A Conversation with Dr. Susan Manning

Join Credly CEO Jonathan Finkelstein for a series of conversations with people advancing change that leads to a better and more equitable future of work. Meet change-makers, problem-solvers, and leaders who are bringing big ideas and doing the hard work.


In this episode, Jonathan chats with Susan Manning, Ed.D., Credly's Chief Success Strategist. Dr. Manning is also a prolific author, whose credits include Online Learning for Dummies, now out as a second edition ten years after its initial publication.

Jonathan and Susan talk about some of the biggest changes in online learning over the last ten years, including a learner focus on acquiring in-demand skills and proof of their capabilities. They discuss how educators, learners, and employers are all looking for reliable signals of trust that can help bridge the gaps between learning and career context and experiences.

Watch the full interview below:  

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And welcome back to another conversation. I'm delighted to have my friend and colleague, Susan Manning, joining us today. Couldn't imagine having a conversation that I looked forward to more. Susan, thanks for joining me on our series.

Susan Manning:
Thanks, Jonathan. I'm looking forward to it,

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Susan, you're normally in the other seat because you conduct a very popular and long-running series of podcasts the most recent of which is called the Credly podcast in which you're interviewing people, doing all sorts of innovation around credentialing, certifications, new forms of online learning, and today we've got you in the passenger seat, so to speak, where I will try to be a worthy host.

Susan Manning:
Yeah, I might have to turn and ask you some questions just to feel good.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Okay. By all means I'll be happy to take you off the hot seat for just a few moments. But I wanted to start, first of all, I should mention that Susan is the Chief Success Strategist at Credly, where she supports the launch and implementation and the strategic thinking around new forms of credentialing and certification programs that connect learning to the workforce and back again in some cases. She's also a many-time author including with the newest edition of a book called Online Learning for Dummies. And I thought we'd start there actually, Susan, because this book is in its second edition. When it came out about 10 years ago, first of all, it was called Online Education for Dummies, why the change of title and what does that suggest?

Susan Manning:
At the beginning of the pandemic when so many Americans, well, globally, learners were moved online, whether they wanted to be or not, the publisher came back to Kevin and I and said," Hey, we need a second edition." And Kevin and I said, "Yeah, but we want a title change." Because first of all the term online learning is more readily recognized now, that's the language we use. 10 years ago when we wrote the first edition it was still a novelty and so it was called education. But as people have moved online they're recognizing that you have to be a very active learner, it doesn't just happen to you the way sometimes education seems like a passive term where learning means you have to get in the game and do your work.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And virtually today everyone is in the game, everyone is an online learner whether they're doing it in a self-directed way to learn a skill they need to fix something at home or they're doing it to advance their own career, and in many cases they're doing it online because of the disruptions brought about by the pandemic so it seems like something that is as much of a niche audience as it might have been thought of 10 years ago. When you think about writing for... Just so people who haven't read the book yet understand, you've written this book for the learner themselves-

Susan Manning:
Right, it's not-

Jonathan Finkelstein:
... how to be an online learner.

Susan Manning:
Right. It's not for teachers it's for the students. And those students might be in traditional programs within higher education or they could be adult learners taking, imagine a certification course for some professional development, executive education, that kind of... All education has been pushed online right now so it's for all those people.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Is writing for all of those audiences, does that create any challenges or is online learning across context the kinds of lessons and tips you're offering fairly transferable?

Susan Manning:
I think they're fairly transferable. The focus of this book is more on the kind of formal learning where you register for this and whether it is a live event or something that is parsed out in small doses and you do the work on a schedule but still on your own time, asynchronous, that is more of the emphasis of the book. But whether you're in an executive education program or you're taking college algebra 101, it is transferable.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
I want to talk about how what you have learned and shared in empathizing with the earner impacts institutions. But first, what is the biggest change you've seen in the last 10 years? When you went back to revise the edition where did you have to spend the most substantive time with Kevin updating the text?

