Muzzy Lane

How to Empower Recent College Graduates with Soft Skills and Microcredentials

An interview with David McCool, President & CEO at Muzzy Lane

Q: Why did Muzzy Lane decide to focus on soft skills? What are soft skills, and why do they matter?

Our journey into the world of soft skills began about three years ago when we connected with Education Design Lab (EDL). They had done a lot of work with employers in community colleges on mapping in-demand skills regionally across the United States. Among those skills were what they referred to as "21st-century skills" (also known as “soft skills”), which included critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

There’s an idiom that people get hired for hard skills and fired for soft skills. As an employer who has hired many individuals, I understand that evaluating soft skills can be challenging. Students often graduate with valuable soft skills, but they may not always stand out in the resume screening process because hard skills are easier to measure. However, if employers can figure it out and hire a person who has greater soft skills, those hires tend to last.

That’s where we come in. Muzzy Lane has a long history in the education sector, mainly focusing on simulations and game-based learning.

The idea of using simulations came out of the desire to help automate manual assessments and make them more available and less expensive. EDL initially came to us looking to automate the assessment of those soft skills because traditional methods relying on manual evaluations were both expensive and time-consuming. That's how we got started.

The more we got into it, the more we realized that simulations were a great match for assessing and developing soft skills. We noticed a broader trend—a shift towards skills-based learning, training, and hiring, along with the rise of microcredentials. The National Education Association defines microcredentials as “short, competency-based recognition that allows an educator to demonstrate mastery in a particular area.”

Soft skills were not served by existing solutions. There was a lack of effective methods for students to practice and enhance these skills and for employers to assess and credential them in a meaningful way.

In response to these insights, we have spent the last three years working with EDL. This collaboration has focused on improving their existing solutions and bringing some of our own to the market as well.

Q: Do you work with universities or students?

We work with both, but our primary focus has been on higher education institutions. Currently, we are in the process of piloting critical thinking courses, collaborating with both two-year and four-year schools. Many universities are showing a growing interest in integrating content modules into online bachelor's degree programs that grant microcredentials.

As students go through a bachelor's degree, they collect microcredentials along the way for two reasons.

  1. They accumulate microcredentials that provide a detailed record of what they have learned. These microcredentials are valuable assets for graduates to showcase their skills to potential employers.
  2. Those who may not complete their bachelor's degrees - which is a significant portion of students - will still exit with valuable credentials that can boost their career prospects.

In addition to higher education, we are exploring opportunities in corporate learning environments. Soft skills play a crucial role in the corporate world, and there is a growing demand for credentials within corporate training programs. These credentials are used for internal mobility and career growth among employees.

We are also exploring direct-to-consumer commercial distribution platforms like Territorium and Coursera. These platforms allow us to provide valuable credentials directly to consumers.

Q: Is education going in the direction of microcredentials, or do bachelor's degrees still matter?

The direction of education is evolving, but the value of bachelor's degrees is still significant. As long as you get a degree, you will make it through many filters and have an opportunity to get in the door. The challenge arises for those who don't complete their degrees. This includes individuals with some college experience but no degree (around 40.4 million Americans) and those who acquire skills through alternative routes (about 75 million Americans).

Regarding the trajectory of microcredentials, there has been a shift in recent years. Two years ago, the conversation often revolved around microcredentials competing with traditional degrees in higher education. However, the current trend leans more towards integrating microcredentials into degree pathways. While standalone microcredentials still have their place, there's a growing consensus that degrees should incorporate microcredentials.

For example, institutions such as Western Governors University are leading the way by skill-mapping every course in their programs. They are working towards credentialing against these skills maps. This means that when students complete their education, they not only receive a degree but also a palette of specific skills. Employers can then match these skills to their job requirements, creating a more precise and transparent hiring process. Candidates can identify skill gaps and work on acquiring the missing skills to become stronger candidates for their desired positions.

Q: Do you think traditional universities might shift towards offering multiple credentials alongside a bachelor's degree for the same tuition price?

Yes, this concept has already been evolving over the past few years. Initially, there was concern and resistance to this idea in higher education. Then, it started to be seen as a potential strategy for student retention and providing more value. Now, it seems like we're moving in the direction where a bachelor's degree should naturally include skills credentials as part of the package.

Q: How can young professionals interested in education explore career opportunities in EdTech?

