Certification, Disrupted

Digital badges? Gamification? Tiered or standalone certificates? Credentialing and certification are as complex as today’s workforce. But a focus on needs—yours and learners’—can point your program in the right direction.

It’s unlikely that many occupational therapists think of earning or maintaining their professional certification as a game. But their association has figured out how gamification can transform the traditional credentialing experience—and how to capitalize on the shift.

In 2015, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy took the familiar process of earning CEU hours at meetings and taking follow-up exams and gamified it: Now, through a tool called NBCOT Navigator, certificants can work their way through short modules that visualize on-the-job scenarios regarding concussions, mental illness, shoulder injuries, and more.

Launching the tool required staffing up—the association now has a full-time employee working on the games with its outside developer. But Navigator has paid dividends in terms of retention.

“Our recertification renewal rate prior to initiating the games was around 80 percent,” says NBCOT President and CEO Paul Grace, CAE. “In 2018, we were at 96 percent.”

NBCOT’s experience doesn’t mean that gamification is the sole future path of certification and credentialing for associations. But it’s one example of the many ways that these programs have been disrupted in recent years.

As employees change careers more often and new generations enter the workforce with preferences for different learning formats, associations are under more pressure to bring gamification, digital badges, bite-size learning, and other tools to their education mix.

Whether you’re reconfiguring a credentialing program or launching one outright, the process starts with a clear-eyed look at member needs and how they learn.

New and Renewed

Practically by definition, certifications assert authority, not just for the recipient but for the organization that offers it. So launching one can seem automatically appealing for organizations: What better way to establish credibility fast? But associations should ask themselves a few questions first, says credentialing consultant Mickie Rops, FASAE, CAE.

“The key thing, and I think the step that’s often missing, is they need to be determining what challenges the industry is facing that credentialing could actually impact,” she says. Associations “develop credentialing programs and then realize that the program is not accomplishing anything, because there was no challenge for it to address.”

The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association has been conducting that kind of study of its member challenges to both retool programs and build them from the ground up. Early this year, it launched a certification for sales representatives that was designed around how much time those members spend on the road; the program is built on 15- and 20-minute modules accessible through ASTRA’s learning management system. In 2016 it launched another certification, Certified Play Expert, that can be managed online but is also available as a two-day workshop.

The latter has attracted staff members of parks and recreation departments, and because the program is available to nonmembers, it’s also become a member recruitment tool. “It’s worked out that way, even though that was not our mission behind it,” says Ahren Hoffman, director of education and training at ASTRA.

In addition, in 2017 ASTRA separated its Certified Master Retailer credential into seven separate certificate programs to better respond to how its industry is changing. Hoffman says the association was seeing more members abandon the CMR credential partway through.

“There was a trend of people signing up for the credential, completing a few of the content tracks, and then never completing the program,” she says. “We’ve made a shift in our education offerings so that people can have bite-size information that they’re seeking out for themselves or their staff.”

Similarly, NBCOT’s Grace says its efforts to gamify its certification program was in part a response to a new generation entering the occupational therapy workforce made up of professionals with different learning styles. The Navigator also allows certificants to identify their interests within the game, which provides a more engaging certification path for participants—and a new source of data for NBCOT.

“People have been using that tool, and they then can see recommendations based upon what they say their interests are or where they feel they are in a career. So they’re going to be getting games that we’ve identified to fit their profile.”

Micro and Macro

Rops says she’s seen associations grow more comfortable with breaking up their certifications into microcredentials—even associations in medical and scientific disciplines that have tended to be more attached to traditional models. But, she notes, every association that looks at microcredentials ought to consider how they fit into an overall learning structure. Are they goals in themselves or steps toward a main certification?

“One association decided their approach was, ‘We’re going to give you a portfolio of microcredentials to choose from and you pick which ones work for you,’ and that’s a solid approach,” Rops says. “But it’s not going to be for everyone. Another association has decided they want to start with microcredentials, but they were very clear in their strategy that their goal is to get everyone headed toward their [full] credential at the end of the pathway.”

The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy is dipping its toe into the microlearning space this year, piloting a program for pharmacist members who need to meet licensing requirements. “All of us, including health professionals, are really starved for time and need to still be able to meet the needs of either their certification or relicensure,” says Dr. Lynette R. Bradley-Baker, senior vice president of public affairs and engagement at AACP. “Associations, as part of providing value for their members, really have to think a little differently about how to provide these types of programs.”

To that end, AACP has created an advisory board made up of members and experts on education within the association to explore how to integrate microcredentialing into its programming, while maintaining the same quality standards.

Preserving the rigor of education standards was also top of mind for Grace as NBCOT launched its Navigator program. “Every aspect of the games can be tied back to a validated practice analysis study,” he says. “We were very transparent that people taking the games knew that there was science to support this question or this particular outcome to the game based upon the research that went into the practice analysis.”

You want to be able to tell the story of those people who are obtaining the certification and retaining it and how it’s woven into their careers and benefited them.

Marketing and Money

Breaking up certifications has a financial element too: It attracts paying members for smaller credentials or certificates who might otherwise see the broader certification as too time-consuming, unnecessary, or difficult to sign up (let alone pay) for.

“If you have more of a portfolio, revenue streams are more likely because you’ve got people who’ll do one microcertificate program and still be in your pipeline for certification,” Rops says.

That is, so long as there’s demonstrated value for that program—and if the association can successfully persuade people to participate in it.

“You want to be able to tell the story of those people who are obtaining the certification and retaining it and how it’s woven into their careers and benefited them,” says Sara Meier, CAE, senior vice president for credentialing, standards, and professional development at MCI USA. “But you also want to make it broad enough that it’s being used. You want to be able to speak to the value of the certification itself, not just the individuals who have it.”

ASTRA’s Hoffman says that integrating in-person experiences with its Certified Play Expert certification was an essential part of the selling point.

“What our members really love is networking. They love to be with each other in person because these certifications create a peer group for them to reconnect with later,” she says. “Candidly, that’s the value proposition for them.”

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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