52. Metaliteracy

Do your students create digital media in your courses or just consume it? Does the concept of information literacy seem too limited in this context? In this episode, Tom Mackey (Professor in the Department of Arts and Media at Empire State College) and Trudi Jacobson (Head of the Information Literacy Department and Distinguished Librarian at the State University of New York at Albany) join us to discuss metaliteracy as a framework for improving critical thinking and metacognition while students become active participants in the construction of knowledge in online communities.

Show Notes


Rebecca: Do your students create digital media in your courses or just consume it? Does the concept of information literacy seem too limited in this context? In this episode we discuss metaliteracy as a framework for improving critical thinking and metacognition while students become active participants in the construction of knowledge in online communities.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guests today are Tom Mackey, Professor in the Department of Arts and Media at Empire State College and Trudi Jacobson, the Head of the Information Literacy Department and Distinguished Librarian at the State University of New York at Albany. In fact, she is currently the only Distinguished Librarian in the SUNY system. Welcome, Tom and Trudi.

Trudi: Thank you.

Tom: Thank you. Very happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Trudi: I am drinking highland blend.

Tom: I’m drinking sweet cinnamon spice.

John: And I am drinking chocolate mint tea, a Harney and Sons blend.

Rebecca: I’m back to my good ole English afternoon.

John: Such a surprise.

Rebecca: Sometimes you just need to have the dependable option.

John: Both of you have written very extensively and done a lot of research and workshops on metaliteracy, with three books, three MOOCs (with a fourth one under development), several articles, a badging system and the metaliteracy.org blog. Could you tell our listeners a bit about what metaliteracy is?

Tom: Sure. Thanks, John, I’ll start. Metaliteracy is a pedagogical framework that empowers learners to be active producers of information in collaborative environments. So that’s our elevator speech right there in terms of what it is. Basically, it is an approach to teaching and learning that prepares individuals to be reflective learners in addition to being critical thinkers, and we’ll talk a bit about how that reflection piece is especially critical for a metaliteracy, which, of course, applies metacognition. By doing so, learners are informed consumers of information, which means they ask good questions about the information they encounter in a variety of environments, and as you know, that’s important today with all the different environments and social media environments and access to different kinds of new sources that we have; it includes those especially mediated by technology. And we’ll talk as the idea was first introduced and developed why that was so important to the concept. When we first introduced it we really argued that because of the emergence of social media, online communities especially, think about web 2.0 and the change from the original web—what a critical moment that was—that what we really needed was a metaliteracy that promoted effective participation in these environments. As we know, these collaborative social environments have an engagement piece that is important; we build that into this metaliteracy framework; we thought there was a real need for that—how we were developing it. We also acknowledge that in addition to acquiring information and looking critically at information that individuals really needed to creatively create and share information in this connected network world. This idea of consuming information versus producing information, it’s an idea that’s been around for some time, but we really thought it was critical to develop it into a metaliteracy that also focused on reflection as a core concept. The idea of a metaliteracy is that we look at some of the common characteristics that unite different forms of literacy—that was the other piece of this. We introduced it as this comprehensive, unifying framework. The idea for that was that in this social media environment what we really needed was to try to better understand different competencies, different characteristics of literacies instead of just coming up with a new literacy every time there’s a new technology. We were trying to look at things in a more comprehensive way. As the idea developed in the first book, especially the meta in metaliteracy, intentionally invokes this idea of metacognition. Or thinking about your own thinking: this is really key to metaliteracy because metaliterate learners are reflective about their own learning experiences and they really take charge of their literacy and learning which is really where the empowerment piece comes in.

Trudi: Meta derived from the Greek… also means “after.” Metaliteracy is what happens after literacy. Basic reading and writing, what comes after that. Also what comes after information literacy, which is g enerally thought of as finding and locating information. The definition of information literacy has expanded since we started work on metaliteracy. In addition to reflecting on their own thinking, the metacognitive aspect of metaliteracy also means that individuals have the capacity to self-regulate their own learning, which means that they identify their own strengths and weaknesses and play a role in preparing themselves to adapt to new learning situations. Metaliteracy prepares learners to adapt new technology and to do so in a critical way, that is asking questions about how technologies are designed and the ways that technologies or platforms may impact how we access and create information as well as how we communicate with information. Originally we developed metaliteracy to emphasize how individuals participate in social media environments. And Tom, would you like to talk a little bit about that?

Tom: That piece is really essential to what we’re doing. We see this framework is relevant to a range of collaborative teaching and learning situations, but it is interesting that we saw a real need for emphasizing the social media aspect, online communities, this post web 2.0 environment that we are in, but we also don’t want it to be limited to that. We really see metaliteracy in all environments, all collaborative environments… communities of practice. This is something we should be thinking about beyond just the technology, but really how we engage with each other, how we participate and perhaps also how we blend the technology, how we mediate technology with those spaces as well.

Trudi: One of my favorite parts of metaliteracy is that it advances the idea that learners are teachers. We see this in collaborative environments where learners support and teach other learners, but what’s really important is that often students, for example, don’t think they have any particular expertise in something, and encouraging them to empower to teach others often leads to really interesting situations.

 Tom: That part is so key and that’s something that we saw in our own teaching experiences that when we had students in collaborative situations… group work… building technology tools together… building collaborative websites, for example, that the students themselves were as much a teacher as I was, and trying to foreground that so that they can see it, is critically important.

Rebecca: This is a really interesting framework and you’ve given us a lot to think about. Can you help us make it a little more concrete by providing an example of how you might emphasize metaliteracy in a class or what you mean by a student who might be metaliterate?

Trudi: One of the things that I would do in my classes is encourage students to be information creators and to explore the technology in doing so. So they don’t have a final paper that they have to write, but they may need to create a video or a tutorial or we’ll be talking about our badging system later, maybe creating content for that and doing it in small groups. If they’re doing something where they have to use a technology; I don’t teach them that technology; they sort of learn together and that “learner as teacher” often comes out in those situations because often there’ll be a student in a group who will have more expertise in that area or be more willing to just jump in and see what happens, and then the rest of the group will learn from that. One of the more interesting teams that I had when I’ve taught is one where none of the students felt they could do anything, but they actually accomplished it and their sense of pride and empowerment in doing that was wonderful.

Tom: I have an example: I’m currently teaching a course at Empire State College called “Digital Storytelling,” and the whole point of the course is that students learn about these resources, they locate them (with some prompts from me in the course), but it’s a fully online course and in many ways they have to figure this out on their own, they have to adapt to these new technologies, and I think that they’re looking at their own use of technology in a different way. So, for example, the very first assignment they have to create a selfie video with their cell phone. So they all have cell phones, they probably all done videos before, they probably all done selfies before, but this assignment is really designed for them to introduce themselves to everyone else in the class in a fully online course. From the very beginning they have to challenge themselves to present themselves a certain way to the class… to be themselves but to also think through that presentation, to really be the active producer of information in a collaborative setting where they’re doing something on their own but they’re sharing something about themselves to the other class. In an online course it allows us to get beyond just the text-based introduction and online discussion and to really seeing the students, to hearing from them. I posted a video of myself and it was great to see their response, so it was very much like a classroom situation but it happened asynchronously and online and it was a great way to get the class started, so from the very beginning they saw themselves as digital storytellers and they know that they now are starting their story and that we’re all going to participate and learn from them.

John: So it’s encouraging students not just to critically analyze information as consumers but to be active participants in social dialogues as producers as well. Is that a reasonable short summary?

Trudi: Yeah.

Tom: Absolutely. And what does that mean? …especially in today’s environment, which is very participatory but were divided and partisan in so many different ways. How do we get across those divides? What does it mean to be a responsible participant of information now? What does it mean to be an ethical contributor to these spaces? The whole idea is to really to get them to reflect on this, and not just to produce and share something, but now especially to think about the implications of that so that the informed consumer part is still important so that they’re thinking about these different sources that they’re encountering but also thinking about what they’re creating themselves and sharing.

Trudi: I think when they’re asked to be information producers in this way they think about themselves differently. They create information and share it on social media, but they don’t really think of themselves as information producers, and so I think it expands their horizon.

