. This past fall, we’re at 13,070. When we started doing our micro-credential work, a population that we serve as fully online learners really emerged. And as the Chief Online Learning officer I was perplexed. I was like, wait, I have all these wonderful programs. I have plenty of programs. The price is right or is the price right? But I’m checking all assumptions and we’ve got great wraparound services. Why are they not showing up? And this particular persona, we talk about that one of our guides, showed up didn’t matter if it was a healthcare, didn’t matter if it was it. They were actively in our market.

And I would say this, that you may believe you’re serving your market and we are, and providing access, and we certainly are. We’ve got lots of opportunities for people to learn on the credit side. But wow, what an eye-opener for me. And I’m a person that likes to consider myself being data informed, but for us it was really opening a new market. So, I hope that answers your question about-

Dr. Cristi Ford (33:41):

Yeah.

Dr. Luke Dowden (33:42):

What did you learn? We were pretty pleased. We were seeing our growth. All of our metrics were there even before, after COVID. We always hit our targets. But when we really started measuring the micro-credential takers, persons that were interested, people that were filling out information, were participating in the things that we offered. Very eye-opening.

Dr. Cristi Ford (34:05):

So, it sounds like you were creating more on-ramps, right?

Dr. Luke Dowden (34:08):

Yes. Oh, perfect.

Dr. Cristi Ford (34:08):

A lot more on-ramps.

Dr. Luke Dowden (34:10):

You said it very well. Lot more succinctly than I did.

Dr. Cristi Ford (34:14):

No. But I think it speaks to what a lot of institutions are trying to do and serve the communities and so I think that’s paramount. So let me jump and just ask you a couple of questions around, because I know listeners are like, oh, Dr. Dowden’s been doing this for a couple of years, He has background and history and he has support around this. But I think that there can be opportunities to be able to share the lessons learned you have with institutions who are trying to figure this out.

So, as we think about institutions who are trying to start up micro-credentialing but are unsure how to get started, what would you offer as a best approach and how they can really be thinking about sustainability from the beginning of that?

Dr. Luke Dowden (34:56):

There’s a book that I have used twice now in my career called Leading Change by John Kotter. And it has got a series of steps. One of them is creating a guiding coalition. That’s our design team. You can’t do this alone. You need a network regionally, nationally, which I’m fortunate to have. And you need one locally. Small wins are important, right? Small wins are important. Hey, we posted a Facebook ad. It was ugly, but we offered it for free and 400 people signed up in two weeks. That’s really happened. Did it matter that the Facebook ad was ugly? No. 400 people took advantage of a free opportunity.

And I think that we undervalue sometimes the power of the small win and continue to give yourself permission to make mistakes, own them, and just keep moving forward. And I’m one that I like to test things, so I’m going to go and try to test it. That’s how I learn. I’m very much born in that 4-H model of learn by doing. I was a 4-H’er for many years in my youth, and so I learned by doing, but I have colleagues, SUNY System, University of Wisconsin System, that they said, look, we’re going to give you some guiding principles. And then they set it loose. They spent several years in that model. Neither model’s wrong.

And by the way, they have their model that’s going to be showcased this summer at Educause Learning Lab, and we’re going to showcase a little bit of our model in a second learning lab.

But that’s what I would say is that pick a path. But at the end of the day, no matter what, and this is the hardest job I have, if anything gets cut, please don’t cut this part. The hardest job I have is remembering, stay focused on who you’re trying to serve. Sit in their shoes for a little bit. When you get down, pull up the persona. Adriana is not a real person but she represents a real person, right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (37:05):

She does.

Dr. Luke Dowden (37:06):

So, I just would say that. What centers me every day is that I hope I’m helping somebody I might never meet.

Dr. Cristi Ford (37:18):

Yeah.

Dr. Luke Dowden (37:19):

Right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (37:20):

Yeah. And I think that’s why you are a good colleague and friend because I think we share that passion and love to be able to get up and do this work every day. So I wholeheartedly agree. The last question I want to leave us with before we go today is, as I’ve been sitting on the other side of the house and working in a technology space, thinking about working with clients, I wonder, as you talked about creating a team, how can higher education institutions show up at the table with tech companies like a D2L? What are the things that are required for an institution to consider to do differently in those spaces?

Dr. Luke Dowden (38:01):

I’ve tried to be a good friend of tech companies. I have some friends that will give me a hard time. They’re like, “we know it’s going to be a different meeting when you come to the room.” I expect a different conversation. So that’s one. I expect that I’m going to be honest with you about my pain points, about the culture context I have to navigate and I want you to do the same. And when I found a person on the other end, we typically have a good partnership and it’s something that sustains and grows and we both benefit. I go into these looking for mutual benefit. I need you to learn, but I’m not going to be your Guinea pig. Right?

Dr. Cristi Ford (38:40):

Right.

Dr. Luke Dowden (38:41):

We don’t want to be that, right? We don’t want to be your crash test dummy, but I’m willing to learn with you. I’m willing to have patience as long as my learners can benefit, and I’m not taking on the full cost of whatever that is that we’re exploring. And then information. Here’s the thing, you know this, you deal with lots and lots and lots of organizations, you’ve probably helped solve a problem we have. So I use tech companies a lot or any vendor relationship for information. Tell me what you’re learning. What are these group of schools doing? How am I limiting myself? I’ll invite them into problem solving.

Again, at the end of the day, the decisions within the organization, we don’t ever see that with everything going on. Now, I don’t want to give any misconceptions about the decision at the end of the day, but you yourself are a knowledge broker. You have information that can be helpful. And I think your organization says, Cristi, go help people. That’s one of your major charges.

Dr. Cristi Ford (39:48):

That’s right.

Dr. Luke Dowden (39:49):

I think it just like the conversation with employers, I’m always seeking a different conversation. I have been for a long time in my life, and I used to feel alone a lot, and I just don’t feel that way anymore. I’m just like, no, I want to have this conversation. And sometimes you meet people that are like, that’s the conversation I want to have too. And you just end up spending more time with them.

Dr. Cristi Ford (40:10):

Yeah. So Luke, I will say you are a friend and colleague that has moral courage because I think that you have been standing alone and as a disruptor in this space in ways that now people are starting to come around. And so it’s so good to be in partnership with you because you just going to beat that drum and whoever hears that drum and understands that call is going to come on and you’re going to continue to move that work forward. And so I appreciate you as an individual, the leadership that you’re offering around this work and really helping institutions see how it can be tangibly done with humanity.

Dr. Luke Dowden (40:45):

Yes.

Dr. Cristi Ford (40:46):

So, thank you for that. And thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Luke Dowden (40:50):

There is a power in the coalition of the willing, and that’s the last thing I will say. The coalition of the willing is a very powerful force for change that helps people have a better life. So it’s been a real joy to be with you, Cristi, thanks so much.

Dr. Cristi Ford (41:06):

Thanks again, Dr. Dowden. Great to have you.

You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn a podcast for curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company, helping organizations reshape the future of education and work. To learn more about our solutions for both K-20 and corporate institutions, please visit www.d2l.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us, and until next time, school’s out.

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