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Micro-Credentials in Higher Education

Drawing on their own research, HolonIQ (2021) claims that micro-credentials are set to play a critical role in the reshaping of the higher education landscape. They propose four scenarios to explore a range of possible futures. As illustrated in the diagram below, the scenarios fall into four quadrants based on the two axes of ‘market’ versus ‘government’ led initiatives, and the extent to which learning is aggregated or available in unbundled forms.
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[Music Playing] So what I’d like to focus on here a little bit is actually, where does all this lead? And in particular, where does this lead for higher education institutions and for higher education students in particular, because we’re all saying that this microcredentials is going to be a revolution is going to change things etc. But the big question then is how does it change things? And how do we actually steer things towards a desirable future?
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Now, part of what we have been working on in two projects, called Micro HE and OEPass, is that we have been focusing partially on using different futures methodologies, such as scenario building, such as DELFI, shall consult with a panel of experts over a three year period, to understand what the emerging trends are, and what the logical conclusions of those trends are. So what are we presenting now is a summary of the combination of that research supplemented with a little bit of research my company has done in house. This will be published in a paper later this year. I’ll be presenting this in terms of scenarios.
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And for those of you who are not familiar with scenario building methodology, a few rules to understand. First of all, scenario, building follows trends to logical extremes. But because it follows them to logical extremes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are saying this is going to happen. It’s a tool that serves to illustrate the policy choices available. And the idea is to be able to understand which policy are on strike, in which direction. So very, very importantly, scenario building is not a prediction tool, it is a planning tool. And when you have a choice between different scenarios, even though you’re looking at yourself logical extremes, the place you want to go to, is usually a combination of different scenarios.
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But in the way, it’s a way to make sure you don’t arrive any of the extremes by accident. So enough with that, we actually have six scenarios to walk you through very quickly. And the first of these is the one that’s probably most commonly mentioned, which is what we call a global credential. And as soon as we start thinking of the global credential marketplace, people inevitably make a comparison with Netflix or other video service like it. But under the global micro credential marketplace scenario, we see that there are a small number of very large microcredential platforms globally. Those are a mixture of private stakeholders of mega universities. But the market is not really dominated by regular higher education institutions.
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Under this marketplace scenario, what we also see is that platforms that start out as aggregators, bringing together micro-credentials from three or 400, universities in one platform, increasingly creating value by generating their own content, and slowly pushing out their clients and becoming, let’s say, single providers for micro-credentials. So even though you end up with a global marketplace of 1000s of courses. Under this scenario, you also end up with a very, very small number of content providers. The second one we have for you is one week said something about today, which is the scenario of European universities. When we came up with these, we don’t specifically mean the commission European University initiatives, although you will see some similarities.
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And under the European University concept, we imagined that there will be consortium of European universities offering specific groups of micro-credentials in different languages. Within a consortium, you will be able to create combined micro credentials quite freely, they’ll be very, very few barriers. And at the end of your studies within a consortium, you will be awarded something which we might call a flexible joint degree or flexible joint partial degree. These joint degrees or partial joint degrees would have the level of recognition of a typical degree. And the way we would imagine it affects the landscape is that European universities would not take over European higher education. Rather, European universities would become a preferred route for certain specialised high end international applications.
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Moving on to our next vision of the future, our next vision of the future involves what we call lifelong micro-learning. And under lifelong micro learning, what we see is that microcredentials predominantly become a tool for after your section of compulsory education. And people return to learning over their entire lifetime using microcredentials as a main tool for continuing professional education. Part of this, however, is also in terms of a university response, we see that universities would start to offer, giving a much larger focus on employment life cycles.
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So what we mentioned is that universities would, as far as possible, try to lock students in be that through individual learning accounts, where you try and get as much of that lifetime as possible, be it through contracts with employers to be their providers for training. But we see that let’s say a large part of the admissions office in your university will be focused not on the first five years, but over four years, and that will increasingly more focus of you.
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Moving on to yet another scenario, we call this scenario where University gatekeepers and under university gatekeepers, what we imagine happening is that universities use tools like ETTS, like their relationships with any career centres like the quality assurance bodies, to essentially say that if you want a recognised micro credential, you need to do it for us. So if you’re an employer that wants to offer microcredential, if you’re an NGO that wants to offer a micro credential, if you’re an international organisation, you need to collaborate or partner with an accredited university. And universities start becoming the gatekeepers that say this is what is a microcredential, and this is what isn’t a micro credential.
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And they become hubs for managing the quality of credential portfolios, and they become the hubs that actually certify the credential from the different content providers.
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One more is we call these ivory towers. And under ivory towers, we actually imagine a scenario where we have two ivory towers. And what we imagine happening is that your average University ignores the growing reputation of microcredentials. If this happens, though, we don’t think that microcredentials were stopped, we do think that this is basically an unstoppable trend. So under this scenario, what happens is that you end up with two ivory towers that basically don’t talk to each other. In one ivory tower, the traditional higher education one, you will have regulated professions, some of the more traditional subjects and universities will remain the main choice for humans to study.
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On the other hand, certain newer types of professions, certain newer types of occupations will more or less, not be universities, and even if you can study these subjects in universities, employers will prefer the ones taken through internet platforms. And we mentioned that we have these two ivory towers not speaking to each other much, and basically serving different types of learning. One more scenario for you. And this we call outsourced higher education. And under this one, we had mentioned that within Europe, and in the Western world, microcredentials will exist, but they will be a niche part of university activities. The real market for microcredentials will be in the developing world and in third world countries.
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And we imagine that European universities would start seeing this as a major part of their business model, selling European quality education to developing countries licencing their education to entire education systems abroad, and possibly rather than contributing to higher education development, actually substituting the local capacity building of higher education systems since now you can just go and do it all online. So these are six essential ways all of this might go. What I would argue to you here, if you look at this guy, he’s looking where he’s going. And in his phone, he has a GPS. And I think at this moment, we are in a very, very similar moment in European policy.
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The European approach to microcredentials, which builds on 20 years of educational recognition building, give us all the technical tools we want to take any direction or any route we want in life. We have the ability to put microcredentials at the core of our higher education system, we have the ability to project ourselves globally. The question which we still need to ask ourselves as the university community is, where do we want to take it.Thank you for your attention. [Music Playing]

