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Embedding and Aligning Certifications with Academic Programs

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Factors to Consider

Embedding and Aligning Certifications with Academic Programs

Factors to Consider

Consider the following six factors when deciding to embed or align a certification with a degree or certificate program.

1. Obtain Buy-in

The first step in the process is to determine if there is a need for the skills in the labor market and whether employers will give greater recognition or value to an academic program that aligns with or embeds a certification. The evidence can be gathered by conducting a needs assessment. This could involve contracting with an external labor market analysis organization, using publicly available state or national data labor market data, or using internal research capabilities at a college or university. Additionally, the process might include focus groups with employers who can provide information on the skills they seek and/or those that new hires lack.

Program designers can use the information gathered from the needs assessment to build a case to obtain buy-in from multiple stakeholders, including: administrators, faculty, employers, and learners. Administrators and faculty need to understand how aligning or embedding a certification with a certificate or degree program could improve program retention and completion, enhance career opportunities for students, and better meet the needs of local, regional, or national employers. Learners need to see value in pursuing an academic program that is aligned with industry needs and employers need to be confident that the skills they require will be developed and assessed in the academic program that is aligned or embedded with an industry certification. Demonstrating value to all the stakeholders is critical to set the foundation for long-term success.

2. Create a Common Language

To avoid miscommunication or confusion within an institution or system, it is important to create a shared understanding of the elements involved in this process and develop a common language for discussing them. Certifications, certificates, and degrees are all different types of credentials with different purposes. Teams working to embed and align certifications into certificate and degree programs might consider specifying the following key terms and processes to ensure that everyone works toward the same goal:

  •  Certificate of completion
  •  Certificate of assessment
  •  Certification
  •  Industry credential
  •  Process to align a certification with a certificate or degree program
  •  Process to embed a certification with a certificate or degree program
  •  Differentiating the process to embed or align certifications into degrees from embedding certificates into degrees

3. Align Competencies

Underpinning the certification exam is a job task analysis—a systematic analysis of what people know and do to perform a job or task. The main purpose of this analysis is to develop the blueprint for the certification exam. A job task analysis breaks down tasks into knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). This process of gathering input about KSAs involves practitioners or subject matter experts. The KSAs are then used to develop the exam blueprint. Many such blueprints are publicly available on a certification body’s website.

Faculty can use the exam blueprint to compare the competencies assessed on the certification exam with the learning outcomes of the certificate or degree program. By doing this comparison, faculty can identify the gaps between what is assessed on the certification exam and what is taught in the academic program. Once those skill/competency gaps are identified, faculty can determine how to revise the curriculum to fill them.

4. Determine the Appropriate Fit

Educators can determine whether a certification should be aligned or embedded based upon the academic program of study and the prerequisites for a certification exam. If it is to be embedded, they should also decide when the certification should be offered or how it fits into the academic program.

If a learner acquires the competencies after completing one course or a series of courses, the educators could embed the certification before the academic program is completed. In that case, the educational institution can use the certification as a milestone to encourage program retention If a learner did need to stop out, they would be able to obtain better employment by having earned a certification rather than simply earning credit for a set of college courses that do not represent a credential.

Educators can also use certifications as the capstone for an academic certificate or degree program. To sit for some certifications, individuals must have completed an associate or bachelor’s degree. In that case, educators can align the academic program with the exam test blueprint, so that upon completion of the academic program and any other prerequisites, such as work experience, the individual would be able to sit for the certification exam.

5. Allocate Resources

It is important to determine the costs that may be associated with embedding or aligning a certification into an academic certificate or degree and to develop a plan to cover them. Here are questions to determine costs:

  •  Who will conduct the labor market analysis, and what will it cost?
  •  Will faculty need to be paid for their time to develop these new credential pathways?
  •  Who will do the outreach to employers, and will they need to be paid?
  •  Who will be responsible for paying the costs of the certification exam? Will the exam cost be embedded in the cost of a course or academic program? Can financial aid be used to cover the certification exam cost? Will the learner be responsible for it? How do you ensure that all learners have access to the certification exam?
  •  What costs are associated with promoting these new credential pathways to learners, faculty, and employers?
  •  Are there any discounts (e.g., exam vouchers) that the certification body can provide the college or university?
  •  Who is responsible for tracking which learners took the exam and whether they passed or failed? Will this person need to be paid?
  •  What costs are associated with sustaining the program over time?

6. Communicate Credentials to External Audiences

Once certifications have been aligned or embedded in a degree or certificate program, they can be conveyed to learners and potential employers:

  •  The college or university will need to decide about whether these certifications can be included in the academic transcript. Several organizations are exploring how to effectively capture, share, and validate learning and credentials that take place inside and outside the classroom. For example, AACRAO is exploring the use of the Comprehensive Learning Record and the Learning and Employment Record. Other organizations are testing different technology solutions, including digital wallets, to share verifiable credentials.
  •  It is important to teach learners how to talk about the skills they obtained when they have earned an embedded certification or completed a course or program aligned to a certification exam blueprint. They must be able to communicate their skills and competencies to prospective employers. If they receive a badge as a digital representation of an earned certification, they also recognize the value of sharing that badge virtually.
  •  Colleges and universities should develop strategies to inform employers about how these programs equip learners with the skills that are needed in the labor market. This can include involving employers in the needs assessment and continuing involvement through the entire development process. By establishing ongoing relationships with employers, colleges and universities can gain knowledge about how skills are changing, what refinements are needed to the curriculum, and what new certifications have emerged that employers value.

Be aware that these six steps are just a starting point for aligning or embedding certifications into academic certificate and degree programs. There is no one right way to do it. And as more colleges and universities implement these strategies, there will be more promising practices to learn from and share.

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