How one nonprofit wants to help colleges teach soft skills

by Jeremy

Education Design Lab, a nonprofit that has pioneered digital badges for soft skills, is launching a micro-credential platform. Called vsbl (pronounced: visible), it will let colleges embed eight badges covering interpersonal and communication skills such as collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking into their courses.

These micro-credentials signal to employers that prospective hires have the soft skills necessary to succeed in entry-level positions. Yet, company leaders often say these are the very skills recent college graduates lack.

Around 40% of recruiters said job candidates didn’t have communication skills, while 30% said the same of critical thinking skills, according to a 2019 survey from software firm Ellucian. Recruiters are also seeking problem-solving, adaptability, and time-management skills, research in 2017 from recruiting software provider iCIMS found.

EDL worked with around a dozen colleges to pilot the platform. Higher Ed Dive spoke with Don Fraser Jr., EDL’s chief program officer, to learn more about vsbl and where he sees opportunities for micro-credentials in higher education.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

HIGHER ED DIVE: What problem is vsbl attempting to solve? 

FRASER: We’re trying to solve the challenge for learning providers to be intentional about acquiring, practicing, and displaying 21st-century skills or soft skills. Up until now, it’s been chiefly done implicitly through courses, but that hasn’t been enough.

We know from what employers say about who’s coming through the door and whether they have these skills.

Regarding the work done implicitly, why do you think that has fallen short of employer expectations? 

Schools don’t know, to an exact degree, what employers are looking for about these skills. And often, job descriptions aren’t articulate about what they’re looking for. They use broad language: “I need people who are good at oral communication or teamwork.” That’s not enough to do any backward mapping.

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Optional CaptionPermission granted by Don Fraser Jr.

If you’re looking at that job description, then you’re wondering, “Well, how do I get better at that? What have I done that aligns to that desired qualification?” So we have a communication problem.

On the academic side, instructors need to cover a lot of technical content, and these skills tend to get overlooked. I may be teaching a course where I assign oral presentations, but that doesn’t mean the learner is building verbal communication skills, such as listening actively and using appropriate tone and word choice. If you’re not calling that out, and you’re just asking somebody to do a presentation, then they don’t connect the dots.

How long does it take for students to earn their badges? 

That depends on how the school implements them. If they put one in part of a course, it would probably be based on a semester. If they do it as a standalone offering, it could take around eight weeks — it all depends. We wanted to make the badges flexible so colleges could decide how they wanted to integrate them.

Are employers becoming more familiar with what these badges mean? 

Employers are getting hip to the idea of different types of credentials. Whether they’re seeing many of them in the application pools or asking for them is another story, so there is still education to be done for sure.

What did EDL learn from piloting the platform with colleges? 

We learned there is a hunger from institutions to figure out how to embed these skills more explicitly in courses or programs. They’re recognizing we’re about to enter into a historically tight job market, and students who aren’t equipped with these skills will be at a disadvantage.

Are the schools that participated in the pilot continuing to offer these badges? 

Most of them are. A number of them hit pause due to COVID-19, but most are moving forward. Some are scaling, and others are looking at new opportunities. Maybe they tested in a particular department, and now they want to move into another department.

Frequently, it’s going to be about the interest from faculty or the call from the world of work to say, “Hey, in this healthcare space, we need more students who have empathy.” And you hear those faculty members who are plugged in asking, “How are we going to do this?”

Which colleges do you think will be most willing to embed these badges into their curricula? 

You’d like to think everybody would see the need, right? But the reality is, we see the most appetite in the continuing education space. Those folks are hearing directly from employers all the time about, “Hey, please offer a course so our workers can take it.” So a lot of folks recognize that this could help with revenue.

Some liberal arts institutions also recognize that this needs to be a narrative we’re adopting — that liberal arts, in many ways, is about acquiring these skills. We need to have a little more alignment with the workforce.

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