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Envisioning the Microcredential

Microcredentials have gained a lot of traction in higher education, especially over the last year, but it’s important to remember that there’s not solely one type. Determining your institution’s vision for the microcredential and how it can help both students and industry is critical to implementing them well. 

Microcredentials (or micro-credentials, if you prefer) are generating a lot of interest in the post-secondary educational environment, as a way of recognizing smaller or more discrete learning experiences. At Dalhousie University, we have launched a microcredential pilot project to explore questions around how to best design, implement, manage and govern the use of microcredentials in higher education institutions. A secondary goal of this project is to build a framework to implement microcredentials in a variety of educational and organizational contexts. 

What Are Microcredentials?

We at Dalhousie University envision our microcredentials as a way to recognize learning in smaller and more focused units than traditional certificates or degrees. They can be attached to a variety of different learning experiences, such as workshops, courses, co-ops and skill-based training programs. They do not replace (or duplicate) our traditional certificates or degrees, but rather add value for students as they progress through established educational programs or engage in professional development opportunities. At the heart of our microcredentials are competencies and competency-based assessments, which highlight the mastery of a skill rather than time spent in a classroom or the retention of information. 

One of the first steps for any institution interested in implementing a microcredential framework is to establish their vision of the microcredential. In our experience, and in various other academic forums, two competing visions for microcredentials have emerged in the Canadian educational environment. A few weeks ago, Alex Usher noted on his blog that the way Canadian institutions are utilizing microcredentials is by either “getting individuals short credentials that they can build upon” or “creating very specific partnerships between institutions and employers, which lead to specific jobs.”  

The Purpose and The Vision

At Dalhousie University, we are navigating the two visions highlighted by Usher, determining where our framework fits. Do we want to create microcredentials that guide students through their educational journey? Or do we want to create microcredentials that improve the learner’s chances of being hired? Can we do both? It is important to address this issue of vision at the start of designing a microcredential program because the vision informs the microcredentials’ characteristics as well as the development and governing processes.

If the vision is to help guide and motivate students through a unique educational pathway, then the selection of microcredential skills and assessments will be identified by the course designer, course coordinator and course instructor. Their selection will be guided by the course content and objectives as well as by connections to content in related courses within a larger program. 

Likewise, you are more likely to want to create microcredentials that are leveled and connected to one another. Earning a foundational-level microcredential should set a student on the path to an intermediate-level microcredential. These connections and pathways will need to be defined in advance, so the process is clear for both learners and administrators.

If the vision is to better learners’ chances of gaining meaningful employment, then the focus of the microcredential becomes partnership and connections with potential employers, competency and assessment. For this type of microcredential, it is critical to establish a formal process to consult with industry experts and potential employers. These stakeholders will help identify skills or competencies that will most benefit their industry as well as help design assessments that their industry will consider valid.  

To begin the process of collaboration with an industry, ask the following three questions: 

1. What are the skills that the related industries spend the most time training new hires to acquire? 

2. Which skills do the related industries want but have a difficult time determining that a candidate possesses? 

3. What does a valid assessment for one of these skills look like to the industry? 

This collaboration between institutions and industries will create a greater sense of ownership and connection by firms outside academia. The microcredential will no longer only be a symbol bestowed by a distant educational institution, but a meaningful and respected connection to the industry or the employer who helped create it. It becomes as much their symbol of ability as it is the institution’s or the recipient’s. 

The table below shows some of the differences in microcredential program features based on the type of microcredential envisioned by the institution. 

Educational Journey Employment Opportunities
Leveled Microcredentials Represents a complete competency (stand alone)
Multiple Learning Outcomes per microcredential   One or two specific competencies or skills per microcredential
Course coordinators and instructors select microcredential Industry helps select microcredential
Assessment aligned with other course evaluations Assessment is created in collaboration with or evaluated by industry
Microcredentials organized as a learning path Microcredentials are organized by industry needs
Holistic microcredentials Microcredentials represent isolated skills
Often earned through completing a unit or course Earned through passing competency-based assessment (not completing a course)
Later courses built upon microcredential competencies  Job-related microcredentials

Moving Forward

At Dalhousie, and likely at other institutions as well, we are currently attempting to walk the line between the two microcredential visions. We see great value in microcredentials as providing a non-traditional pathway for diverse learners, in addition to helping those learners name the skills that directly impact their ability to succeed in the workforce. Perhaps we are choosing a yet unnamed third vision: microcredentials to support lifelong learners throughout their educational and employment pathways–or the best of both bite-sized worlds. Or perhaps we will come to choose one vision as we make our way down the microcredential path. As microcredentials continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of students, institutions and industries, the microcredential visions that produce the most value for the most people will flourish, expand and become the standard in the Canadian educational environment. 

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