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Driving Economic Recovery with Microcredentials

There isn’t enough time for learners to go through another degree program—microcredentials give them an affordable and customizable education that meets their needs. 

With unemployment rates at an all-time high, students don’t have the time (or finances) to put themselves through a traditional four-year degree program to land a job. They need institutions to help them get back to the workforce fast and efficiently. Colleges, in turn, need to look at how they can scale and grow their programming, and microcredentials are the answer. In this interview, Linda Franklin discusses the role microcredentials play in supporting employability, clarifies their definition and explains how institutions can collaborate to create and share microcredential programs. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role do microcredential and non-degree programs play when it comes to supporting employability and driving economic recovery, especially right now?

Linda Franklin (LF): Certainly, a huge role. If you look back to what happened after 2007-2009—which was the last big economic disruption—the government put a really expensive program in place to retrain people who had lost their jobs because of the recession. It worked really well, but it was expensive and it required people to take a couple of years off work to retrain. If you’ve got a mortgage and kids, it’s really hard to do that.

The difference now is that people can continue to work and use microcredentials to upskill over a period of time without having to take a break from their working lives to do it.

Those who are unemployed can get retrained more quickly. I was always struck by the fact that if you had a psychology degree, there were 50,000 jobs that you could apply to. But once you add even one microcredential on data analytics, suddenly 300,000 jobs are available to you because you’ve gained a specific skill that employers are looking for. It’s about retraining people who are out of work quickly but also upskilling those who may need a little tweak in their education to take them one step further. 

Evo: How can colleges and universities clarify the understanding around pathway outcomes for labor market microcredentials to prospective students? 

LF: A study came out a few years ago that showed us how disconnected students are from labor outcomes. Those same students in 1995 who said they wanted to be a doctor or lawyer are saying the same thing in 2020. Other professions in fields like IT or social media are down the list of their desires because they don’t understand what careers they should be pursuing. They don’t see the opportunities that are presented outside of the standard professions.  

Microcredentials heighten the need for us to figure that out. We can show learners that they don’t need to be an accountant if they don’t want to, that if they added a data analytics microcredential to their resume, they would have hundreds more options. 

When you start to think about how soon students get those perceptions in their head, it means we’re going to have to start advising them at a young age—seven or eight years old. Communicating to students and their parents much more clearly that traditional occupations aren’t necessarily the best career path for them. 

Evo: What have been the historic roadblocks to scaling the access to and the development of microcredential offerings?

LF: Microcredentials aren’t new—they’re part of continuing education. We’ve been doing continuing education forever, but it’s been off to the side. It hasn’t been mainstreamed for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is money. There is no government funding or operational money for it. The tuition for these little courses is low, so it cannot completely cover costs. And they were never OSAP-eligible, which is a big barrier for students as well.

Now, the change in the Ontario government’s budget means that they will now be OSAP-eligible and that we will receive some funding from the province to develop curriculum. There will be incentivization to partner with other institutions, so that if one school creates a microcredential, it gets plugged into the system so that other institutions aren’t reinventing the same program. Those changes will go a long way in making microcredentials a lot more mainstream than they have been. 

We’re also recognizing that we won’t maintain the same job our whole lives. It used to be that continuing ed was for those few handfuls of people who wanted to change careers. Now, continuing education, specifically with microcredentials, is going to be important to everyone. It’s very eye-opening. 

Evo: When a microcredential program is launched and approved for funding, do that program’s curriculum and structure become available for every other college to offer?

LF: That’s what we’re talking about now. It doesn’t happen very often with universities and likely never will because there are a lot of academic issues around curriculum ownership. In colleges, they own their own curriculum. It’s driven by advice from industry, so it’s a different universe. 

We do some of this by relationship-building college by college. For example, right now, all of the college business programs are aligned. You can move from one college to the other. Continue with the business program and get full credit for what you did in another college. There aren’t many programs like that at the moment, but we’re beginning to build them and create partnerships, so that we can share programs. 

We won’t have a lot of extra money lying around in the next few years as we emerge from the pandemic. The impetus to share and partner is going to be much higher than it was. 

We have some experience in this because the college-run online network, Ontario Learn, is entirely built on that platform. One college decides to develop an online program in X, and the requirement to get it on Ontario Learn is that every other college may access it. It’s not that that colleges don’t each have the knowledge to build programs, but with microcredentials, we have an opportunity to take it a lot further a lot faster.

