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Podcast: University System of Maryland & Digital Credentials


How does a world class institution help its graduates communicate their career readiness to employers?  At the University System of Maryland, it’s through digital credentials.   Dr. MJ Bishop, Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of the William E. Kirwin Center for Academic Innovation, has lead such a comprehensive digital credentialing program that leverages the strength of multiple institutions collaborating.  In this episode, MJ explains the process of designing and implementing Maryland’s badges to help students “get better at articulating the skills that they are accomplishing along the way.”

Listen to the full interview here: 


Susan Manning:                   Welcome to the Credly podcast, where we touch base with our issuers, earners, and partners, and explore themes of interest in digital credentialing. I'm Susan Manning.

Susan Manning:                   Today I'm speaking with Dr. MJ Bishop, Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of the William E. Kirwin Center for Academic Innovation for the University System of Maryland. MJ and her colleagues have developed an elaborate digital credential program for the multiple campuses in university system. MJ is going to help explain the career readiness emphasis on these digital credentials, and I want to welcome MJ. Hello.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Thanks for having me. Hi, Susan.

Susan Manning:                   Thank you. This is a big system. Can you help us understand a little more about your digital credential program, and the vision?

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Sure, absolutely. So, you're correct. The university system in Maryland is made up of 12 very diverse four year public higher ed institutions. We have everything from three research intensive institutions, we have three HBCUs, we have an entirely online university, University of Maryland University College as well as regional comprehensives that are urban, suburban, the whole gamut. So to some degree, we're a microcosm of public higher education. The Kirwin Center does what it can to add value in ways that capitalize on our collectives strengths and our system-ness, if you will, to quote Nancy Zimpher. So, I'm always looking for projects that I feel like are things that would be more difficult for our institutions to accomplish individually, and that when we work collaboratively, add value and make them easier to accomplish.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, very early on, the Kirwin started five years ago, one of the things that I was kicking around in my mind was this idea of using badges to validate and better communicate career ready skills of our graduates. The senior vice chandler of academic affairs at the system level came to me early on and said, "I'm tired of hearing employers say our students lack career ready skills. I think they do, I think we just aren't communicating them well, or the students aren't communicating them well." So, the idea that [inaudible 00:02:31] proposition here, is if we work collectively to create a constellation of system level badges aimed at career ready skills, we can get that message out to employers a lot more quickly, I think, than if individual institutions were doing it. We had a bunch of different badges and everybody was doing their own thing.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, that's been the hypothesis here. We've been working collaboratively on this project, I would say, I'm not gonna know the exact date but I'm gonna say it as probably 2014, so it's three or four years now that we've been engaged in this conversation, and so far so good.

Susan Manning:                   The collaboration has struck me as unique. How did you pull together all of those campuses, and get the various parties to agree?

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Yeah well it began, as you can imagine, actually with me reaching out to more of the co-curricular folks. So, folks in student affairs, in the career planning offices and saying, "Hey, you know," and this was something that I learned in previous lives in higher education, that our students, they don't stop learning when they walk out of the classroom. Our students are gaining valuable educational experiences outside the classroom as well through their activities on our campuses, through their internships, their leadership in various clubs, on athletic teams and so forth. A lot of that is being lead and coordinated by our student affairs colleagues, so initially, of course I was talking to academic affairs as well, but I really reached out to those student affairs folks and said, "You know, you're already giving some thought to the value of these co-curricular experiences and trying to provide and report on them through things like co-curricular transcripts and so forth. Let's talk a look at the ways in which we might be able to use badges to accomplish much of the same thing."

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, that's where it began. Early on, most of our meetings, we had primarily student affairs folks around the table, but increasingly, we've seen interest on the academic affairs side. So, began with a lot of gen ed chair people expressing interest and saying, "Hey, I can see how this can provide a framework for us redesigning our general education curricula." We've also had interest from others that are in interdisciplinary studies, programs, and so forth that are looking for ways to again, validate and communicate in different ways the communication skills, problem solving skills, collaboration skills that students are getting as a result of having been involved in those programs.

Susan Manning:                   Without a doubt this is illustrative of the skills versus communications gap that we see when we talk about workplace readiness. Can you talk a little about the rubrics that you landed on and how that helps each campus decide when a student is ready for a particular badge?

