“By 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree” – that was the overarching goal of the 2015 Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan known as 60x30TX.
The state’s 2022 plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas, aspires to the same goal, but includes more adult learners: “at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-64 will have a postsecondary credential of value by 2030.”
Luke Dowden, Chief Online Learning Officer/Associate Vice Chancellor for the Alamo Colleges District and its AlamoOnline division, comprised of five community colleges in the San Antonio region, has been on a mission to meet that 60×30 goal sooner rather than later. That path opened up in early 2019 when Dowden and two of his District colleagues, Instructional Designer Amber O’Casey and Online Learning Coordinator Eryn Berger, joined forces with the Education Design Lab (the Lab) and Goodwill San Antonio to launch UpSkill SA! in partnership with Palo Alto College. Their work is focused on the creation of meaningful additions to the district’s catalog of noncredit digital badges and for-credit, stackable, certificate programs that now typically include courses embedded with badges.
UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill frontline employees (called team members) tuition-paid enrollment in a series of three non-credit online badges in resilience, collaboration, and creative problem solving — called “SkillsBooster” — and a 21-credit Level 1 Certificate in Logistics Management that incorporates the creative problem-solving badge into the first course of the certificate program. As noted on the UpSkill SA! project website, the idea was to “quickly upskill incumbent retail workers to prepare them for careers in Advanced Manufacturing and other growth sectors that can enable their social mobility.”
Dowden explained the entire UpSkill SA! effort was well thought-out with a highly supportive Goodwill staff comprised of professional counselors, a career navigator, and an enrollment coach that worked in concert with Palo Alto College enrollment professionals. “An advising team of faculty and program coordinators were ready to work,” Dowden added. “Goodwill would do the internal marketing and vetting, and then their career navigator would begin working with our enrollment coaches to get them [team members] through the admissions process so they would not get hung up there.”
Alamo Colleges Boost Badges + Certificates
Their efforts thus far have been hugely successful, despite being severely waylaid by the pandemic. For instance, a Goodwill San Antonio Digital Literacy program, which helps potential enrollees garner the foundational digital skills needed for studying online, was developed and implemented through lessons learned during the piloting and launching of UpSkill SA! in 2019. More significantly, UpSkill SA’s development of its SkillsBooster and the Level 1 Certificate programs became the spring board that helped to enable the entire Alamo Colleges District to boost the integration of more marketable skills badges into academic courses.
“The certificate program, which was really our first attempt at embedding marketable skills badges into academic coursework, has exponentially expanded our work,” Berger said. “Now we have an initiative called Course + Badge [launched in the summer of 2020], where we train our faculty on how to embed digital skills badges into our academic courses, and they are the Education Design Lab badges.”
Through Course + Badge, faculty undergo a semester-long training that teaches them how to map competencies and embed marketable skills badges into their academic courses, and about 100 faculty have completed the training to date. After successfully completing the training, they become credentialed badge specialists who can offer marketable skills badges in all their courses.
All this work has led to some impressive results. For example, in late 2019 and early 2020, 54 Goodwill employees earned a total of 72 badges through UpSkill SA’s SkillsBooster digital badges program offered at Palo Alto College. Since then, 1,258 skills badges have been earned by students through the scaling up of digital badge offerings throughout the entire Alamo Colleges District, with 851 digital badges earned during the Fall 2021 semester alone. “We’re getting really positive feedback,” Berger said. “It’s helping us to socialize badges around the district.”
“We reorganized our team with people dedicated just to the development and support of micro-credentials at the Alamo Colleges,” added Dowden. Working with Goodwill San Antonio through UpSkill SA! “really influenced what we are doing, and we are excited about it. We think you need to be able to have something as evidence that you have skills, and our students are confirming that.”
“I took this course while applying for new jobs,” said a working adult learner who earned a resilience badge during the summer 2021. “Believe it or not, the exercises forced me to really think about my previous experiences. I had an interview a few days ago and I was so relaxed and confident because of the exercises. The interviewer loved me, and I start my new position on Monday.”
Another learner who completed the Goodwill SkillsBooster program said “the experience brought to light strengths and knowledge that I did not know I possessed. During the exercises I often found myself sharing the reference articles and questions with others. Writing out the responses helped me reflect on how I handle situations. Multiple times I was able to apply what I learned directly to things actively occurring in the workplace.”
“I was able to go to work every day and help my team members on how they can meet their goals,” said another Goodwill employee who completed the SkillsBooster program. “It felt great.”