Tom: They may not have necessarily been asked to do so in an academic environment. This blurring of boundaries between informal learning and formal learning, I think it helps to push that a little bit. Not to say that they’re not beyond our classes, because they might be, but clearly they’re doing it in their everyday practice with their cell phones and the way they consume information now, but this really foregrounds, I think, in some of what the responsibilities are and what the empowerment of that is as well when they’re asked to construct something, so instead of a research paper maybe that is a collaborative media project with their peers—what kind of learning do you gain from that experience?

Trudi: Just one other point. The projects that I was talking about, they need to create them for public consumption. It’s not something that’s just directed at me as the professor of the course. They have to think about it a bit differently.

Tom: That’s a great point, because in the digital storytelling class they’re not just creating it even for the Moodle environment that we’re in; they have to actually upload their selfie videos to YouTube so that they’re thinking a bit about that public consumption piece even beyond the instructor and even beyond the class itself because now it’s up on YouTube and hopefully that’s having an impact on what they’re thinking about in terms of how they present themselves in the information that they’re producing.

Rebecca: I’m hearing two key things bubble up in what you’re talking about and one is audience and the second is reflection. Are those two key things to move up beyond traditional information literacy to this metaliteracy level?

Trudi: I think that those are two key pieces, but I think, well, there’s the old definition of information literacy and then there’s the newer one, which somewhat influenced by metaliteracy, but I think that often information literacy is thought of primarily as consuming and evaluating information, so not the responsible, creative production of it. It’s also too often, I think, seen in the academic setting as just related to research and not sort of life-wide. I think that that’s another element here.

Tom: In many ways that’s what I think we were really originally working against that original information literacy definition, the ALA definition and also the Association of College and Research Libraries, the original standards, b       which were very prescriptive in the way that they were designed, so that we were as a framework were really just trying to open this up and also take into account the technology piece—not make it all about technology, certainly, but in many ways the advance of web 2.0 and emerging technologies was kind of being, at the time, anyway, sort of avoided. We knew that there’s a real shift happening in our culture and I think that we’re sort of on the other side of that now, but I think that was important to bring that into the learning experience to have students really reflect on those environments and what they’re doing in those environments.

John: You both mentioned the new ACRL information literacy framework. How does metaliteracy relate to that?

Trudi: We developed metaliteracy in part because of a frustration, with this old definition as we were talking about and Tom mentioned the standards really were very prescriptive, very skills based, concentrated on behavioral and cognitive learning domains. Metacognition was not a part of it, so you identified metacognition so that reflection as something new and they didn’t explicitly address the affordances of web 2.0. So I was co-chair of the task force that was convened by the Association of College and Research Libraries and I brought the idea of metaliteracy to the group for consideration. There were a lot of forces at work in developing the structure of the framework and there were like 2000 people weighing in so it’s a very interesting process. Threshold concepts or core concepts was one of the primary features that we used with the framework. I sort of quote from the introduction to the frameworks; there are those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline. For example, in biology, evolution would be a threshold concept. That was one element and then the other was metaliteracy. The idea of learners as information creators as well as consumers—which we’ve talked about—definitely has a presence in the framework. There are four learning domains in metaliteracies: behavioral, cognitive, affective and metacognitive. These all have made their way into the framework, so there really is in part a close relationship between the two. For example, the affective domain maps to the whole sections on learner dispositions. I think that there really is a close relationship and I think metaliteracy has gotten additional notice from people because it is explicitly mentioned in the framework.

John: So it’s complementary that they fit well together, they link well together.

Trudi: That’s right.

Tom: I think that’s a good way to put it that they’re complementary, because that also allows each approach to still move forward because we see metaliteracy as this evolving concept and we’ve been working together—we’re working with a team of colleagues called the “Metaliteracy Learning Collaborative” on these ideas, we’re writing together and we’re developing this different MOOC and badging projects. Every time we do something new we’re learning something new and we’re trying to build that into the core ideas here. I think that this idea of complementarity is really important to these two; they’re not mutually exclusive, they work together, and as Trudi mentioned, when we go out and talk to different audiences on this they’re interested in both concepts and working with both. One interesting comment we often hear from people is that with metaliteracy they’ll say you found a way to talk about something that we were trying to do or that we were already doing but you found a name for that really made sense. We really like that: the fact that we were able to name something that really probably was in practice but maybe didn’t have as in-depth of a framework built around it and we like that dialogue with practitioners and something we try to do so this idea of theory and practice for metaliteracy is critically important and allows you to move forward.

Trudi: And the ACRL information literacy framework information literacy is not something that can be taught only by librarians so it’s really directed also towards faculty and administrators. It still seems to have a librarian focus to it, whereas metaliteracy, I think, extends beyond that. Librarians are interested in it but we’re also seeing all sorts of things that are being written or talked about by academics in a really broad range of disciplines.

Tom: And we’ve found that in the books we’ll talk about the two unedited books we’ve done in addition to the first metaliteracy book and we saw evidence of that when we do a call for proposal; it’s really from a wide area of academics. We definitely have librarians, but we also have faculty from many different disciplines, and also instructional designers. That piece of it has been really fascinating as well because we’ve been trying to really open it up to as many people as possible and not seeing it just within one particular discipline.

John: How have faculty and librarians responded to your work?

Trudi: There’s been a lot of interest in it to explore one of the collaborations. Somebody that I’m working with at the University at Albany is a political science professor. This will give you an indication how at least one person has responded to our work. She teaches a 200 level political science course that includes some of the general education competencies, one of which is information literacy, and she was developing this course from Pollock. She came to me to talk about information literacy. We ended up talking about metaliteracy and she was so excited by some of the things we’ve talked about that it would do for her students, so this idea of information creators, the empowerment that she has made metaliteracy sort of a key part of her course. She has the students do about 8 activities connected to metaliteracy. These activities come from a digital badging system that we can talk about a little bit later. She actually has students create an activity that would fit into this digital badging system, which is pretty exciting. This year she asked us to extend what we’re doing and we have been creating questions for the students about what it means to be an information creator, information producer, a teacher, a translator of information and we found this very exciting. It’s not just a collaboration in that she is using some of this material for her students, but her students are creating things for us and she’s giving us ideas. It’s just one example but it’s one where it has become a core part of this course, not only when she teaches it but when others teach it as well.

Tom: Collaboration has been key to what we’ve been doing from the very beginning. The first SUNY IITG we received was really to initiate to launch a metaliteracy learning collaborative and that first project led to the development of our first connectivist MOOC… b eginnings of the digital badging system, although it wasn’t part of the initial grant, but that’s something that we started working on, and also what was most important at the time was the development of the first metaliteracy goals and learning objectives which we’ve recently revised but it was important when we developed that that instead of just Trudi and I working on this together, we really opened it to a SUNY-wide audience that included faculty and librarians. Those goals and learning objectives are available via metaliteracy.org and we recently revised them as well. I think that collaboration with the metaliteracy learning collaborative also led to thinking about metaliteracy in a different way and thinking about those four domains of learning that Trudi mentioned previously; we would look at the metacognitive, which we’ve mentioned is key but also the behavioral, the cognitive and the affective domain so that what we’re really looking at is really the whole person. We’ve also through the metaliteracy learning collaborative we’ve been working on papers together, we’ve been working on these MOOCs; we were lucky enough to have the experience of working on a connectivist MOOC really early on and then I took Coursera MOOC and then a Canvas MOOC and now we’re working on open edX and all those projects involve faculty librarians from Empire State College, the University of Albany and other parts of SUNY, that’s really key. We’re very lucky that we’ve been invited to speak on this which also shows the level of interest and how people are responding to it and many different venues and last year we were lucky enough to present at a conference at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico for this literacy and learning conference and it was just a great experience to be there with international scholars who were talking about literacy in various ways and then we added something by talking about metaliteracy and there’s a lot of interest in what we were talking about. We appreciate those opportunities to have conversations that are both theoretical and practical; the response has just been really positive.