Susan Manning:
Well, the bones of the original book were really good. Some of the technology has changed... Well, tools have changed. Tools have changed names, companies have bought other companies, so there was some of the technological stuff that we had to update. But by and large the basic information of how to approach online learning was the same.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Are there any things actually that when you reflect on that surprised you about that fact? Are there things that you look back on and you're like, "We were thinking that 10 years ago and we were ahead of our time," perhaps?

Susan Manning:
Well, Kevin and I were both teaching together. So we knew where students were struggling and where students continue to struggle. And as some of my friends who continue to teach have reached back to me in the months of March and April, I have friends who were teaching face-to-face classes who all of a sudden were thrown online and they were struggling, their students were struggling, and Kevin and I were looking through the chapters saying, "Well, this still applies, this still works.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
It seems to me that somebody who is struggling or is looking to improve their practice even if they feel that they're doing quite well, that starting by channeling the online learner themselves is a really great place to start. You might start with looking at texts specifically designed or resources or people blogging or writing about how to be a better online instructor. But what's really interesting to me is you've looked at this from both sides and you've really empathized and channeled what learners, adults, and otherwise are thinking and needing to accomplish when they set out to achieve their learning goals. When you take that empathy and the constructs that you've put in place for the learner, how can academic institutions look at the practices you've shared and channel that into being better at what they do as institutions?

Susan Manning:
In higher education when you talk about the formal curriculum, curriculum that is often related to a degree it's slow to change. And yet we know that learners are looking for real skill-based opportunities right now or they're looking to put their learning in action. So however you can design whether it is a program or a course, or even a weekly assignment, if you can make it applicable to the learner right away, so you're asking them to take what you're teaching and put it into practice, I think higher education would do better. I think there would be a better transfer of learning and I think learners would be more excited about what they're doing.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
You spend a lot of time advising organizations about how to make the outcomes of their learning programs relevant in the workforce. Sometimes the advice you're giving is to higher ed institutions, other times it's to individuals and organizations in industry, employers, trade organizations and others. How does what you just said about the making the learning contextual and authentic provide, especially as perhaps as it gets reflected in the credentials that emerged from these learning programs, how does that help bind or better connect industry and education?

Susan Manning:
Education should be responsive to industry. I don't think that we need to throw out the humanities by any means, but when you can provide with an education that they know they can put into practice and you have that relationship, I think there's an enhanced trust. Right now you were quoted in a Wall Street Journal article recently about is this the end of college as we know it? Enrollments are down for traditional age students. There is a distrust between the public and educational institutions and whether the students are getting what they need to move on in their careers. And so I think when you strengthen the relationship between industry and education some of that trust will come back.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
I'm wondering if you can share with us as we talk about signals of that trust, are there particular credentials that you've supported or seen recently that you think are really doing a good job in gendering that kind of trust that the person who has it, that that credential is a really good signal for the roles or capabilities for which they've been trained or assessed?

Susan Manning:
My own daughter is an example. She was in her third year in her bachelor's program. And she said, "Mom, this is not for me. I'm not enjoying this, this is not really what I want to do." And she found a 10-month program with clinical experience that came after, and she's a certified surgical technologist. That certification she had to test for and she had to meet certain educational requirements, like I said, the clinical experience, and she has to recertify, she has to have continuing education and recertify every so many years. But it put her in a little more than a year in a job that she loves, she loves. And she didn't come out with debt, she's happily working and she has somewhere to go with this because there is a next level that she can aspire to. So much faster return on her education.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And gainfully employed with a credential that actually signals what she actually can do and wants to be doing in the world. This is such a powerful story and really important to remind ourselves. What you just shared I was thinking back a few months our friends and colleagues at Gallup and Lumina, and some other groups put out some research in which they polled people about their happiness in their jobs and careers, and they correlated the answers with what the highest level of academic attainment was of the respondents. And they found that people who had only a high school diploma plus one industry certification much like what your daughter holds today, 49% of individuals with that combination reported being happy in their careers and jobs, which was second only to those with PhDs.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And I thought that's really interesting. Why are those two groups, why do they rank so highly and above all others? It might be counter-intuitive to some who put a premium on college completion as a sign of happiness in career. My own observation seems to square with what you've described with your daughter, which is that when it comes to an industry certification most people who earn them it's extremely self-directed, you're pursuing a very specific role and career and you know what your employability likelihood is and exactly where you're going to go with it. And so therefore when you achieve that result, there's happiness with having achieved your goals and be doing what you want to do.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And I think PhDs may also fit similarly in that. You don't go after a PhD unless you really love the thing you're going after and you didn't want to teach the subject matter or research about it, in most cases. So you have two populations of people that are doing what they want to do and have credentials in the world that enable it.

