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What are Micro-Credentials?

Let us try and get to grips with the question, what do we mean by the term ‘credential’ as distinct from a badge, certificate or non credit-bearing award? In this step, we explore this question from three different perspectives of micro-credentials and associated learning pathways.
Businessman walking up stairs leading to trophy cup and graduation hat at the end, layered paper cut style illustration.

Let us try and get to grips with the question, what do we mean by the term ‘credential’ as distinct from a badge, certificate or non credit-bearing award? In this step, we explore this question from three different perspectives of micro-credentials and associated learning pathways.

Micro-Credentials: The Vertical Perspective

One pathway consists of vertically stacking different blocks of learning (both formal and non-formal), followed by an appropriate assessment, to earn a credit-bearing micro-credential. This form of “block-sized” learning is a bit like stacking Lego blocks and supports on an upward, life-long, career-focused trajectory where professional growth is a continuous process. Think of a skyscraper (made of lego, perhaps!), in which each level is sequentially built, leading to continuous progress over the course of a professional career.

A stack of lego blocks, organised in give columns, demonstrating the vertical perspective

Credit –

Micro-Credentials: The Horizontal Perspective

This second, horizontal perspective reflects both non-formal and informal short learning experiences, with more of a sideways, or life-wide, personal interest-focused trajectory. Such horizontal learning is typically non-stackable and non credit-bearing, but this form of micro-credential or alternative credential might still contribute to valuable professional development in certain contexts.

Image of bee on honeycomb Photo by Meggyn Pomerleau on Unsplash

At the risk of mixing metaphors, this type of “bite-sized” learning is similar to bees filling empty honeycombs as learners acquire knowledge and skills in areas of interest that may, or may not, relate to their work and career aspirations (e.g., think of a Computer Engineer with an interest in learning about Japanese culture).

Micro-Credentials: The Diagonal Perspective

A third dimension of micro-credential can be visually presented as a diagonal line, or set of steps, that connects the vertical and horizontal perspectives. Like the motives for why we learn, this might get a bit messy! Connecting pathways reflect cases where people may be able to acquire a credit-bearing micro-credential through the development of a reflective professional portfolio, drawing on many different informal and non-formal learning experiences. Of course, such a portfolio needs to be formally assessed against transparent criteria to meet the common European definition of a micro-credential.

Importantly, what this third micro-credential perspective illustrates is that the vertical and horizontal learning trajectories are not binary or mutually exclusive. Think of a translator with professional interest in learning Python, for both formal (to further her career and better understanding of new technologies) and intrinsic (for the fun and challenge of learning something new) reasons.

While the three perspectives above don’t cover every scenario, if you would like to hear more about this way of visualising the different learning pathways that may lead to a micro-credential, watch the brief video below.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Micro-Credentials Schema

Another useful way of visualizing or fleshing out the different types of micro-credentials – and how they can be offered, taught and recognised – is illustrated by Beverley Oliver (2019) in the diagram below. Importantly, this micro-credential schema recognises that they may be issued directly by employers and relevant industry bodies, which highlights the tension that can exist amongst different bodies when it comes to value perspectives on micro-credentials.

Click to enlarge the image, or view the PDF added to the bottom of the step. Making micro-credentials work. Microcredentials broken down into five sections; What: Validate new knowledge and skills, validate prior knowledge and skills. Where: Online, onsite, online and onsite. By: Traditional educational providers, industry providers, private providers. With: Paper certificate, digital certificate, digital badge. As: Stand-alone validation OR Validation that interacts with a formal qualification; Before: Admission, preparation, credit pathway. During: Additional certificates, adding distinctions. After: Last-mile services to secure employment. A separate bubble shows 'Types and brands: MOOCs, short courses, bootcamps, intensives, masterclass, nano degrees and more..' Making micro-credentials work (Oliver, 2019)

Now that we have peeled back some the layers in understanding of the concept of a micro-credential, we invite you to reflect on the following questions in the comments section below:

  • Do you think we need micro-credentials, and if so, why?
  • Why introduce a micro layer to further complicate credentials?
  • How do you compare the value of a micro-credential to an existing credential?
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