John: We should just clarify the IITG program you mentioned is a SUNY-wide competitive grant program for all of the colleges and universities within SUNY. You were one of the early recipients of that and have received some further funding from that, just to explain that to our listeners who are not as familiar with the SUNY system.

Trudi: John, since you mentioned the innovative instruction technology grant, just to show sort of interest from others, we did get one with School of Education faculty member, actually one from Albany and one from Empire State College because they were really interested in the digital badging, but also the idea of a digital citizen. The plan was and happened that graduate students in education who were going to be teachers would have an opportunity to learn about digital citizenship that’s important for them when they’re teaching, also what digital badging is, so there were a couple of different takeaways. We were able to move metaliteracy or an aspect of metaliteracy into graduate education for educators.

Rebecca: There’s been a lot of mention of metaliteracy badges so maybe we can talk about those?


Trudi: Yeah, certainly. This was something that developed out of one of those innovative instruction technology grants. We’ve been working on them ever since. What we did was we took the learning goals and objectives for metaliteracy and created open content, very ambitious scheme. There’s four digital badges in the system. Each one of which has anywhere from 12 to 20 activities, starting with lower level quests, moving up to challenges and ultimately you get to these four digital badges. They were written by members of the meta literacy learning collaborative. Tom has written some, I’ve written some. Students have written some, so undergraduate and graduate students they’re being used currently at Albany about 2,500 students have gone through parts of this badging system. The only ones so far who’ve actually earned badges are ones who have taken my courses. It’s content that can be used in classes across a range of disciplines. Also, adaptable to the disciplines. I mentioned earlier the political science professor and sometimes she sort of tweaks the assignments in there so it really relates to what she’s teaching in her political science course. The badge system itself at this point is restricted to University of Albany because there’s a single sign-on process, but we do have a website that has all of the content openly available. People are welcome to use this.

Tom: And from the perspective of someone who has developed some content for this it’s really a fascinating experience because you know that you’re somehow reaching learners that are not in your course but that it’s something that you’re opening and you’re sharing, so this idea of thinking about them as open educational resources that can be then adapted for different contexts. It’s really interesting and exciting to know that something I might create as a learning object could be used by a faculty member here at the University at Albany who’s having their students go through it. Some of them that I developed are based on learning activities I had created in some of my information science courses when I taught here at the university, but I’ve adapted them or updated them. That piece of it from a faculty perspective, as long as you’re open to it, is really engaging and interesting and a way to reach other learners who may not be students in your class but you’re sharing those ideas with them.

Trudi: And I don’t know if it’s ok if I plug a book that I just co-edited with Kelsey O’Brien… Just published this month, September 2018, Teaching with Digital Badges, which was published by Rowman & Littlefield. In that book there is a chapter written by Kelsey O’Brien on the metaliteracy badging system.

Rebecca: Great, you’re both working on a new book together, right?

Trudi: Yes.

Tom: Yes.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about that new book and how it connects to your earlier work?

Tom: Sure, the new book is called “Metaliterate Learning for the Post Truth World.” We’ve shifted somewhat from I think what was a really optimistic view of the connected world and how great it is to be producers of information and be participatory to really trying to further emphasize some pieces that were there but I think needed to be fleshed out a bit more for the new environment we’re in post truth, which is based on confirmation bias and misinformation, false information and questions about new sources and all kinds of misleading facts that are being sent out. We really wanted to take that head-on because we saw metaliteracy in many ways even though it’s an idea that had developed previously as something that is a strong education response to some of the concerns and issues that we’re seeing today. Soon after the 2016 election we wrote a piece about fake news and that term is certainly changed even from the time that we originally wrote it. Wrote a piece for the conversation called “How to Reject Fake News in a Digital World,” so again taking a metaliteracy approach to looking at fake news in a critical way. Since that time even the term fake news, of course, has been weaponized, so we have conflicting thoughts about even using that term based on the research some educators think that it’s important to still keep using it and others want to reject it completely but I think we all generally know the narrative of that. The new book we decided to foreground metaliteracy in this environment and to make it an edited book so that we could engage other educators about this idea. Wasn’t just us but that it was other educators who were dealing with it. About half of the book is very theoretical and the other half of the book is more practical. When we did a call for proposals we tried to intentionally keep that open because we wanted different perspectives on this. I wrote the framing chapter to really talk about post truth, to reframe metaliteracy within this context and to also talk about a new figure that Trudi and I developed together based on the metaliteracy learning characteristics. The new book is going to present a new image, a new figure that further develops the metaliteracy idea from a theoretical perspective and talk about the importance of those characteristics in the post truth world. We’re joined by incredibly prestigious authors who from a theoretical standpoint look at things such as the importance of documentation in metaliteracy, and again, what they’re doing is they’re flushing out pieces of metaliteracy that we have not engaged with yet, so it was really exciting to see that. Another author talks about inoculation theory preparing learners to in many ways be resistant to some of the post truth issues that we’re currently engaged in. Scientific literacy, so there’s a whole chapter on the importance of scientific literacy and looking at it through the lens of metaliteracy. Also, looking at the synergy of word and image and photojournalism, Tom Palmer who teaches here in the journalism program at the University of Albany and it was also a journalist who works for the Times Union wrote that chapter. A few of the chapters do deal with the ACRL framework for information literacy for higher education, so we had that perspective. We were talking previously about both concepts are complementary and we have a few authors who really prove that. We also have a few authors who look at such topics as teaching students to be wrong, genre writing in the first year, writing instruction and the application of poetic ethnography in digital storytelling to create narratives in Philadelphia neighborhoods. I’m very interested in digital storytelling. I mentioned that previously and one of our authors also talks about digital storytelling to empower voices and to encourage students to really raise their voice in the current times that we’re in.

Trudi: And earlier you sort of asked how faculty, other educators, librarians have responded to metaliteracy. I think it’s really interesting. Tom and I did a workshop on metaliteracy at Temple University and a couple of these chapters actually came from people who were in that workshop. It was really sort of exciting to see the immediate impact that that had had.

Rebecca: That’s cool. So this sounds like a really great book; when can I get it?

Trudi: Next spring. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. Your current MOOC is a Coursera MOOC but you’re developing a new open edX MOOC. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how that new MOOC will differ from the prior MOOCs, because you’ve had more than one in the past?

Tom: This is part of a continuum of those three MOOCs. We actually wrote a paper in Open Praxis that talked about metaliteracy as a pedagogical framework that was applied in these different MOOCs, so we did a kind of compare and contrast of the different MOOC environments but also talked about our experiences and those different platforms and what it was like, and at the end of that paper one of our conclusions was that what we really needed to do next was create a kind of hybrid MOOC environment because what we had previously was the connectivist MOOC which was our first one and that Stephen Downes type approach. We actually used his grasshopper programming to run that MOOC, then we had the more structured xMOOCS, the Coursera and the Canvas. In many ways the paper was about that but what we decided at the end of the paper was we analyzed it was that we needed a hybrid version and it would it be possible to do that, is there a platform out there that has the learner-centered freeform approach of the connectivist MOOC with some of the structures that were valuable in the video that was really key to the xMOOCS. One of the ideas that propelled this idea forward… We also then, of course, had this shift to this thinking of a transition of kind of a connected world to a post truth world and what does that mean, and because we were working on this book “Metaliterate Learning for the Post Truth World,” we thought that’s a theme for a MOOC. We won’t go out there and call it the metaliteracy MOOC, but it’s a post truth MOOC that’s powered by metaliteracy that really applies the metaliteracy framework to each of the modules within the MOOC, so we’re really excited about that. We did apply for another SUNY IITG and we did receive funding for that, which allows us now to build a team—again it’s another Empire State College, University at Albany team—and we’re really excited about it, we’re developing it now, we’re exploring the open edX environment and as part of that too we’re working with the University of Buffalo because they’ve just launched an instance of open edX for their continuing education program and so they’ve already done a lot of the analysis and a lot of the footwork in terms of creating this instance of open edX on their campus, so they’re letting us experiment with what they’ve done and the idea is that our experience as one of the first two SUNY institutions beyond UV that are using open edX that we will hopefully pave the way for other SUNY faculty librarians that want to develop an open edX MOOC.

