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Micro-credential, big payoff

<p>Micro-credentials have emerged as an ideal way for working professionals to become proficient in a specific area through short, non-credit courses that culminate in a competency-based badge. Photo credit: Shutterstock</p>

Micro-credentials have emerged as an ideal way for working professionals to become proficient in a specific area through short, non-credit courses that culminate in a competency-based badge. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast that showcases the student success, teaching excellence and groundbreaking research taking place at the University of Florida.

Micro-credentials have emerged as an ideal way to become proficient in a specific knowledge area. In this episode, Regina Rodriguez, provost fellow for professional education, explains UF's approach to micro-credentials, particularly in the realm of AI. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, James Sullivan and Emma Richards. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: From agriculture to healthcare and manufacturing to finance, artificial intelligence is transforming the economy and giving businesses a competitive edge by helping them improve their products and services. Many working professionals, as well as new workers entering the job market are looking for ways to keep up with the reshaped economy while also gaining a competitive edge by updating their skills, which leads us to micro-credentials. They've emerged as an ideal way to gain skills and knowledge in specific areas. Our guest today knows a lot about the benefits of micro-credentials, especially as they relate to the University of Florida's comprehensive approach to AI. Regina Rodriguez is UF provost fellow for professional education. Welcome, Regina.

Regina Rodriguez: Welcome. Thank you so much for having me here.

Nicci Brown: For those of us who may not know, what exactly is a micro-credential?

Regina Rodriguez: So micro-credential, many of us don't know what a microcredential is. It is such a new form of professional development option that everybody's using in the industry. So I think in this specific realm, the main goal was to be able to offer some of these same courses to industry professionals. So we're here educating our undergrads with these very interesting, thought-provoking courses in artificial intelligence.

So a micro-credential is a short form of professional development option that allows individuals that have time limitations to create a time efficient and affordable option to develop an understanding of a new skill or continuing education in a given subject. It really satisfies the needs for the workplace to remain competitive and by ensuring employees are continuing to develop their own capabilities.

This option is really great for employers wanting to provide upskilling opportunities to their employees without having the employee go out for two years to pursue a master's degree, or for the employee to be sitting at their job and taking several three to four credit courses during any specific semester. So it becomes a very time-efficient way of getting the learning, specifically if we don't necessarily have the background in computer science, for example.

The really neat thing about this micro-credential is that it allows somebody that doesn't have a background in computer science or perhaps even in engineering to pick up something that they may or may not be interested in. So it allows that pathway for those that may want to pursue and become experts in this in the future to either pursue a full master's degree later on or to pursue even a Ph.D. So depending on which framework they decide to go down that direction.

Nicci Brown: And I'm guessing that because it's offered by the university there is some uniformity, and that gives employers and employees something that they know that they're getting a certain framework there, that this is something that has been accredited.

Regina Rodriguez: 100%. So the university has done a lot of work to be able to understand what other programs, other universities in this arena, in the micro-credentialing arena, and what we call continuing education credits, CEUs, for example, how to package them in a way that learners, what we call learners, because they're not students, they're industry professionals, or faculty or government entities that may want to learn a little bit more, how do we give them this way to showcase?

And one of the really neat things about the way that we have packaged these micro-credentials is that there's three short courses that the learner would have to take to earn a micro-credential. And the basis for this micro-credential is mimicked towards how a certificate at the University of Florida for undergraduates would be, where they take a fundamentals course. So those that may not have any understanding of AI or machine learning or data science can get up to speed, understand the vocabulary and how they are going to be able to implement it.

They also take an ethics course. So these are two foundational courses, Fundamentals of AI and Ethics of AI. And one of the key things for the University of Florida, as we are trying to build this AI university and become a global, really exposing the university and its constituents to AI, is doing it on the basis of the ethics part. And many other programs that are teaching machine learning or coding are really missing that piece. And I think this is where the University of Florida is really at the forefront of this leadership where ethics is so important and how to use this data ethically.