The education field has undergone significant growth and transformation in recent years. In the past, individuals interested in education went into teaching or major publishing companies like McGraw Hill or Pearson.

Today, EdTech is a viable sector with many career prospects right out of school. The industry has a plethora of startups, substantial venture capital investments, and even unicorn companies like Coursera. This shift has created opportunities for fulfilling careers with competitive salary growth within education technology companies.

We’re also seeing a convergence between traditional publishers and content companies. Traditional publishers are becoming more focused on developing platforms, tools, and content, while EdTech companies are exploring innovative ways to deliver online education cost-effectively. This convergence offers a wide range of career opportunities for individuals interested in the education space, and it's not limited to teaching or traditional publishing roles.

Q: What skills and backgrounds are in demand for EdTech roles?

The field is diverse, offering opportunities for various backgrounds. Software engineering is in demand, whether you have a bachelor's degree or technical training from a bootcamp. There's a lot of opportunity to do software development, especially cloud-based software development.

AI expertise is also increasingly relevant. Specialized skills in pedagogy, assessment, and content delivery are needed. Some individuals with liberal arts backgrounds gain expertise in assessment theory at places like Educational Testing Service (ETS) or focus on curriculum development with EdTech companies.

EdTech is a broad field, much like other tech industries today. The pandemic has accelerated its growth and investment.

One noticeable trend is the significant diversification of EdTech. Twenty years ago, most roles fell into a few categories, such as K-12 educators, college professors, or materials development at publishers. However, today, you'll find opportunities in tutoring, mentoring, apprenticeships, and virtual apprenticeships, reflecting the dynamic nature of the industry.

Q: What is your perspective on gamification in education? Is it a trend, or does it genuinely enhance learning?

Coming from a background in software engineering and computer science, our approach to education was influenced by the shift to digital materials and online learning. We believed that if educational content was transitioning into software, it needed to be more than just words on screens – it had to be active.

In traditional education, active learning involves group projects, classroom activities, and field trips. At Muzzy Lane, we wanted to replicate this active learning experience in the digital realm. Gamification is one term associated with this approach, but it goes beyond mere games.

In the skills-based education landscape we're in today, it comes down to two crucial aspects. First, it offers opportunities for practice, allowing students to apply the skills they are learning in school and use them in their daily lives. Second, it provides authentic assessment, evaluating students' ability to apply these skills in relevant and meaningful contexts. Simulations, games, and active content do that really well.

Gamification, in the traditional sense, often involves reward and progression systems resembling video games in the educational journey. We incorporate this concept, but we've taken it a step further by introducing “jobification.”

Instead of earning stars or points, we connect students to employment data. As they progress through our skills-based courses, they move along a well-defined skills map. It's mapped to open standards and open frameworks. We can then map that over to Lightcast O*Net, pull data in, and say, “You’ve just mastered these three skills, and these are the opportunities that have opened up for you.” This “jobification” keeps students engaged and motivated by showing them the real-world opportunities they're unlocking with their newly acquired skills.

Q: With all this infrastructure being developed, how do you envision the career exploration, job finding, and hiring process changing in the next decade?

The holy grail of the skills movement would be to have job postings and resumes centered around skills rather than traditional qualifications like a bachelor's degree and years of experience. This would allow for a more efficient matching process, helping individuals find jobs that align with their skills and identifying skill gaps they need to bridge to reach their desired roles.

While achieving this in full within ten years may be aggressive, I believe we'll see a shift away from overly valuing bachelor's degrees and a broader acceptance of alternative pathways. The focus will be on expanding the labor pool and promoting equity, ensuring that people without a bachelor's degree have opportunities in these career paths.

At the very least, we will witness the rise of skill-denominated resumes and job descriptions. They won't replace traditional methods entirely, but they'll play a more significant role in the matching process than they do today.

Q: What advice would you give someone who is graduating right now and is trying to get their next job?

My advice has remained consistent over the years: get real experience.

Throughout my career as a hiring manager, I've always emphasized the importance of having real experience on your resume that shows you can do what we need you to do. While a degree is valuable and demonstrates certain qualities, practical experience is equally crucial.

Look for apprenticeships, internships, summer jobs, or even virtual experiences that are meaningful. For example, if you can point to a complex marketing simulation where you introduced a product to a market and achieved positive results, that's a valuable addition to your resume. In essence, practical experience continues to be the best way to stand out.

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