Trudi: One of the things that we’d like to do with this—Tom mentioned earlier—we’ve recently revised the metaliteracy learning goals and objectives. We are using those as the framework for this new MOOC. We would like to address issues such as confirmation bias, the role of expertise and authority in today’s environment, issues related to safety, security and personal privacy online, representations of reality in a virtual world and all the while sort of empowering participants to raise and share their voices while rebuilding communities of trust.

Rebecca: Who do you see is the audience for this particular MOOC?

Trudi: I think that we’re really hoping that it’s a very broad audience. We’ve had that, for example, with the Coursera MOOC where there were a lot of international participants everywhere from high school students to non-traditional types of students. We learned about their professions which just ran the gamut and I think that although we do hope to introduce this MOOC as part of courses both at Empire State College and at the University at Albany we’re really hoping that the participants are traditional learners and non-traditional learners. I think that what we’re going to be including in the way of content is something that needs to be broadly disseminated.

Tom: I think because that’s one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they do open up a potentially global audience, so we’re hoping for that international perspective as well, and as Trudi mentioned, we are developing courses so that we could on each of our campuses—I’m calling them wraparound courses—so that the courses that introduce students to the MOOC and they can then earn credit for doing so, because that’s been one of the big questions about MOOCs; can you learn credit, so what we’re doing is creating separate courses and in my version of the course I’m doing a full semester course so that the first half of the course will be introducing students to, well, what is a MOOC? What is post truth? What is metaliteracy? And I have a whole section on how to prepare for success in taking a MOOC, and then that will hopefully prepare them to be a successful learner in a MOOC environment so then they’ll take the six-week course and then there will be reflection piece at the end, which is very metaliteracy, and I actually think that a course about a course is very meta, so we’ve got that piece of it, and that idea to emerge from our very first connectivist experience where we tried to do it for credit and sure, you can talk about this experience at the University at Albany. In particular, in many ways the students were not prepared for the connectivist environment, so what we’re trying to do is in mind, since mine will be a full semester course, is invite students to take it but to really prepare them for being successful in MOOC because we know too that completion rates and MOOCs are not always great, but what if you offer it and prepare students for that environment. I think it is unique enough of an environment where that’s worth exploring.

Trudi: And Tom referred to our connectivist MOOC, which I did use as part of a course, essentially a blended course, and I was amazed when the students actually asked for more in-person class meetings because they couldn’t really grasp the idea of the MOOC and the fact that they were making decisions about their own learning. They were making decisions about which readings would be important. They needed to participate through a personal blog that was sort of elected and shared, and what they essentially did was doubt. I had about a 60% dropout rate in the course and the ones who were left were the ones who just wanted their hands held essentially through the rest of the course and that’s where we really learned that what Tom is going to be doing with his course, which is a full semester course, mine will be a quarter course again, is preparing them for this. This MOOC will be a more directed connectivist MOOC, but it was a very important takeaway.

Tom: And I’m hoping that by doing that it prepares them not only for our MOOC but it opens up the possibility of picking other MOOCs for lifelong learning. So that I think there are potential benefits, even beyond this experience. We’re hoping to launch the MOOC,—we’re developing it now—but we’re hoping to launch it for March 2019. It will be called “Empowering Yourself in a Post Truth World,” which is really important because we really want it to be a positive learning experience and one that provides resources for learners to be successful. You can imagine that talking about the post truth world could be a real downer, but what we really want it to be is a real positive focus of how to address the issues, look at these issues critically, but then to leave with some concrete ways of dealing with it. It also builds on some of the other MOOCs we had. The Coursera MOOC, for example, involved empowering yourself in a connected world and we’re running that now as an on-demand version. So when we first ran it in Coursera we were in the course and it was moving along and we were there in the discussions and following it but then Coursera changed its format a little bit and open up this possibility of on-demand and we actually like that because it allows us to have that content out there and to have learners engage with it in a self-paced way. Up to this point we’ve had, based on the stats we continue to receive from Coursera;—it’s running all the time—we’ve had 1,900 registrants and 900 active learners. We were really happy about that because it really gets some of these concepts out there, and I think it’s probably it’s been out there for a couple years now; it’s probably due for a revision, but that’s one of our projects that we’d like to do eventually, but I think that the post truth MOOC will in many ways build on that as well, so if someone wanted to go back they could look at that on-demand version, but as Trudi mentioned, the post truth MOOC is a six module, six-week learning experience on a very specific topic. I think it will be even more of a clearly-defined focused than even the other one.

John: Would be really nice to have all voters taking in the next couple of years. [LAUGHTER]

Trudi: We would like that.

Tom: Yes, yes.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a lot about the learner side and some of the tools and materials and MOOCs and things that can help learners become more metaliterate. How do you help faculty coach students through this kind of process? What are the takeaways for faculty? They’ve listened to this episode, they’re really interested in the idea; where do they get started?

Trudi: I think not to just promote our books, but I think that perhaps if they took a look at the two edited volumes they might get a sense of how others are doing it and the range of disciplines is pretty broad, so they might find someone in their own or a related one. I think that that might be a good place to start. I think also taking a look at the learning goals and objectives might provide some ideas of things they’re already doing, but perhaps finding ways to highlight them or frame them slightly differently.

Tom: And not to promote our blog, but metaliteracy.org; everything is in there, including the goals and learning objectives. Summaries of all the books, because we’ve had the blog now for a few years, so it’s interesting even to kind of go back and look at some of the original postings, but it links to the books, it links to all the presentations. The presentations are available, and a few of the keynotes that were recorded are in there. I do think the metaliteracy goals and learning objectives are definitely key because those can be easily applied. Should we mention what we were just invited to write because that would actually address this audience as well?

Trudi: Yeah, we’re going to be writing a piece for higher education jobs. They have a couple of newsletters and going to be talking about the importance of teaching or emphasizing metaliteracy on campus for administrators and also what instructors can do. We think that those are going to be appearing in November.

Tom: Because we’ve had a commitment to making everything open—I know it’s a lot to look for, but we do have the metaliteracy YouTube channel, the blog, of course, the presentations and a lot of these resources were intentionally constructed that way so that other educators could use them, so go to “Empowering Yourself in a Connected World” on Coursera and access the videos, use the learning activities in any way you want. Go to the first module; there’s a PDF in there that has the metaliteracy learner roles and we’ve used them as learning activities in our own classes and it has some reflective questions, so you have this diagram that really explains the different roles a learner could take and then it has questions for learners to really think about those roles. So I think a lot of those resources can be adapted in any way that people want, and it’s really an open concept, so we want people to get involved and apply their own approaches to this.

Rebecca: We wrap up by always asking: what next? You’ve given us so much, but what else? [LAUGHTER]

Tom: That’s a really good question. The next book that we mentioned is coming out in the spring. We’re currently working on the open edX MOOC, “Empowering Yourself in a Post Truth World.” We also, of course, will be launching that in the spring.

Trudi: With the digital badging system we would like to if we can find some more funding have a learning pathway portion to it where instructors can really tailor the information or add components for their own disciplines. We’re also working on a metaliteracy module for another innovative instruction technology grant funded project called “I succeed,” which is being developed in western New York, and they’ve asked us to provide a module on metaliteracy and this is going to be directed to high school students who aspire to college or first year college students and can be used by instructors, so we are putting that together with four units.

Tom: We have a few upcoming panel presentations that OLC accelerate in Florida in November.

John: I may see you there.

Tom: Oh, great! I haven’t been there in a couple years so I’m looking forward to getting back and that’s such a great conference.

John: It is.

Tom: And of course there will be continued research and writing. I’m certain that the open edX experience that we’re currently immersed in will lead to a paper, and we’d like to do a research project that assesses the application of the metaliteracy goals and learning objectives. So much of what we’ve been doing is really theorizing and talking about practice and developing these environments, but we would like to delve into that a bit more. We might have an opportunity to work with an international scholar that we met last year at the University of Guadalajara, but we’re not sure about that if that’s going to happen, but that would allow us to really expand the metaliteracy concept: working with international scholars. So there’s a lot of possibilities. Perhaps a coil courses in our future, and that’s another SUNY resource; it’s a collaborative online international learning environment. I think that’s something that we would love to do with an international scholar, so we’ll see if that happens some day. A lot of ideas, got a lot going on, but we’ll see.