The machine that is quantifying these programs or managing the data don't have a human empathetic or a human understanding of what is right and what is wrong. So this Ethics of AI course really starts to create discussions around what is ethical and how the data get interpreted. One of the key examples there is how machine learning is used in warfare, and what happens when an unethical warfare person starts to use this data for negative outcomes. So that's important too.

The other piece where ethics is really important is in the judicial system. How is data being quantified and how do you detect a Black male or a white female or Hispanic person in terms of data imaging? And how do you quantify them into buckets of information? And what do you do with that information then later?

So those are the main two courses that become part of the micro-credential and the foundations to start to get external industry professionals to be thinking about this.

And then the last course is an applications course. So that's the third piece of the micro-credential. And that's where you have a lot of flexibility. And that's where this micro-credential really starts to target just about anybody, anybody from engineering, which would be where AI people typically think AI is developed and applied. But then you have, like you started mentioning, agriculture, healthcare, infrastructure, building and design, businesses. How does supply chain use AI and implement it?

So anybody from any of those interest groups that want to integrate AI into their way of life, into their thinking, into being able to pivot. For example, if you're at a job and you're kind of a little bit tired of what you're doing and you see this AI transformational Fourth Industrial Revolution, which people are talking about, you want to be part of it.

So you take an AI micro-credential in business, for example, and that's your applications course. And we have faculty from every of these colleges that developed these modules and content for these courses that can be taken asynchronously. So listening to audio or video at your own time and convenience. Or you can choose to do that in a hybrid form where you're engaging with faculty via Zoom. And these are the same faculty that are teaching undergraduates and graduate students here at the university.

So it's a really nice way to showcase what the university is doing and then create partnerships. I think the faculty really enjoys it. The feedback from the faculty has been that they learned from their learners, their students. We had one of the short courses, one of the 15-hour short courses that ran in early January was the Ethics of AI course. And we have faculty from the philosophy department and they're engaging with computer scientists in the field that have their doctorate degree and have been doing data imaging. And these folks don't necessarily know much about philosophy. And the philosopher doesn't know much about engineering.

So they're talking about cell phones and what the impact of cell phones have been in their lives. And so it starts to really ponder some philosophical ideas that that computer scientist may have never really thought about because he's looking at data, he's been tasked with a job, and his goal is to execute. But now he has this little person behind his ear thinking about, hey, I learned this in this ethics class.

As part of that ethics class, the final project, which was to build an ethical evaluation for your company. So most of the learners were part of a company. And one of these companies, one of the learners from the company, took that ethical proposal to their CEO. And that's one of the things that they wanted to further engage back with the rest of the team and that company to be able to build that ethical awareness. And this is one of the major AI leaders in the United States taking some of these courses and really building their understanding as well.

Regina Rodriguez in Headshot

Regina Rodriguez is UF provost fellow for professional education.

Nicci Brown: So speaking of those interactions, which that's one of the things I think people often talk about with the University of Florida, is it's such a broad offering, but so deep as well. And so you do have these wonderful collisions of people bringing knowledge together. But when these credentials were being developed, how much input was there from industry? How did we go about forming them?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. So from an industry perspective, when these courses were developed, it was at the same time when faculty were developing the courses for the AI certificate that students can take as undergrads. So at the University of Florida, if you're an undergrad student from any major, any college, you can choose to engage in this certificate. This is in addition to your bachelor's degree. And then you graduate with a nine-credit certificate.

So the faculty that we're building courses for that certificate were tapped and said, "Hey, you are doing research in this arena, and we would like for you to develop a short content of video information." And then being able to have some learning mechanisms. So we worked with instructional design teams that basically work with our UF online programs or our top UF online program. Those instructional designers were the ones that designed these short courses.

So the faculty that are conducting research in these areas are working with industry professionals. So NVIDIA was one of them. So within NVIDIA's donation, they have a very strong educational goal and component here at the university. So they wanted to make sure that we had all of that support. So NVIDIA has been a huge supporter of that. Companies like L3Harris and IBM, smaller companies like Agreview, here in the state of Florida that are doing agricultural development of robots to look at strawberries, for example, and data imaging.

