Workforce Update: Going Virtual – Defining Quality for Online Training Programs

By Rachel Vilsack, November 11, 2020

Unemployment rates for workers across all levels of educational attainment increased substantially due to the pandemic, but adult workers without a college degree have been disproportionately impacted with unemployment remaining at nearly double the rates for those with a four-year degree. To ensure an inclusive economic recovery, we need to invest in quality training that leads to sustainable careers for those who have been hurt the most by this pandemic recession. For adult workers who want to retrain for careers in in-demand sectors, online training programs can offer greater flexibility and affordability to a short-term credential. While the trend towards online learning had been growing long before the pandemic changed the way education needed to be delivered, it now represents the preferred way that adults want to connect to training options.

However, the explosive growth of online learning has made it tough for learners, employers, and public policymakers to gauge the quality of these thousands of options. A quality assurance process can benefit states who need a way to effectively and efficiently allocate limited financial resources to training programs for displaced workers who need to reskill. Quality criteria can also help states address racial and other equity gaps by providing more pathways into quality postsecondary education and training and good jobs for people of color, thereby ensuring an inclusive economic recovery.

Defining Quality

In 2019, National Skills Coalition worked with 12 states to review how they were using employment, earnings, and competencies to set quality standards for credentials. The analysis – and feedback from research and advocacy organizations with expertise in higher education and workforce policy, including those with a racial equity mission – led to the development of a vetted consensus definition of quality non-degree credentials that can be evaluated through data.

The four key criteria for defining quality non-degree credentials:

  • There must be evidence of substantial job opportunities associated with the credential. Evidence must include quantitative data and direct communication with employers.
  • There must be transparent evidence of the competencies mastered by credential holders; where the appropriate length of time is how long it takes to master the competencies.
  • There must be transparent evidence of the actual employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining a credential and the data should be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, and other characteristics to measure equitable progress.
  • Finally, stackability to additional education or training is a preferred criterion and can help individuals advance in education and employment.

Quality assurance tied to data can help individuals identify the right program and credential for their circumstances while avoiding low-quality or ineffective options. It can also help businesses ensure that the competencies and skills obtained by individuals will be what they need on the job. Reliable data is critical to ensuring that quality assurance definitions are student-focused and support equitable credential attainment.

Establishing Quality Criteria and Policy Actions

For states who wish to establish quality assurance criteria for online trainings, they should take steps to create an inclusive process that is transparent to stakeholders, including education and training providers, consumers, and the public. While the appropriate lead entity for convening a group of stakeholders who will adopt a quality definition may differ from state to state, it will likely include representatives from the state’s education, postsecondary education, and workforce or labor agencies. The process should also include a significant and meaningful role for:

  • Organizations that represent underserved or underrepresented worker and student populations to ensure that the criteria support broader equity and attainment goals.
  • Industry leaders who represent both employers and workers in the state’s major industries or economic development associations who can bring the voice and credentialing needs of businesses to the discussion.
  • The governor’s office, if possible, to be engaged in the development of the criteria to ensure consistency with overall postsecondary attainment goals, and to facilitate discussions between both internal and external partners where appropriate.

States should also look at where to embed quality assurance credential definitions in state policies. Policy options could include a state-level legislative request to adopt quality assurance for credentials or polices to support the increased attainment of quality credentials, such as expanding state financial aid or other training funds or expanding apprenticeship and other work-based learning models. Policies could also be agency-specific and require, for instance, that all publicly funded training programs meet minimum quality standards. States that National Skills Coalition is currently working with in a Quality Postsecondary Credential Policy Academy are looking at quality assurance policies that can be applied to the state’s Eligible Training Provider List, or training approved for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds.

Applying Quality Criteria to Online Programs

States who wish to apply quality assurance criteria to online training programs should also consider these suggestions:

  • Quantitative data and employer feedback should measure substantial job opportunities. While what is considered “substantial” will vary by state or region, data is needed to evaluate the market demand for the occupations that credentials are associated with.
  • Use of real-time labor market data, existing sector partnerships, or emerging industries that represent a regional economic development strategy are all potential sources to inform whether or not employers demand the credential.
  • The learning objectives of an online training program should be mastered by credential holders. Rather than fulfill a standard number of online hours, the learner should instead demonstrate proficiency in the learning outcomes required for the credential and valued by the employer to perform in the occupation. This proficiency is often validated by a third-party, like a certifying or licensing body, that confirms the learning outcomes that are required.
  • There is proof of employment and earnings outcomes for individuals who obtain credentials through online training programs. It is key to accurately track and record outcomes to ensure that the credential provides individuals with the means to achieve their employment goal. Employment and earnings information should be disaggregated to ensure racially equitable attainment.
  • Credential stackability is a strongly preferred criterion for online programs. Individuals may be pursuing short-term training as a quick route to stable employment during this economic recovery. Stackability can ensure that their new credential will be an on-ramp to a longer career pathway. Stackable credentials can be particularly important for people of color and others who have been traditionally underserved by higher education.

Finally, and beyond quality criteria, it’s important to remember that access to other resources and supportive services, like free or low-cost computers, broadband access, childcare, or other supports may be needed for learners to successfully participate in online training and complete their credential.

Quality Credentials to Support an Inclusive Economic Recovery

State and local investments in online training programs can increase access and allow more flexibility for workers without a college degree to retrain and upskill. Advocates should ensure that investments in online training programs include quality assurance measures so that adult learners have pathways into good jobs now and additional credentialing opportunities in the future. And, finally, cross-agency and cross-organization partnerships around quality assurance lead to better outcomes: they ensure that equity is at the center of the work and the voices of individuals and businesses disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are included in this economic recovery.