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Sure, I'll walk you through a little bit of that, and I should also say just to round out the answer to that last question, we're not necessarily yet involving all the campuses. We always, when we're working on the system office, allow institutions to engage as they see, and need, and are interested. The good news is we have most of the campuses involved and we are increasingly seeing more join the initiative, but we're not quite at all the campuses yet. So, I just wanted to clarify that. We started, in fact it was one of the career planning folks who suggested this, we started right off the bat looking at the NACE career readiness competencies. NACE is the National Association for Colleges and Employers. It is the professional organization that most of our career planning colleagues are members of.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, NACE had already laid out the eight, at that point I think, main competencies: critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communications, and so forth. We then worked to create the mentions, as we're calling them, that add up to accomplishment of those competencies, to some degree with help from what NACE had put together, but also pulling in other rubrics like the value rubric from AAC&U, and others. There's a critical thinking organization that we tapped for some of their ideas as well, and then used that to create the standards, if you will, that all of our institutions are striving toward, but everything else beneath that is going to be up to the institutions. So, the institutions are developing their own rubrics, and of course sharing them, and I suspect there will be a lot of back and forth sharing on those rubrics.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      The institutions are developing and actually hopefully not creating new, but rather curating, existing programs on their campuses that will contribute to these badge earning pathways. The plan is, when we really get to scale, to introduce students to this opportunity to, let's say, achieve the leadership badge during their time on campus, and then to provide them with the information they need about what sorts of things along their journey through their four to six years in their degree programs, what sorts of things could they engage in that would contribute toward achievement of these badges. So, it's a somewhat scaffolded environment. It's not lockstep, however. We're envisioning that students will be able to create their own pathways as well, but it provides that guidance for students so that they can see if I want to get to the end of this and have that leadership badge, these are the things that I should engage in and accomplish between now and the time that I graduate.

Susan Manning:                   You said, "When we really get to scale." What are some of the lessons you've learned as you're building up that you would share with other campuses?

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Yeah, and I would say even, as we're building up, take it a step further. Flying the plane as we're building it to some degree and I can't express enough appreciation for my colleagues across the institutions for their willingness to live with the ambiguity sometimes in what we're trying to accomplish here. I think the single biggest issue that we're wrestling with is the assessment piece. We've heard from the regional employers and we did some work this summer to really engage them and get their feedback on what we're trying to accomplish here, and it's all been very positive so far. One message we heard loud and clear is that these badges need to be rigorous. They need to mean something. They can't just be participation badges. They want to see that we're assessing the student's involvement in these programs and that at the end of the day, we're feeling confident, and that they can feel confident that in fact these skills have been accomplished. At least at the level we would expect by the time they've left an undergraduate program.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, that assessment piece is tough. At this point we've been running small pilots with specific subsets of students, in order for us to understand things like scope and sequence. We want to be sure this doesn't add up to yet another degree. We really want it to be about connecting the dots in the students' existing experience, and helping them get better at articulating the skills that they're accomplishing along the way. So, how do we assess that? Who's gonna do that assessment? All those kinds of things are issues that we've been wrestling with, and I think is probably the single biggest hurdle that we have yet to completely solve. One thing we're doing to try to solve that is, again, to capitalize on things that already exist.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      So, if a student is engaging in a leadership program in their first year of college, and there's some sort of a certificate or something like that that they receive as a result of that, if we can align that assessment with the rubric that we're using for the badge, that can become something that was already being assessed, but can contribute to the badge and that we can now demonstrate is aligned to these larger skills that we're trying to see them achieve by the time they've finished their degree programs. So, we're looking at things like that, that will help that assessment piece, but that's gonna be a continuing challenge for us I think.

Susan Manning:                   You are going to publish all of this, right?

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Oh, yeah.

Susan Manning:                   I'm looking forward to reading that.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Right now, everything we're dong we're openly licensing. It is available on the Kirwin Center website, and you know how that goes. You're so busy doing the work it's not often easy to find the time to write things up, but we're doing the best we can [inaudible 00:11:18] as much as possible. Of course, always available to chat with folks if they're interested.

Susan Manning:                   Thank you for offering that. Much of what you said regarding the challenge of assessment just reminds me when I began working with digital credentials years ago. Having come from a world of instructional design, it seemed like it was good instructional design but very thin sliced. So, looking at what the outcomes or the objectives are, and how you will assess, and then what experiences build toward that is how you've really built your program.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      Yeah, and again, really trying to strike that balance of being rigorous but yet not being another major for the students. We want to strike that balance, and there's a sweet spot in there somewhere that we're always looking for.

Susan Manning:                   Well MJ, thank you for sharing this story with us today. We'll continue to track your progress, and maybe check back with you in a little while to see how it's going.

Dr. MJ Bishop:                      I'd be happy to jump on this again. Thank you.

Susan Manning:                   Great, thank you.

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