John: You got a nice track record of being really productive with us.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for joining us and spending time and giving us lots of things to think about.

John: Yeah, you’re doing some wonderful work.

Trudi:Thank you.

Tom: Thank you so much, we really enjoyed this.

Trudi: Yeah.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

14. Microcredentials

In this episode, we discuss the growing role of microcredentials in higher education with Jill Pippin (Dean of Extended Learning at SUNY-Oswego), Nan Travers (Director of the Center for Leadership in Credentialling Learning at Empire State College), and Ken Lindblom (Dean of the School of Professional Development at the State University of New York at Stony Brook). Jill, Nan, and Ken are members of a State University of New York task force on microcredentials.


Rebecca: Our guests today are: Jill Pippin, the Dean of Extended Learning at SUNY-Oswego; Nan Travers, the Director of the Center for Leadership and Credentialing Learning at Empire State College; and Ken Lindblom, the Dean of the School of Professional Development at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

John: Welcome, everyone!

Nan: Thank you. Hello.

Jill: Thank you.

Ken: It’s good to be here.

John: Our teas today are:

Rebecca: Jasmine green tea.

John: Jill?

Jill: I actually don’t drink tea.

John: Oh… here we go again…. Okay, Nan?

Nan: I’m drinking Celestial Seasons Bengal Spice.

John: …and, Ken?

Ken: My tea today is coffee.

John: …we get a lot of that…. Ok.
…and I have black raspberry green tea from Tea Republic.
So, today we’re going to be talking about microcredentials. Would someone like to tell us a little bit about what microcredentials are?

Ken: Sure, I’d be happy to tell you a bit about what microcredentials are. So there are traditional microcredentials that most people know all about, such as certificates, minors, or just either credit or non-credit certificates. So they’re pieces of larger degrees, but there are now new digital microcredentials that are having a bigger impact on the field, and that internet technology has allowed us to take more advantage of. So there are internet certificates and there are also digital badges, which are icons that can be put on a LinkedIn resume or shared through somebody’s website or on a Twitter feed… and they indicate that the earner of the microcredential has developed particular skills or abilities that will be useful in the workplace.

Nan: …and just to add to what Ken has said, with the open digital badges that are out there, they actually hold on to all of the information around the assessed learning…. the different competencies that an individual has, and the ways in which they’ve assessed it. So if they’re used, let’s say, in the workplace, an employer could actually click into the badge and be able to see exactly how the person has been assessed… which gives a lot of information that a traditional transcript does not give, because it does have that background information in there.

John: Who can issue microcredentials? or who does issue microcredentials?

Jill: …really industry, colleges, various and sundry types of organizations.

Ken: Yeah, in fact, Jill’s right. There’s no real regulation of microcredentials right now. So they can be given by any group that simply creates a microcredential and awards it to someone… and then they say what it is. So the microcredential’s value is really based on the reputation of the issuer.
Honestly, universities and colleges are pretty slow to get to this kind of technology, as we often are. So it’s new for us, but there are private companies that have been issuing them, and there been individual instructors at the college, and especially at the k-12 level, who have been using badge technology to motivate and to assess student work for quite a few years… but for the university level, this is exciting new territory that we’re really jumping into now.

Jill: Yeah, microcredentials are shorter… they’re more flexible…. and they’re very skill based… and so they’re new for colleges, I think in a lot of ways….. maybe not so much for our non-credit side of the house… those that have been doing training programs and things are very practical… skill-based pieces… but in terms of having ladders to credit and having credit courses seen through the lens of a smaller chunk of time, and of topic area, and focus… I think that’s the real change or the real difference in micro-credentialing than from a traditional environment…

Nan: …and what’s really important here is that the demand for these really, in many ways, is coming from industry where they really need better signals as to what people know and what they can do, and as Jill just mentioned, that they’re very skills based. This enables somebody to be able to get a good idea about what a potential employee is able to do. So the demand for microcredentials is really increasing, as industry are using them more and more and there’s many different groups that are really focused on using either the microcredentials, or specifically the badges (which is really a type of microcredential). There are some projects right now where there are whole cities that have come together and have been developing microcredentials and badging systems to make sure that all people in the community have the ability to show those skills as they go for employment. There are also some companies that are starting to come out. For example, there’s a company called “Degreed,” which is degreed.com. It’s a company that enables people to get their skills assessed and microcredentialed, and at the same time working with companies… there’s some big companies such as Bank of America… there’s many other ones that are on their website listed… and they work with the companies and identify the different skills that people need… and then credential the people who are trying to apply with those…. so that there’s a real matching. It becomes a competency-based employment matching system in many ways.

Ken: Some of the ways that badges have been useful are exactly what Nan and Jill are saying, that it’s come from the employers who are asking for specific information about what students will come to them with. We are also able to develop badges in concert with specific employers, if there’s particular training or education or sets of skills or abilities that they’d like their applicants to have… but there’s also another great advantage to microcredentials, particularly badges, that allow us to show the in-depth learning that goes on in classes. My other hat, other than Dean, is that I’m a Professor of English, and so in a lot of humanities courses the direct connection to skills isn’t as obvious to people as it is in an area say like teacher education. So what we can do with a badge is we can point out the specific skills that students are developing in a class on rhetorical theory, or on Shakespearean plays, or whatever. We can point out the analytical learning that they’re doing, the kind of critical thinking, the kind of communicative writing, so that those courses translate into the kind of skills that people are looking for… and of course, our students are picking those things up, but now we can make it more visible as a result of the technology of digital badges.

Jill: It’s an exciting time in higher education. I mean it really is, in terms of microcredentials, because higher ed has the opportunity to validate those credentials. A lot of them, as we said before, have been out there… non-credit skill-based smaller chunks of learning… but the idea of having them all kind of on the same playing field… and almost apples-to-apples in terms of validating learning outcomes… and making sure they’re part of a longer pathway toward higher education. It’s really exciting.

John: When someone sees a transcript and sees English 101 or English 373 or Eco 101, it doesn’t really tell the employer that much about what the students actually learned, but the microcredentials provide information about specific skills that would be relevant. Is there much evidence of the impact this has on employability or in terms of career placement?

Nan: There has been some work that is being done on that, and as I mentioned there are some companies that are even starting to get in the field because there is such a high demand for companies to be able to do competency-based hiring. There’s an initiative that the Lumina Foundation has been funding called Connecting Credentials and, in that initiative, they’ve been looking at microcredentials as a piece of that. That initiative has brought together many different businesses, organizations, and higher education together at the table to really discuss ways in which credentials can better serve all of those different sectors… and so some of the work that they have been working on and that can be viewed at connectingcredentials.org has really been looking at some of the impact of microcredentials on employability.

John: Based on that, I would think, that when colleges are coming up with microcredential programs, it might be useful to work with businesses and to get feedback from businesses on what types of skills they’re looking for… for guidance or some help in designing microcredential programs?

Jill: Absolutely.

Ken: Yeah. I can talk a little bit about some experience we’ve had at Stony Brook on that. We’ve been working with an organization called FREE which is Family Residences and Essential Enterprises. They’re a large agency that supports students, children, and adults with disabilities… and we worked with them to create several badges that align directly with their national standards and the certification needs of their employees. So now we’ve got a system where one of the things that their employees need is food literacy. If they’re running a house for people with disabilities, people who need assistance, they have to be able to demonstrate that they’re able to produce healthy nutritious meals… and so once they’ve gone through this training, which is specifically aligned with their curriculum, having earned the badge will demonstrate that the employee has developed that set of skills. We’ve also got one for them on leadership among their managers and we’re developing more… and the fact that we’ve developed that with the employer… and now the employer is actually contracting with us to deliver that instruction to their employees. We’ve done really well and we’ve issued well over a hundred badges to that agency in just about a year.