Evo: How have you guys addressed the common definitions?

LF: It’s a work in progress. However, we have a provincial body that has produced a working definition that we’ve shared that with the ministry. We also have a national body that’s working on this and informed by our work in other provinces. It’s going to be critical to establish these common definitions because you need to embed them into a quality framework so that everyone is on the same page. It took a year for us to get to this point, but there are always going to be road bumps. There’s always going to be a group of microcredentials that aren’t attached to anything. They don’t ladder into the rest of a degree; they don’t stack into anything else. They’re very specific skills that particular employers in a local region want their employees to have. They don’t want to do the training themselves, so the local college offers it for them. There’s no way those should be funded by government but rather funded by the employer or employee themselves and those stay over here.

What we’re thinking about now is creating stackable microcredentials that you can track over time. If you have a three-year advanced diploma, and you want to stack a few microcredentials towards a degree, you should be able to do that. 

Evo: You’re in talks about a virtual passport project—is that going to be a storage and transferability mechanism for microcredentials, and is it only across the college system? 

LF: We don’t know. We do know that the government is working on it, but I’m not sure where it’s going to land. There’s an inevitability to this, though. Both of my sons had a difficult experience when it came to getting their transcripts to prove what they accomplished and knew.  You should be able to own that information as a student—not your institution. Especially if we’re going to be going through multiple institutions throughout our lives, our credential information will be scattered everywhere. 

It would be great to have the ability to make that information accessible on something like your phone. Students should be an ability to conduct a learning assessment on their learning in their career s–something that you can show a prospective employer, especially if you’re bouncing from contract to contract. I think blockchain capacity is moving some of this a little faster than we thought it could be moved. We’re still not exactly sure where the government’s going to end up with it, but conceptually, that’s the notion.

Evo: Who’s driving the bus on this—is it an eCampus Ontario piece or will it come to legislation? 

LF: I expect it’s going to be an eCampus Ontario thing. The government has been searching for the best place to land it. I believe we have enough tools in the province to figure out where to land this thing. I think there are blockchain companies as well, working with some of the colleges and universities now, to do it internally in their own systems.

Evo: How has the approach to expanding microcredentialing at colleges differed from the approach that universities have taken to accomplish the same thing, and why?

LF: Part of it is in our DNA. In the mandate of the college system, they tell us that we have to think about economic development. We have to think about how we advance the province’s economy. It’s not just about research or esoteric programming. It has to connect to the economy.

In my career, I often find that getting something accomplished with the government is a combination of really sound research and a thoughtful approach—and also just sheer luck. For us, our luck was in the form of our minister Romano. He comes from a small place and sees the challenges created in that community when industry goes away and knows how to reinvigorate the community. 

Microcredentials appealed immediately to him because he could see the possibilities for relocating industries in towns where people maybe had some capacity but needed higher-level skills or specific training. If we could do this quickly, and if people didn’t have to leave their jobs to do it, what would it mean? I think microcredentials caught his imagination really early. He was the one to coin the phrase “stackable and trackable.” It was easy for our presidents to talk about it because they’ve always been playing in this field anyway. 

When the provincial budget came out and included, the minister’s office came to us to talk about it. They weren’t aware that there were already 600 of them in the college system. We were doing them because it was something industry had asked us to do, but nobody was keeping count of them. They weren’t funded by government, so the government didn’t have eyes on it. But it also meant that it was easy and quick for us to understand what the government was driving at and how to be helpful–because we were already doing it. We had already been doing it, we knew what the challenges were. 

Evo: What does the future hold for microcredentialing in Ontario?

LF: One thing we told the government was that we’d like to pursue colleges delivering three-year advanced diplomas. About 70% of colleges meet all of the skills requirements in the province’s quality to be a three-year degree, but colleges aren’t allowed to deliver them. What some of them are missing are those breadth courses. 

It was always a big bridge to cross—to go from a three-year advanced diploma to a three-year degree. We were hearing more and more of our graduates saying they have a great job coming out of their diploma, but now that they’re in management, their employer requires a degree. They want to get that degree quickly. It would be great if we could have that graduate earn their degree through microcredentials and bridge that gap, so they can advance in their career. That would be an early and important demonstration of the value of microcredentials how they’re different than anything else we’ve done in the past. If we’re going to have a large portion of people working in a gig economy for their life, the future is going to need these microcredentials. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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