Susan Manning:
Oh, yes.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Everyone else kind of struggles to figure out how to connect and find credentials to find their way in the world.

Susan Manning:
Right. I also think about those who go into areas in the trades. Like Anna has a friend who is in an electrical apprenticeship at this point and he's probably in his third or fourth year now, maybe. But when I met with him a couple years ago he was telling me he struggled in high school and especially with math, but if you're training to be an electrician you have to know your math. And he said, "All of a sudden everything clicked, I have classroom time and I have training on the job, I love doing this." And another example of really high-value learning skill-based, he can apply it, he's happy.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Context makes all the difference and as does how our own motivations change at different times in terms of what it is we're trying to accomplish in any given moment.

Susan Manning:
Right.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
When you think about back to higher ed institutions for a moment, we think about some of these lessons as they apply there. Do you think as academia thinks about innovating the products of their institutions to degrees, certificates, certifications, do you think the greatest distance can be traveled by innovating within those degree programs, perhaps adding micro-credentials and skills or is the real future in creating new products, new kinds of micro-credentials that institutions may not have previously offered before?

Susan Manning:
Well, one of the values of putting micro-credentials into an existing program is that you can begin to recognize progress and that reward can be a powerful motivator. I think IBM learned this when they started to apply digital credentials to their own learning programs for employees, they began to see a greater return of people completing and going on to the next course or the next program. Actually quite a few of the people who issued digital credentials on our platform have found the same to be true.

Susan Manning:
That's one way that higher education could begin to look at whether it's including industry certifications in their programs that are existing or calling out specific skillsets as learners move through existing programs, that's one place that higher education could fill a need. The other is if you're going to talk about creating new programs I'd say let's make them shorter so there's less time to value for the learner. And those shorter ones we know that people are seeking based on the research like you in the article from the Wall Street Journal, in the Strada education. We know that people are looking to get their education and get moving.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
We're right at the transition between one year and the next as we record this. I just wanted to perhaps wrap up today's conversation with you sharing maybe one hope or resolution you wish on institutions and those who foster learning experiences and perhaps one personal resolution.

Susan Manning:
I'm still working on my 2019 resolutions.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
Oh, we are.

Susan Manning:
... So I don't think you want to ask that. But in terms of education there a couple of things come to mind. One is for institutions to be sensitive to what everyone is experiencing right now. If you're teaching online and you have a learner who's struggling because maybe there are children at home who are going to school, they may be working at home, they may not have a job, there are an awful lot of personal stressors on us right now that that make it hard to learn.

Susan Manning:
But I think institutions have to recognize when a learner comes to your door they're bringing the whole package, their whole life. Be sensitive to that. And the other thing is, try to figure out how you can be responsive to what the workforce needs so that you can, as I said before, package together your education so that learners can take it and use it right away, so that they can begin to see their return on investment and you will have a much more loyal, persistent, learning population.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
I think we'll leave it right there, Susan. That's a terrific hope for folks for this year. And I think reminding people to respect and appreciate that life is hard for a lot of people right now and wellness and health are at the top of any taxonomy of needs. We need to be sure that people are feeling secure and safe and healthy if they're going to be able to learn. And we have ways as organizations, as employers of trying to cultivate environments, both learning environments and working environments that enable that kind of healthy approach. So thank you for reminding us of that.

Susan Manning:
Thank you, Jonathan.

Jonathan Finkelstein:
And we'll talk soon. Hopefully, we'll have you back soon. Thanks everybody, thank you, Susan.

By Jonathan Finkelstein