So some of these Florida companies are UF grads. One of the companies down in Tampa, the main CEO is a UF graduate. And he joined one of the classes and was a guest lecturer in some of the content that was developed. So really bridging the UF faculty research, which could be to some extent, very scientific-driven, how to integrate that and implement that and bridge the gap to the actual application here that people are working on, and something that can be commercially viable and commercially used. So those are some of the really great partnerships that we've seen.

Some folks that have taken the short courses, have engaged further with the faculty. So we've brought them onto campus. And some of them are now funding faculty research, so industry-sponsored research. And it's a really great way to create that bridge from a research perspective. And then helping faculty take that research that they're doing and making it a commercially viable opportunity as well.

Nicci Brown: And I should note that the university is ranked as the number one public in terms of translating research into the marketplace. So this is not an unusual thing for the University of Florida.

Regina Rodriguez: No, no. And I think it creates another pathway to educate those that have graduated. Myself, I did my undergrad and Ph.D here at the University of Florida, but when I did that back in 2009, this program of artificial intelligence was not present. I did my Ph.D in environmental sciences and air pollution control, and I loved data. I am the kind of person that makes decisions based off of data and informational processes, and how to best understand potential outcomes. And I wish that as I was coming through my undergrad and Ph.D, I had the opportunity to do this.

So I think one of the targets is somebody like me, somebody that has gone into the world and started companies, or is building new programs in technology, coming back and taking this very short four-week course, and now being better educated, and by the university that gave you the degree, a top five university where top university and online learning, that's where it comes really nicely to be able to showcase that.

And then it starts to allow you to think, okay, now that I've taken this class, do I want to learn a little bit more? Do I want to become a further expert? These short courses are not going to make you an expert in any specific field. It's going to give you a really nice breadth of understanding. And then it's up to you, how you continue to take these short courses and further engage on the secondary course, the third course and perhaps even be engaged in conducting a master's degree in AI, or going out and working with a specific advisor and earning a Ph.D. There's so many students that come back and get their Ph.D after they've been working in the industry for 10 years.

Nicci Brown: Well, let's talk a little bit more about those students who are taking this. Because you're right, things are changing so quickly now. You mentioned that AI wasn't even something that was taught when you were here doing your undergraduate degree and then moving through to your Ph.D. But who are some of the other people that really benefit from these micro-credentials and who you're seeing interest from?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. No, that's a great question. So like I mentioned, typically you have students that already have a bachelor's degree, that are out in the workforce, and perhaps their company is asking them to engage in, "Hey, we're going to be doing this in AI and we want you to be better educated." Typically, the company will make that request. And if they make that request, they will likely pay for that micro-credential.

There's also the students that are looking to pivot. So they're in this job and they've been doing it for some time, perhaps they're bored, they want something to spice up their career, and AI is one of those that they may make a little bit more money. They may have more flexibility, potentially maybe even to work from home. I know that's a big thing as well as you transition from job to job. So maybe it's those that want to learn a little bit more and enhance their knowledge.

The second piece is those that are already in something like the military. The military is really trying to educate not only their armed forces, but their civilians. And that may be a really great place for them to engage in something that's very short time. I mean, if you're out stationed in another country, you're not going to be able to log in for a 7 o’clock class here. So watching some videos, asynchronously, and being part of this online learning, may be the best suited way.

We've also had industry leaders, so CEOs of multi-million dollar companies, engage in specifically the ethics course, which allows them to understand. I mean, as business leaders and you may have a business background, you may not necessarily understand or be comfortable to engage with your experts in your team to know what decisions you're making. And some of those decisions may be driven very nicely by, okay, now we're not going to be selling a product, we're going to be selling a service. Or we're not only selling a service, we're selling a lifetime of data collection.

So that really changes the business side. And they may not understand that and feel that they may not be well-suited to engage with them, or how do you make decisions and feel confident.

So I think that educational background may really help some of that C-Suite team that may not have gone through an engineering background and feels kind of like that imposter syndrome. Like, "Oh, I'm running this company, but do I really know what the best outcome is knowing all of the intricacies behind it?"

