From drone piloting to drilling wells, university ‘microcredential’ programs offer variety of options

By Tim Stanley
Tulsa World
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Going into her first visit to campus, Alyssa Allen already had her mind made up.

“My plan at the time was to major in psychology,” she said. “I thought I wanted to be a therapist or community counselor.”

But that all changed, she added, when she saw the drones.

“It just blew me away,” said Allen, who during a tour of Rogers State University’s technology programs hall was captivated by the aerial devices. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities. It was like I left here and instantly changed my mind.”

A year later, as a cybersecurity major, drone technology is almost a daily part of life for Allen, who even uses drones in the STEM outreach she does at rural and underserved schools.

“I am honestly super excited for this,” Allen said of the chance to train with the remote-controlled aircraft. “You’re seeing more and more where drones are being implemented into so many different careers.”

One of over 180 microcredential programs approved so far as part of UpskillOK, an initiative of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, Allen and the other graduates of the program will become the first students to earn a microcredential from RSU. And with the school adding other such programs, they should be followed by many more.

Microcredentials, which are growing in popularity nationally, are non-degree education options or degree add-ons that are tailored to specific industries.

Brad Griffith, director of online learning initiatives for OSRHE, said collaboration between institutions and industry partners has been key to UpskillOK, with the regents supporting the effort through grant funding and scholarships.

Since it launched in 2021, has grown to include programs from 20 public higher education institutions across the state.

“And we think it’s going to just keep growing,” Griffith said, adding that it benefits from a streamlined approval process.

“From the time that a program is submitted to us, it’s about three weeks for us to be able to list it on UpskillOK,” he said. “So there are always new microcredential programs being added.”

The state has allocated $1.8 million each of the past two years for UpskillOK, and the regents are requesting the same amount for fiscal year 2024.

“We want to have that funding renewed so we can keep on investing in scholarships and building these program partnerships with industry and employers,” Griffith said.

A microcredential can work a couple of ways. It can earn college credit, counting toward a possible degree. But it can also stand alone as a noncredit option, making it useful for a current job or career move. Either way, officials say, microcredentials have become another tool that higher education can use to serve workforce development and supply what employers need.

Impressed with Oklahoma

Recent studies on microcredentials nationally reveal that while there’s still some confusion about how to understand them, all interested parties — employers, colleges and students — recognize the potential for the idea and want to see it developed.

Robert Placido, OSRHE vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said that was the case in Maine, where he helped implement a microcredential program before he came to Oklahoma.

The momentum there, though, can’t touch what he’s found here, he added.

“I am so impressed with Oklahoma and how far they have come so quickly with their program,” Placido said. “They have far and away exceeded what we were doing in Maine. There are really a lot of great, exciting things on the table.”

Griffith said one example of that is a drilling basics microcredential created recently by Oklahoma State University in partnership with the National Groundwater Association.

“There’s a critical employment shortfall of groundwater drillers,” Griffith said. “I think even in the United States there are some 130,000 job openings that can use this kind of training.”

The OSU program is an eight-part noncredit microcredential available fully online, he said.

“The earners of this credential can actually get an entry-level salary as a groundwater driller in the range of upwards of $60,000 a year,” Griffith said. Officials are also enthusiastic, he added, about the possibility of microcredential partnerships with the state’s law enforcement agencies.

In one example, OSRHE is currently working with the state Department of Corrections and local agencies to help address the statewide shortage of detention officers, Griffith said.

“We initiated a sort of competition, for lack of a better word, among our institutions across the state to create their own microcredentials to help fill this need,” Griffith said. “The goal is to equip detention and correctional officers with the skills that they need day one for that job.

“It’s an experiment for us in some ways to be launching so many similar programs at different institutions across the state,” he added. “But we’re really excited about this one.”

Adding a skillset

Meanwhile, for a drone-related microcredential, the timing could not be better. With the Tulsa area poised to become a technology hub and centerpiece of a planned “drone corridor,” more opportunity should come knocking soon.

Curt Sparling, RSU technology and justice studies assistant professor, is conducting the drone piloting program, one of eight microcredential programs he’s created so far. The inaugural group includes 24 students, who in addition to flying commercial drones for data collection have formed teams to build their own drones from scrap parts.

In addition to a microcredential, the students are earning nine credit hours toward their degrees. Sparling said going forward, he expects the program to also serve individuals who just want a noncredit credential. But even so, he anticipates retention rates will still benefit.

“Microcredentials provide individuals an opportunity to come to a university and have that university experience and education, frankly, without a four-year commitment,” Sparling said. “I wholeheartedly believe that when we get them in a classroom environment, they’re going to come back. Microcredentials are going to get them out into the workforce. They’re going get to make a living wage with it, and they’re going to come back and complete a degree.”

For the for-credit students, a microcredential adds another “skillset to their education, giving them more to offer,” he said. The goal is to broaden their experience while enhancing their qualifications for prospective employers.

Sparling and RSU have also accepted OSRHE’s challenge to help with the detentions shortage.

A detentions and corrections microcredential has been officially approved to start in the fall at RSU, in partnership with the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office and local law enforcement, Sparling said.

“We currently have over a dozen enrolled for it,” he said.

But first things first. Sparling’s focus, with the spring semester winding down, is on helping his students complete the drone program. One of them, Ben Allina, is a 19-year-old freshman majoring in business and applied technology.

“It’s an achievement that feels sort of like a degree,” he said of his first microcredential. “Because in any field that I go to, people will look at it and say, ‘This guy went out on a limb to achieve this and become a drone pilot.’”

Allen, a former home-schooler, hasn’t settled on a career direction yet, she said. But if drones don’t factor directly into her longer-term course, they are still good for inspiring the next generation. In her volunteer outreach work, Allen uses drones to promote STEM learning to school children. It’s been rewarding, especially in the impact she’s having on young girls, she said.

“They seem to be nervous about doing it at first,” she said of operating drones. “But by the end, after I teach them the basics, and they actually get their hands on the remote and fly them — you see their confidence grow, and you know you’re making a difference.”