Drawing on their own research, HolonIQ (2021) claims that micro-credentials are set to play a critical role in the reshaping of the higher education landscape.

They propose four scenarios to explore a range of possible futures. As illustrated in the diagram below, the scenarios fall into four quadrants based on the two axes of ‘market’ versus ‘government’ led initiatives, and the extent to which learning is aggregated or available in unbundled forms.

A chart listing 4 scenarios for Higher Education and Micro-credentials, using an X and Y axis structure. The X-axis runs from Bundled, on the left, to Unbundled, on the right. The Y axis runs from Government, at the top, to Market, at the bottom. Scenario 1 is Greater Whole (Government and Bundled), Scenario 2 is Micro Quals (Government and Unbundled), Scenario 3 is Professions rule (Market and Bundled), and Scenario 4 is Market Place (Market and Unbundled). Click image to enlarge.

You can learn more about these scenarios and the predicted global growth of the micro-credentialing movement in this informative webinar recording hosted by HolonIQ in February 2021.

Micro-Credentials Shaping the Higher Education Landscape

Anthony Camilleri, Director at Knowledge Innovation Centre, has also proposed a number of possible scenarios for how micro-credentials may change or reshape the higher education landscape, which we have posted as a video above. The six scenarios are:

PDF version of the image available below the step. Infographic on the six scenarios explained in the video above. Global micro-credential marketplace, Consortia of universities, Lifelong micro-learning, University gatekeepers, Ivory towers, Outsourcing higher education

Anthony explains each scenario in this presentation, taken as part of a major launch event in January 2021 for the ECIU University’s second white paper on the future of the micro-credential movement (Brown, et. al., 2021). The entire webinar is also an optional viewing for those who are interested, available here, containing several important contributions regarding questions shaping the future uses of micro-credentials.

The scenarios help to raise a number of macro questions that are woven throughout our discussion.

Some of the activities we have utilised to guide this exploration have included:

  • Questioning how well, and to what extent, an array of stakeholders understand the concept of a micro-credential
  • Critiques of the micro-credentialing movement and the economic and social drivers that are implicated in their development
  • Exploring the concept of unbundling, rebundling, co-construction co-delivery and how the greater choice for learners is both a driver, and barrier, to understanding the potential of micro-credentials
  • Our conceptualisation of a “learning ecology”, in which micro-credentials are viewed as one of many in a wider range of qualifications, and where they might interface with existing qualifications
  • The criteria and blocks on the road to implementing micro-credentials in actuality
  • Asking you to apply this conceptualisation to your own personal contexts, and ask what elements might prove most challenging.

We have enjoyed exploring these activities with you and hope that they have triggered you to ask a number of bigger questions. In many respects, there are still more questions than answers but if you still have gaps in your basic understanding, then you might like to glance through this useful resource which provides answers to 12 fundamental questions about micro-credentials.

We have asked and attempted to respond to many different questions about the possibilities of micro-credentials. We trust this topic has proved informative. We ask you to consider the following additional questions:

  • Do you have any further questions?
  • What question hasn’t been answered?
  • Is there anything we have left unsaid?

With special thanks to Anthony Camilleri, for the provision of this video.

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