Nicci Brown: What kind of support does someone have when they're taking these microcredentials? Of course, as you mentioned, they could be in another country, completely different time zones. So if they see something, they're like, "I just don't quite get it," what can they do?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. If they are engaged in the course. So we're running the courses out of our Canvas site. So any UF student would be having access to a Canvas site where they have additional resources, they have quizzes or assignments and they'd have direct access to the instructor that developed that course. So whether it's the hybrid course where they get to talk to a professor once a week for an hour at a time, and the professor will lecture through Zoom and they can also have office hours. So that direct communication with the instructor is present.

We also have a team at the Office of Professional Development Workforce here at the University of Florida. And that team is fantastic about being able to mentor these learners in terms of like, "Hey, we have these courses, this is how you would package them. These are the upcoming courses that are coming about." We typically host webinars and info sessions before launching any of the synchronous lectures and synchronous courses so that people can have an opportunity to meet the professor and understand the expectations of the course.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like a very robust system. How and when did this program get started?

Regina Rodriguez: Well about this time last year.

Nicci Brown: Oh my goodness.

Regina Rodriguez: About this time last year, probably early summer of last year in 2021, the provost felt like this was one of the key missing pieces in the AI vision that he had for the university, how to educate and properly train the workforce. And he was thinking about the state of Florida. We thought about, well, why not the entire world? And that's where some of the courses came in where you didn't have to come to campus, you didn't have to come to a specific facility to be educated on these.

So we worked with a faculty through all of last summer. So we had faculty here during the summer developing and building the instructional design, working with video and audio through the COIP Center, which creates the content for the videos. And then we started delivering the short courses. The first short course started in September of last year, so just about one year from today, we launched the first short course. And since then, we have probably over 3,000 learners to date.

The way that the courses are set up is that we developed each of these seven courses in three different modalities. There's a one-hour, a four-hour and a 15-hour modality for each of the courses. So say that you only wanted to gain a little bit of understanding, kind of just taste the palette and then understand what it was, the one-hour short course is actually offered for free. So that one-hour modality for all seven short courses, anybody can take.

If you're here in the state of Florida, if you're in Kenya, if you're in China. So that one-hour, there's seven one-hour courses that can be taken at no cost. The focus there was to engage as many people as possible with this understanding and the way that the courses were going to be delivered.

Then there's a four-hour asynchronous content that you can sign up for as well. That's where you start earning credentials, so continuing education units. And then the 15-hour course. So the four and the 15 hour are for-pay, and anybody can sign up for those at any point in time. There's no application to become a UF student. There's no registration. It's very simple, and all you have to do is have a credit card and a way to log in to the internet and you can quickly gain access to the content.

And once you complete the content, you will earn a badge which will have the certification from the University of Florida. And you can showcase that badge on your LinkedIn, on your Facebook, any online system, online resume, digital resume that now have this licensing program that, okay, now you go on your LinkedIn and it has this microcredential or completion for this class that you may have had a background in business, but now you're certified in this microcredential in AI, so you at least have some involvement and an understanding of where you want to go forward.

Nicci Brown: Could you give us a sense of where the students are coming from? You mentioned a variety of countries there. Do you have any sense of where our students are?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. No, the majority of the students, our marketing effort has been mostly here in the state of Florida and in the Southeast region. So the University of Florida has a partnership with all Southeast, SEC universities. So we've been really trying to gain that Southeast region.

However, a couple of months ago in April, we partnered with a company led by Microsoft. It's called Flapmax. And their learners came from Kenya in Africa. So we had learners enrolled in five-hour time difference. And so they were engaged in the agriculture and life sciences short course, because they were looking at startup companies in Kenya being able to build and understand AI frameworks to develop these small opportunities. So that was a really interesting way to engage with some of those learners.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned the cost. What can students expect to pay?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. So when we were designing what the cost would be, there was a lot of market research done at what other universities are doing. So obviously you can go on Coursera and take on several courses in AI, data science, and become that person. I think these courses are for those that want to learn a little bit more and be engaged. So it has that flexibility of faculty engagement.

