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How Continuing Education Can Facilitate the Adoption of Microcredentials

As unemployment rates rise, microcredentials are key to aligning learners with the right skills that match employer demands and keep them on a successful career journey. 

As we potentially emerge from the pandemic, higher education is looking to transition back to some form of normal. With mass unemployment and industry skill gaps continuing to grow, institutions need to adapt more short-term programming. This is Continuing Education’s opportunity to lead the way. In this interview, Sheila LeBlanc discusses why microcredentials are a hot topic right now, the risks that can come with implementing credentials and how credit and non-credit can be tied closer together to create seamlessness for the lifelong learner. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is microcredentialing Higher Ed’s topic du jour, or why is everyone talking about it?

Sheila LeBlanc (SLB): COVID-19 accelerated a number of existing trends for which microcredentials are seen as a solution. These trends included digital disruption, increased acceptance of online learning and new generations of workers desiring flexible work arrangements. The most impactful has certainly been digital disruption. As digital disruption and the implementation of new technologies and processes sweep through the world of work, workers in all fields of practice require new knowledge, skills and competencies to succeed in their existing roles or prepare for new ones. Some call it the fourth industrial revolution or industry 4.0, but the name doesn’t matter. What does matter is the result–decreasing the time it takes to acquire new knowledge in all fields of practice, which drives everyone’s need for lifelong learning.  

With COVID, we’ve seen all these trends accelerate, so now we’re trying to transition into what will become a new normal. We see mass unemployment, especially in certain sectors, and government and employers are challenged with how to address these issues. What actions can they take to support recovery into a new, competitive normal? All those variables have really created the focus on microcredentials, specifically microcredentials that focus on developing the skills and competencies needed for in-demand jobs.  

Microcredentials are the shiny, new thing. However, I see it as just a name given to a variety of short-cycle learning opportunities offered in a variety of modalities. These types of learning opportunities have been provided by higher education, predominately by CE teams and some private organizations and education institutions, for a very long time. What is really helpful is how the focus on microcredentials is creating heightened awareness of the need for competency-based short-cycle learning. There is now recognition of and a focus on how important continuous learning is to economic and professional competitiveness. As a result, we’re seeing this type of learning being prioritized within institutions, moving the work of CE teams on the periphery of the institution toward the center.

Evo: What are the risks to implementing microcredentials? 

SLB: We’re changing the way we learn and work to become more intertwined, fluid and agile. We need offer learning in parallel to work or as short-cycle bursts to maintain the skills needed for work over a lifetime. From my perspective, the risk of formalizing microcredentials by engaging government and traditional faculties is that we might lose some of our flexibility and agility. 

One of the key value propositions of Continuing Education has been flexible, responsive programming tailored to market demand. However, it has been a bit of a wild frontier, with varying quality assurance practices. This is a key tension. If we get too inundated with the bureaucracy, the approval processes and the controls, we won’t be responsive enough. But if we can’t provide evidence for quality assurance, we won’t be credible to employers or government funders. We need the credibility to ensure learners have access to funding for relevant short-cycle learning and so employers recognize the knowledge, skills and competencies they’ve gained.  

A related internal institutional challenge, for those of us in Continuing Education, is that solid quality assurance processes within are typically different from those in the traditional academy—and those processes aren’t always valued or respected by some of our faculty colleagues. However, if we don’t figure out what quality assurance processes we can stand behind inside publicly funded post-secondary institutions, private providers will, which is another risk.

There’s also risk in how we design and support crosswalks between credit, non-credit and prior learning. There has been much discussion about the importance of developing stackable, on-ramps and off-ramps that available over a lifetime and recognizing that role prior learning plays an allowing transferability and mobility. However, the models, employer engagement processes, funding and quality assurance for these structures are not well developed and understood by all stakeholders. This is the next frontier. If we coordinate well between employers, government and post-secondary, we can build and continuously evolve a world-class workforce. The risk lies that in investing heavily and not doing it in a coordinated way.   

Evo: Why does the institution as a whole need to participate in the implementation of microcredentials?

SLB:  Microcredentials will be more important to some disciplines and fields of practice than others, but microcredentials need to be an essential part of the portfolio of learning opportunities available at all post-secondary institutions. 

Certain professions have continuous learning requirements already, such as engineering or medicine, but there is new knowledge being generated in all disciplines and fields of practice. To build and maintain a world-class workforce, we need mechanisms to ensure our workforce is acquiring and leveraging the latest, research-informed knowledge to maintain our country’s economic competitiveness and to contribute to solving worldwide challenges. That’s really where the concept of new knowledge translation-to practice comes in. It is also why publicly funded post-secondary institutions, particularly research-intensive universities, need to play a key part in the upskilling and reskilling ecosystem. 

Microcredentials and continuous learning are critical for almost every worker’s future. It doesn’t matter if you are a nurse, an engineer, a scientist or an artist. When I finished my undergraduate degree in marketing, social media and digital marketing didn’t exist. Today’s needs to continuously learn new skills and competencies too or they won’t be employed for long!  

If we don’t make microcredentials part of our learning portfolio in all disciplines, we’re missing the boat.  

Evo: In thinking about the crosswalks between credit and non-credit, how does that change the fundamental model of post-secondary education? 

SLB: Wide crosswalks between credit, non-credit and prior learning threatens higher education’s the core business model. That’s the bottom line. I would suggest that the institutions in more financial need and in need of students are those that are going to drive there the fastest. However, organizational change, cultural change and organizational business process change is hard. At the heart of most change management models is the sense of urgency. If we don’t have students, we don’t exist–that creates a sense of urgency to change. 