John: Excellent.

Nan: There’s also, as we think about it from an employability perspective… there is also another important area that’s happening with the microcredentials and the badges in higher education…is to really be looking at some of those more liberal arts kinds of skills: being able to be a good communicator… to have good resiliency… these are also very important pieces that go into being a good worker… and so there are many institutions as we look across the United States that are really looking at some of these broader skills. There’s also some work that’s being done on the student services side which is really looking at how students have been engaging and being involved within the institution. So, there are these other pieces that also help to build that whole person… how somebody really is involved in higher education… what they know… what they can do… and the kinds of different volunteer pieces… as well as the different kinds of things that they have engaged while they are they are there: working in teams, doing different projects. So, there’s lots of different ways of using those badges. There are also some institutions who are using these badges as a beginning point for students. For some people, it’s scary to start at higher ed again, and to be able to take a little bit of a program that’s a smaller program that actually has a credential at the end of it, is a really motivating thing. Students come away saying: “Well I did that. I can do more…” and so it becomes a really good recruitment tool… but it also is a real good student support tool in order to help people start the path of education as well.

Ken: …and you know, Nan, that’s an important point too… and it works the other way for people who are in, let’s say a master’s degree program…. they don’t not learn anything new until the very end when they’re issued the degree… they’re actually building skills and developing abilities all along the way. So, what the digital badge or a microcredential can do is make visible the learning that they’re doing along the way. So after three or four courses, they’ve earned a credential that demonstrates that value. So they don’t have to wait until they finish 10 or 11 courses.

John: So, it lets them have small goals along the way, and they’re able to achieve success, and perhaps help build a growth mindset for those students who might not have done that otherwise.

Ken: Yes.

Nan: Yes.

Ken: Well put, John.

John: How does this integrate with traditional courses? Are there badges that are offered… or a given badge might be offered by multiple courses? or do individual courses offer multiple badges or microcredentials?

Ken: It can go in lots of different ways. There are instructors who build badging into their own classes. Those aren’t really microcredentials the way we’re talking about them. We’re talking about microcredentials that are somewhere between a course and a degree. So, at Stony Brook, for example, we have what we call a university badge program, and in order for a University badge to exist, it must require between 2 and 4 4-credit courses. So a total of 6 to 12 credits, that’s the point at which students can earn a university badge at Stony Brook University. Those courses work together. So, for example, we have a badge in design thinking, and in order to earn that badge students must get at least a “B” on two courses that we have on design thinking. We also have a badge in employer-employee relations within our Human Resources program… and in order to earn that badge, there are three specific classes that students have to take and earn at least a B on each of those classes.

Nan: So, there is also another approach in terms of thinking about how the microcredentials can intersect and kind of interface with the traditional credentials, the traditional degrees, and that’s through different forms of prior learning assessment. So, what we also see is that students come with licenses, certifications, different kinds of these smaller credentials that represent verifiable college-level learning… and through either an individualized portfolio assessment process or, at our institution at SUNY Empire State College, we also have a process called professional learning evaluations… where we go in and evaluate training, licenses, certifications, and those are evaluated for college credit . Those are then also integrated within the curriculum, and treated as… really transfer credit… they’re advanced standing credit. So, students also have the ability to bring knowledge with them through the microcredentials… they’ve been verified by another organization, and then we re-verify that learning at a college level to make sure that it is valid learning for a degree… and then integrate it within the curriculum.

John: In Ken’s case, it sounds like the microcredential is more than a course, in other cases it might be roughly equivalent to a course… or might it sometimes be less than a course? Where a course might provide individuals with specific skills, some which they might have in other courses? or is that less common?

Jill: You’re right, there’s a spectrum. So, for instance if you look at it from a traditional standpoint, a technology course might already have an embedded microcredential in the form of OSHA training, for example. That’s a microcredential, in that particular example, and so we have the opportunity to look at the skill based smaller chunks that may be very specific to an occupation or employers need for someone to have those skills and be able to put some framework around it so that it can be understood and communicated to an employer.

Ken: One of the exciting things about badging and microcredentials right now which Jill alluded to earlier is that there really isn’t any regulation regarding them yet. So when you say a college degree, that has a standardized meaning but when you say a microcredential or a digital badge, there’s no standardized meaning whatsoever, so what we’re doing is we’re creating different versions of microcredentials and the meaning of them is dependent on that specific situation. So one of the things that’s exciting about being a University in a College is we can really bring academic rigor to these no matter how many skills and what level of learning of the digital badge represents… you know because it comes from a university particularly a SUNY it’s going to be a high quality badge. But it’s incumbent upon the one who’s reading the badge to understand what that badge actually means, and depending where it comes from, depending on the size of the badge, and what the number of skills and abilities aligned to it are, the badge means different things and that’s why it’s so important that the badge includes the metadata – all that in depth and formation that you get when you click on the digital badge icon and all of that information pops up.

Nan: In addition, nationally the IMS global learning community has been developing standards and hopefully there’ll be national standards around the data, how that’s reported, and being able to allow people to really understand and compare the attributes of the criteria of how it’s been assessed, and so there’s a great deal of work that’s being done at a national level to really be thinking about how we can have some good standardization and guidelines around what we mean by certain things in the digital badging. So I think that’s something to pay attention to in terms of what’s coming about.

Ken: Yes it’s exciting space before the standardization has been done, because there’s a lot of innovative potential there, but as we standardize there’ll be more comparability and that’ll be easier to do. So, we may lose some of that innovation later but we’ll just have to see. It’s very interesting to be at the beginning of this process like this because degrees were really kind of finalized at the end of the 19th century, and now at the beginning of the 21st century we’re reinventing that kind of work.

John: Now earlier, it was suggested that other groups have been creating micro-credentials in industry and private firms. One of the advantages, I would think, perhaps that colleges and universities would have is a reputation for certifying skills. Does a reputation of colleges perhaps in universities give us a bit of an edge in creating microcredentials compared to industry?
JILL : One would hope, however there are examples of all sorts of industry entities out there that are offering microcredentials – think of the coding academies that are prolific and they’re very skill based, very specific to an industry, in the industries needs the employers understand what that outcome is from that training and they’re able to therefore value it, and the employee is able to communicate it very effectively. But where I think the colleges have an opportunity and universities have an opportunity to really shine here is that this is where we have the experts, we have people who are very well-versed and researched in their area of scholarship, and they’re able to really look at curriculum and validate it, and make sure that it is expressed in terms of college-level learning outcomes.

Nan: In addition, I think that higher ed has the opportunity to really integrate the industry certifications with curriculum and the stacking process bringing in those microcredentials from industry or having them right within the higher ed curriculum and then being able to roll that in and build it into the curriculum, so that a degree, I can imagine, as we evolve higher education over the next decade or so, that people as they graduate… they’re graduating with a college degree, they’re graduating also with microcredentials, and together they’re able to really indicate what a student knows and what a student can do which really can help the student a great deal more than when it’s just a degree that doesn’t really spell out what some of the details about what somebody knows.

Rebecca: I’m curious whether or not there’s any conversations happening with accreditation organizations about micro credentialing and how they might be involved in the conversation.

Nan: So at this point there are conversations that are happening at the accreditation level and for example, every regional accreditation agency has policy around the assessment of learning. Sometimes specifically around prior learning assessment, sometimes around transfer credit, which within those policies they’re really starting to look at how those learning pieces can come in. When it’s on the for-credit side, then there really needs to be a demonstration by the institution that those microcredentials are meeting the same academic standards as the courses are also. So using the accreditation standards and making sure that all policies and procedures are of the same quality and integrity ensures that it all fits together.

Ken: I think it’s not only an opportunity for universities that we’re developing micro-credentials, but I think it’s our responsibility to do so, because the idea of digital badges for example was popularized in the corporate sector before universities got on board and they ran the gamut in terms of quality and value and frankly there are some predatory institutions that award badges that may not have much value at all to students, and yet they can be quite costly. So I think it was very incumbent upon the university to create valuable microcredentials that would have real academic rigor and support behind them. In addition to that, some of these institutions were also using their badge programs to undercut the value of the degree and say “Well, you don’t actually need a college degree with all that fluff, you just need to get the skills training that you’ll get from a badge.” And we know that a college degree delivers far more than just a set of discrete skills, it gives better ways of seeing the fuller world, of understanding the integration of knowledge, of being able to employ social skills along with technical ability, and digital badges at the university level allow us to make those connections more visible. But it also can help us prevent attacks against the university, which are done purely from profiteering perspective sometimes.