The four-hour course in which you can earn a 0.4 CEUs or continuing education units is priced at $249. And that's pretty competitive in terms of costs per CEU. And the 15-hour course is $1,095. So $1,095 for 1.5 continuing education units. And the combination of three 15-hour courses, so for a total of about $3,500 to $4,000, you can earn a micro-credential. And so that's pretty competitive in terms of what other universities are offering for professional development versus what workforce and small technical courses may be in the industry.

Nicci Brown: Are you seeing growth across the landscape in terms of interest in microcredentials?

Regina Rodriguez: Yes. Yes. I think that there is a lot of growth. So there's one pretty large professional development conference and entity that monitors a lot of the micro-credentials. And the micro-credentials are used in different ways. One of the interesting thing is that there isn't much regulation. So for example, if you gain a bachelor's in your undergrad, there is a lot of understanding that one bachelor's for one university could be comparable to another university. Perhaps the university ranking is different.

Here, the micro-credentials are starting to gain some uniformity. And that's probably going to take a little bit more time. But what the University of Florida is trying to do is be that forefront on developing the expectations and the standard for what a microcredential is and what courses may lend themselves well, and the combination of courses to get you a microcredential as well.

Nicci Brown: And we've talked about AI micro-credentials, but what about other topics or areas of expertise? Are there any plans to expand there as well?

Regina Rodriguez: So the University of Florida built this AI micro-credential to mimic a micro-credential for a credential builder for engineers out of the College of Engineering. So several professors and the directors for professional development out of engineering built this probably about three years ago. The main goal was to engage with engineers that graduated with an engineering degree, but had limited communication and leadership skills.

So the first micro-credential out of this department was a leadership for engineers micro-credential. And there again, you didn't have to come back to campus to take a full degree. And you can do this asynchronously at your own time. So that was one of the first ones.

The Office of Workforce and Professional Development also offers micro-credentials in diversity, equity and inclusion, and some in cyber security. So it's a little bit tangential, but I think that starts to lend way for how we start to offer and build that consistency in micro-credentialing.

Nicci Brown: Just to close, can you share some stories about notable companies or people who have participated in the program? What have you heard from the participants thus far?

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. We actually have a couple of feedback from some of these companies. One of them is a CEO for an AI company, and they do a lot of data management for genomics. And he was a past IBM employee and leader, and felt like one of the ethics of AI course, which was the one that he participated in, was fantastic. And he actually has recommended several other business leaders to take the course as well.

The other company is very highly engaged in this, and actually when they presented this course to their employees, they were oversubscribed. So we had a hundred people from this company trying to sign up for the same course. And we typically try to limit the synchronous course, the hybrid course, to no more than 30 people, because then it becomes a pretty significant burden for the instructor.

So this company is very excited about one of the course offerings that's coming back up, deep learning for artificial intelligence. And that one really focuses on data imaging and how they can implement that.

So I think overall it's starting to build momentum. And the main goal is to continue to integrate some of the great research and great instructional design that the faculty here at the university are doing.

One of the additional courses that we are going to be integrating in the next couple of months is AI and medicine, so applications of AI and medicine. And then separately applications of AI as they relate to the HiPerGator. And the HiPerGator is one that within NVIDIA's donation, we have been able to expand its accessibility to not only the University of Florida, but to the junior colleges here in Florida, and to the Southeastern Conference University. So being able to understand how to use a HiPerGator, because you may have it in place. So that training is also going to be housed out of this micro-credential, which is really exciting.

Nicci Brown: And the HiPerGator, of course, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the nation. And I think one of certainly the most powerful owned by a university, or fully owned by a university.

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah, no, it's very, very exciting. It has given faculty and students the ability to take their research up to the next level.

Nicci Brown: Regina, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a true pleasure.

Regina Rodriguez: Yeah. Thank you so much for your time.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams. Our technical producer is James Sullivan. And our editorial assistant is Emma Richards. I hope you'll tune in next week.

From Florida October 11, 2022