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Navigating micro-credentials

In this article, we're going to focus on the practical implementation of micro-credentials in your institutional or organisational context.
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We will explore some frameworks which might be useful to consider when establishing a strategic and considered approach to micro-credential implementation. To start let’s take a look at the current credential landscape.

The current credentials landscape 

The diagram below, reproduced in a MICROBOL report published by the European Universities Association (EUA), provides a useful categorisation of the existing range of educational credentials available in most countries.

One thing to note from this categorisation is that each block is clearly delineated between the different types of credentials.

Click to enlarge the image. Education Credential are divided into four types. Formal Qualifications: awards at the end of a formal learning experience, after completion of an assessment, i.e degrees, professional certificates. Non-formal Certificates: awards at the end of a non-formal educational course, certifying successful completion of the course, i.e MOOC certificates (e.g Certicicate of achievement, FutureLearning, Verified Certificate (edX)). Recognition of Skills: awards recognising a person has achieved specific defined skills after an assessment, i.e language-proficiency exams recognition of non-formal learning. Finally, Records of Experience: awards at recognising the completion of experiences, i.e certicate of participation.

(cited in Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020)

The evolving credentials landscape

The diagram below charts an emerging landscape of credentials for institutions and organisations to use with respect to micro-credentials. The diagram draws on the European Commission definition of micro-credentials.

This taxonomy, found in Brown et. al (2020), envisions a two-axis, four-quadrant conceptualisation, reflecting whether a credential is either credit-bearing or non-credit bearing, and bundled or unbundled.

Credential Ecology. Macro-credentials: Formal accredited degrees that are credit-bearing & bundled. Micro-credentials: Formal and semi-formal accredited and stackable credentials that are credit-bearing and unbundled. Badges and awards: informal and non-formal non-accredited credentials that are non-credit-bearing and unbundled. Short courses: Non-formal and semi-formal, non-stackable credentials that are non-credit-bearing and bundled. Click image to enlarge.

The distinction between bundled and unbundled is whether a credential can be considered a singular learning unit, or whether it is a subunit of a wider credential, as we have explored.

The distinction between credit-bearing and non-credit bearing is hopefully quite clear!

To further illustrate each quadrant:

  • Macro-Credential (bundled/credit-yielding) – This quadrant represents a traditional higher education qualification, and is likely the pathway with which most are familiar. In this quadrant, structured, staggered and sequential design is emphasised in achieving the learning outcomes.
  • Short Courses (bundled/non-credit bearing) – Some courses might well be both bundled by the provider, in the sense that they are designed sequentially, while not yielding credit. Many examples of serialised MOOCs, such as those offered on FutureLearn, may fit into this category.
  • Micro-Credential (unbundled/credit-yielding) – Distinct from a macro-credential, a micro-credential is represented as formal or semi-formal, containing similar quality assurance processes, but also (in theory) stackable, implying it can be utilised either as part of a larger qualification or as a certified sub-component.
  • Badges and Awards (unbundled/non-credit bearing) – This quadrant represents “nano-credentials”, such as courses and short learning experiences which are not credit-bearing, and thus do not necessarily lead to a particular award. They are also unbundled, representing individual achievements.

Micro-credentials don’t replace a university degree

Importantly, as we have argued, micro-credentials need not be a replacement to the traditional university degree – rather they might fulfil a particular purpose, for particular people, at particular points in their lifelong learning journey.

The taxonomy does, however, recognise intersections across the quadrants. As we discussed earlier, a short learning experience, such as an industry workshop or major conference, might lead to a certificate of attendance that may be incorporated into a professional portfolio.

If (or when) micro-credentials are fully recognised, that person’s portfolio would be assessed against transparent criteria, leading to a nationally recognised micro-credential.

The private provision and evolving business models

We need to be careful that our thinking about the evolving credential landscape also charts employers in the ecosystem (Oliver, 2019). A key driver of micro-credentials comes from outside higher education itself, in a changing world of skills, employment, and professional progression.

In his 2021 forecast of technology and strategic trends, Ben Evans, a noted technology analyst, suggests that “brands go digital or brands go direct” will be an increasing trend across sectors. Corporate actors and organisations are increasingly entering the traditional credential space by creating their own types of certification (e.g. Google’s Career Certificates) and indeed establishing their own institutes of learning (e.g. Dyson).

It’s important to avoid “HE-centric” thinking, which excludes other sources of possible certification.

Disintermediation

Indeed, direct provision of higher order learning by corporations and organisations with the requisite learning and developing functions could be considered as “disintermediation” of higher education (i.e., the removal of intermediaries) within a specific process.

Disintermediation has led to the disruption and unbundling of a number of sectors, such as music, television, computing and finance to name a few. As we have previously outlined, whether micro-credentials developed by industry will fuel this further is yet to be seen.

Micro-credentials, where there is a relationship between higher education institutions and organisations, are often considered a gold standard of “industry-informed learning”, with many believing that micro-credentials which draw on industry and higher education as being the most attractive and indeed relevant to learners, particularly in the development of work-based skills or knowledge.

Co-construction and co-delivery

Terms such as “co-construction’’ and “co-delivery” are becoming more widespread. However, the depth of this relationship between industry and higher education can be opaque and unclear, whilst in others, the role of both can be unpacked and explained clearly to the learner.

There is also a growing business model of tech and education companies partnering with higher education institutions to accelerate their development and delivery of online and digital offerings.

Moreover, these companies are acting as a “broker or intermediary” between these institutions and industries with a range of service and relationship offerings beyond traditional OPM models, an example of which is FourthRev.

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