Jill: We can provide some validity and some academic integrity to the smaller microcredential world, then I think higher ed as Ken says has a responsibility to do so.

Nan: It also shows a shift in some of the role of higher education where it becomes even more important that we take the lead in helping to integrate people’s skills and their knowledge and then how that relates to work and life. In many ways, the older higher ed… we had a much more of a role of just delivering information and making sure people had information. Now I think our role has really shifted, where we need to take the leadership in the integration of knowledge and learning.

Rebecca: I’m hearing a lot of conversation focusing on skills and lower levels of the Bloom’s taxonomy, so it would be interesting to hear of examples at higher levels of thinking and working.

Ken: Well, Bloom’s taxonomy actually is a taxonomy of skills and domains of knowledge and abilities so that there are certainly skills involved with synthesis and evaluation, which are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. So digital badges can work with that. Digital badges… the skills can involve being able to examine a great deal of knowledge and solve specific problems in an industry, and these are the highest levels of application of knowledge and learning.

Nan: In higher ed they’re also being looked at both at the undergraduate and graduate level, and so it’s not just that entry-level piece. Again, we keep talking about licenses and certifications as a type of microcredential, and there are many out there that you cannot acquire until you have reached certain levels of knowledge and abilities. I know we have focused a great deal of this conversation in terms of being skills-based, but in industry they’re really talking about it more as competencies, and the definition of competencies is what you know and what you can do, so it’s both knowledge and skill space, it is not just skill space.

Ken: In fact, one of the issues that some faculty have with microcredentials, particularly digital badges, is that they have a sense that it’s focused too heavily on utilitarian skill, and not focused heavily enough on the larger and the higher levels of learning that Rebecca is talking about. So I think Nan’s bringing in the idea of competency-based learning is really very helpful that way.

John: So, basically those skills could be at any level.
What are some of the other concerns that faculty might have that might lead to some resistance to adopting microcredentials at a given institution?

Nan: So one of the areas that they may talk about is the concern of the integrity. The academic integrity of the microcredential, or of the badge. And what’s important is that each institution really look at their own process for reviewing microcredentials and improving them, especially if they are on the credit side and they’re going to be integrated within the curriculum. So they need to follow the same standards that any course will follow, and that should really help relieve that concern about academic integrity.

Ken: Yeah, in fact the SUNY microcredentials group, which all of us on this podcast are involved with, specifically points out that faculty governance has to be heavily involved in the creation of any digital badge or micro credential program. That’s the whole point of bringing the university level to this. Is that faculty governance that academic input is going to be behind every microcredential that we create. One of the other things that my faculty colleagues have had trouble with, is the very name of digital badges, and they think it sounds a little silly, a little juvenile. They always say, “oh, well, this is just Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts” and so to them it can feel a little silly. It actually doesn’t come from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Digital badges come from gamification and motivational psychologists looked at why people were willing to do so many rote tasks in an online game. Even though they weren’t being paid to do so, and didn’t seem very exciting on its own and what they found is that people were willing to do that because they would earn a badge or they would level up or earn special privileges along the way, and that was very motivating for people. That’s where this technology really came from and then we built more academic rigor into it. The metaphor that I like to use with my faculty colleagues, which was suggested to me by one of my English department colleagues, Peter Manning. He pointed out that in the medieval period in England archers would learn different skills and when they developed a new skill, they would be given a feather of a different color, and then that feather would be put in the cap. So literally a badge is like a feather in the cap, and when you see somebody coming with 8 or 10 feathers of different colors, this is going to be a formidable adversary. Just like people with a few did badges from the SUNY system, they’re gonna be formidable employees.

Jill: The other thing I like to jump in and say too is – the Girl Scout in the Boy Scout badging system if you really know what the badges represent – you know that there are very strident rules learning outcomes and so on involved in attaining the badge. The badge is a way of just demarcing that they attained it. The quality is inherent in the group that’s setting up the equation by which you earn the badge.

John: So it’s still certifying skill.

Jill: It’s still certifying something and again the institution has the ability to determine what that something is, and to make sure that it is of quality.

John: Now one other thing I was thinking is that if an institution instituted a badging system, it might actually force faculty to reflect a little bit on what types of skills they’re teaching in the class, and that could be an interesting part of a curriculum redesign process in a department, because we haven’t always used backwards design where we thought about our learning objectives. Quite often faculty will say, I’d like to teach a course in this because it’s really interesting to me, but perhaps more focus on skills development in our regular curriculum would be a useful process in general.

Jill: I agree.

Ken: I think that’s a great idea, John. We haven’t used the badging system in my school that way yet, but I think it’s a great idea and honestly there are faculty who bristle at the notion that their teaching skills, and digital badging really strikes at the heart of that, in my perspective, elitist attitude about education. We do want to open up students Minds, we do want to expose them to more of the aesthetic pleasures of life, but we also want to help students improve their own lives in material ways as well, and badging can help us make visible, and strengthen the ways in which we do that in higher education. I think we should be very proud of that.

Nan: So again one of the reasons I like to use the word competency, is because it brings the knowledge and skills together, and we’re actually talking about skills as though they are isolated away from the knowledge pieces, and you can’t have skill without knowledge. To develop good knowledge, you need certain skills, and so I think it’s important to really think about this not as two different things that are separated and somehow we all of a sudden are going to be just skills based, but much rather that we’re developing people’s competencies to be highly educated people.

Jill: Very symbiotic really, and I think this is also where you get at the idea of how can non-credit and credit work together. If you’re thinking about them, in terms of the outcomes and developing your class in that way, and if one of those by itself would be something that’s non-credit, and then if you build them all together then you get a course. Or then your couple of graduate courses together, then you get a credential that is something on the way to a graduate degree.

John: This brings us to the concept of stackable credentials or some microcredentials designed to be stackable to build towards higher level credentials.

Ken: Really a micro-credentialing systems, should always be stackable. That’s one of the bedrocks of the whole idea of it. So it’s not required that a student go beyond one microcredential, but microcredentials should always be applicable to some larger credential of some sort. So, for example, all of the university badges at Stony Brook University stacked toward a master’s degree. And in fact we’ve tried to create what’s called a constellation of badges, so that students can wind their way to a master’s degree by using badges… or on their way to a master’s degree they can pick particular badges to help highlight specialties among electives that they can choose. So it’s a way for them to say, yes I have a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, and as part of that I have a particular specialization in financial literacy, or in teacher leadership, or an area such as that. But yeah, microcredentials should always be able to stack to something larger. And if we do it right, eventually we’ll have a system that works really from the first… from high school to really into retirement, because there can be lifelong learning. That’s involved in microcredentials as well. There’s always more to learn, so there should always be new microcredentials to earn.

Nan: I totally agree with Ken and if we provide different microcredentials and don’t provide how they do stack and build a pathway, then we really have not helped our students. In many ways we have left it, traditionally, historically, left it up to the individual to figure out how their bits and pieces of learning all fit together and we kind of expect that they’ve got the ability to kind of put it all together and apply it in many different ways, and I think that the role that microcredentials is really playing here, is a way of helping us start to talk about these discrete pieces, and then also how they build together and stack, which gives the person the ability to think about how it fits into the whole. I think what microcredentials is doing is opening up higher education, in a way to really be thinking about how to better serve our students, and give them those abilities to take what they know, package it in different ways, be able to apply it in many different ways, and be able to build that lifelong goals, and seeing how it all fits together.

Rebecca: Just thought I’d follow up a little bit. I think a lot of examples that we see are often in tech or in business and those are the ones that seem very concrete to many of us, but for those of you that have instituted some of these microcredentials already, how does it fit into a liberal arts context, which might not be so obvious to some folks?

