How one nonprofit wants to help colleges teach soft skills

by Joseph K. Clark

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.

colleges teach

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 vibe 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 it 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 terribly 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.

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.

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