Nan: There’s actually quite a few examples of microcredentials and badges that are more on the liberal arts side. There’s been some initiatives across the United States where different institutions have been developing, what we can think of as the 21st century skills: communication, problem-solving, applying learning, being resilient. These are some of the kinds of badges that are starting to really evolve out of higher education, which really brings in those different pieces of a liberal arts education, and being able to lift that up and give the students the ability to say, “I’ve got some good problem solving skills and here’s some examples and I can show it through this badge.” When we look at the research in terms of what employers need for the 21st century employee, we’re really looking at very strong liberal arts education that is then integrated into a workplace situation. So I’m seeing a lot more badges being grown in that liberal arts arena.

Ken: Yeah, at Stony Brook University, we have a number of badges that are in the liberal arts. So for example, we have a badge in diverse literatures. So there may be people who wish to earn that just for personal enrichment, but it’s something that might be really interesting to English teachers as well, because by earning a badge in diverse literatures, which requires a minimum of three classes in different areas, different nationalities of literature, teachers will be able to go on to select pieces of literature more appropriate for diverse audiences. They’ll be able to explore greater world literatures because of the background that they’ve had in exploring different literatures in their classes. So, that’s just one example, but of our about 30 badges, about third of them are in those humanities areas. That said, I will acknowledge that they are not anywhere near as popular as the more business oriented and professional oriented badges, where the link to skills simply seems more obvious. So I think that the liberal studie… the liberal arts… the humanities badges.. the connection is not quite as clear and so there’s still a lot of potential there.

Jill: It’s so important for the employers and for the students themselves, but I think almost most importantly the employers to understand what that means. They have to understand you have a microcredential or a badge and problem solving. They have to have some kind of trust, that it’s truly a skill that equates to their workplace situation, and that’s where the online systems where you can actually delve into what’s behind the my credential, is so important. You can really sit there and look at it, and verify that what the competencies and the skills that the individual has attained through earning this badge.

John: So the definition in the metadata is really important and establishing exactly what sort. Now that brings us to another question. At this point each institution that’s using badges is developing its own set of badges and competencies. Has there been any effort at trying to get some standardization and portability of this across institutions or is it too early for that, or do you see it going in that direction at some point?

Ken: John, it certainly hasn’t happened yet, but I do know that the SUNY Board of Trustees at their last meeting started to consider developing working groups to do just what you’re saying. So it’s not so much to standardize what badges are, but rather to standardize reporting and explore ways to help badge earners to explain and demonstrate their badges to employers, and to other schools more easily. So I know that’s where the SUNY system is headed.

Nan: And if it is for credit, then it falls within transfer credit anyway. So really, if it has gone through the appropriate academic curriculum development processes, the governance processes, then it has the same rigor and therefore is very transferable through our policies on transfer. So really what we need to be doing is doing some good work around the non-credit side,…that really helps the transfer of non-credit learning.

Jill: And one way we can do that is by reinvigorating and breathing new life into a 1973 policy that SUNY has on the books for the awarding of CEUs )continuing education units). It has a recommendation in a process by which campuses can take non-credit curriculum and send it up through a faculty expert and it has a certain guideline about how do you come up with an approval process and how many CEUs could be granted for such work. So, there are some skeleton pieces to how SUNY may codify that moving forward, at this point there is not a rule about how to move forward with non-credit. In fact, SUNY I think trying to be responsive to the emergent nature of this very concept, it has not tried to come in and be too prescriptive yet.

John: On the other hand, when students do receive microcredentials at multiple institutions. Let’s say they start at a community college. They move perhaps to Empire State, maybe they move to a four-year college for university, if they don’t finish and get a degree, they still would have some microcredentials that they could use when they go on the market, because many of them perhaps might use Credly or some other system where they can put it on the LinkedIn profile and they still have that certification, which if they just don’t get the degree it just shows them as not being a degree recipient, which actually seems to hurt people in the job market, but perhaps if they could establish that they have been acquiring skills a long way, maybe it might be helpful for students.

Nan: John, that is a really good point. In many ways, our degrees set up a system where if anyone who steps out of a degree has nothing to show for it and therefore is at a disadvantage, and the microcredentials can help demonstrate their progress, and the competencies that they already have, and so it can play a very important role in people’s lives, when students do need to step in and out of higher education.

John: So where do you see microcredentials going in the future? How do you see this evolving?

Ken: It’s in such an amorphous space right now, it’s hard to imagine what it’s going to undulate into. A big part of what’s happening now is what Nan has talked about. An attempt to try to put some boundaries on this and bring some common definitions to bear on the technology and and the idea of a microcredential, but I think it’s going to still expand. What it’ll do is it’s going to increase partnerships among interesting groups. I think in a lot of these, the universities will be at the center of the partnership, but we’ll be bringing in many more student groups, industry partners, government groups, nonprofits. I think it’s going to increase the amount of communication dramatically, and that’s very exciting because for too many years universities have fulfilled that stereotype of the ivory tower, and this is really breaking that down in some very productive ways.

Nan: And when we look at it from a national perspective, and looking at it to see where some of the direction is going with groups such as IMS global, with connecting credentials and other groups, but what we’re really seeing is the prediction that every student would have a comprehensive digital student record, that they would take with them. It becomes a digital portfolio and the badges would be in their microcredentials, any degrees, they’d have an ability to be able to transport themselves in many different directions, because all of that information would be there, and that digital student record would allow anybody to click in and see the metadata behind it, to know what those competencies that people have, and how it was assessed, what it really means so that there’s a real description of that. That would also enable students to have, again the prediction is that students would be able to transfer from institution to institution. They’ll be able to stack up and build their degrees in ways that would really support the student in their whole life pathway. Ken has just mentioned about partnerships. I think that what we would see is a great deal of partnerships across institutions and with institutions in industry, that really start to build these pathways that people can move along with their comprehensive digital student record.

Ken: Nan, can I ask you a question?

Nan: Yes.

Ken: So a few years ago, there was a lot of talk about they termed co-curricular transcripts, which would be the kind of transcript that would include club membership, informal learning, not credited learning, but it sounds like we may be getting beyond that in a really positive way, and that just the idea of a transcript is becoming a little transformed, so that those other kinds of learning will actually be transcripted in the same digital format. Am I reading that right? Do you think that’s where we’re going?

Nan: Yes, I do think that’s where we’re going, Ken. We’re right at the end of a multi-year, multi-institutional project that Lumina funded, looking at these comprehensive digital student records, that go way beyond… also capturing things like clubs and other kinds of things that students engage, but really, they’re competency-based they start to record those competencies, the data behind the competencies, and when students are in a club or when they’re doing other kinds of activities, the kinds of competencies that they’re gaining from those pieces are also being recorded. So it’s not just: “You are a member of a club, what did you really learn and what can you do because of that?” and so I think that we’re gonna see that evolving more and more over the next decade or so.

Ken: That’s great, thank you.

Jill: If I could add to the question about the role of microcredentials evolving. One of the things that I think is going to be happening, and part of why I’m so excited about microcredentials is, I see this as having a nice connection for the non-credit side of the house of colleges and universities to the credit side, because for so many years, non-credit has been connecting with, and trying to serve business and industry, in ways that really have been limited, and so this really opens up the ability to connect and collaborate with credit expertise within the institution, to be able to create those true pathways, from start to finish from the smallest first step along that pathway all the way through, and that’s really exciting, and I think… and I hope… that’s part of this overall discussion we’re having about micro-credentials moving forward. In a lot of ways this is cyclically. We talked about the CEU policy of 1973. There has been this two sides of the house as they say, as I said a number times today, and really we’re all about education and trying to help people to learn things and be able to apply them to their jobs and their lives and having that connection be that much more seamless and clear. I think that’s one of the most exciting things, from my seat at the table.

John: Well, thank you all for joining us.

Nan: Thank you

John: Look forward to hearing more.

Jill: Thanks for having us.

Ken: Pleasure to be here.

Nan: Take care everybody, bye bye.

Jill: Bye, guys.

Rebecca: Thank you.