A key influence encouraging change is government policy. In Alberta and many other jurisdictions, institutions are being measured against new performance indicators, tied to institutional funding, that are associated with the amount of work-integrated learning provided to students. Student employment post-graduation is another institutional performance indicator used to push institutions to collaborate more directly with employers. Performance indicators that are tied to funding will create the conditions that force the majority of institutions to move, but it does threaten the autonomy and fundamental decision-making structures within the academy. 

We can continue to be a learning organization of choice by making sure that we are creating parallel paths. The challenge is doing all this in a coordinated evolution versus a chaotic revolution. 

The revolution piece will be led by institutions that are driving entirely new business models with entrepreneurial executive and academic leadership that have that urgency to survive. They’re going to be the ones we will learn from and, in some cases, follow. 

I look at it from a business position standpoint. Higher ed is changing, but many of the changes threaten the whole idea of academic freedom and control. Those are waters we need to navigate carefully.  I do agree with moving the conversation away from students as an empty vessel toward customers to students and employers as partners in creating accessible, research-informed and workplace-relevant learning opportunities. As publicly funded institutions, society needs that from us.  

Evo: Culturally speaking, why are CE divisions well positioned to support the adoption of this mentality required to do microcredentialing?

SLB: It is our foundation—it’s what we do. That culture exists within our Continuing Education teams already. As a responsive educational unit, we’re continuously looking at serving different learner audiences in different stages of their lifelong learning journey and at developing outcome assessments that are appropriate for different learning purposes. It’s our DNA. Continuing Education teams have the tools, technology and processes in place to act as a launching point for microcredential practices across the academy.

Our big, hairy challenge is evolving the ecosystem of stakeholders beyond the academy. We have to look at how we’re going to engage our government and employers, and drive funding and urgency. The risk for higher education in particular is that if we don’t do it, governments will put incentives in place for other organizations to do so. We need to play within the ecosystem and get better at balancing the tension between autonomy and working in partnership with employers and government. Many Continuing Education teams also have significant experience in this space, customizing corporate learning offerings and developing tailored learning offerings based on government tender processes. 

Evo: Why is there that gap that stops us from scaling prior learning?

SLB: Part of it is ego. Being research-intensive, sometimes faculty will say there’s a college down the street that they see as not up to par with us and they won’t accept, for example, their Economics 101 course for prior learning credit. However, recognizing prior formal, assessed learning is the easy part.  To truly scale prior learning that is useful across a lifelong learning ecosystem would require the appropriate language, processes and mechanisms to recognize informal learning, knowledge and competencies.  This is where flexible assessment strategies and evidence of learning become critical.  While there are some great examples, we’ve got a long way to go to scale that part of prior learning recognition.

Partnering with our registrars to deploy a digital wallet is also an important step in the evolution toward a more flexible prior learning ecosystem—an ecosystem that recognizes learning in multiple forms and consolidates the evidence of learning into one place that is “owned” by the learner themselves. A digital wallet meets these needs by providing evidence for learning in different ways and forms. It can contain transcripts, parchments, badges, etc. It’s quite exciting. At the University of Calgary, we’ll be recognizing non-credit programs and badges via the MyCreds platform, as well as our traditional credit degree programs—and it’s going to happen this academic year!

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how CE is able to facilitate the adoption of microcredentials? 

SLB: There are some key things that help us get a seat at the table and join the conversation. Most importantly, it’s our market understanding. As cost-recovering and revenue-generating units, Continuing Education teams rely upon their understanding of student demand, employer demand and regional economic development to ensure their viability. We are familiar with using labor and occupational data to inform and steer what programming gets supported and what gets created in a microcredential format. If we can demonstrate our knowledge in that space to the academy without threatening faculty autonomy, CE teams can really add value. 

We also have the operational and program development competencies needed. This is where tools like Modern Campus and other types of student information and registration systems are great. They allow us to offer and deliver things that are structured differently than traditional degree programming. CE teams have the ability to share our market identification, program design and operational skills that support short-cycle learning as a partner to academic faculties that are ready to venture into the microcredential space.

Evo: How can CE leaders get a seat at the table when it comes to steering institutional credentialing strategy? 

SLB: You dig where the ground is soft. Some faculties are way less likely to want to play at this time. The link to workforce development and ongoing competency development isn’t always as apparent to all faculties. Professional schools such as engineering and nursing get the idea of professional competencies and lifelong learning because their professions already require it. 

So, the value proposition that we talk about with them is, well, how do we want to provide microcredentials? How we do it faster, better and make it consistently available, so we become the place of choice for lifelong learning for their graduates or those in their profession? And what alumni, philanthropic and professional development links could do for the reputation of their faculty and our institution.

That’s where the ground is soft. And that’s where we can actually move the conversation forward across the entire academy.

Evo: What would it take to work with the rest of the ecosystem to start creating those modular and continuous learning pathways that are relatively seamless for a lifelong learner?

SLB: At the highest level, we need government, employers and publicly funded post-secondary institutions to work together. 

While I almost cringe saying it, I believe much of it starts with government steering, funding and policy. I would like to think that we could create a shared sense of urgency and direction through other means, but the realist in me has observed the wide range of agendas and priorities across the learning ecosystem.  

Aligned government funding and policy can encourage post-secondary institutions to create more continuous learning pathways and encourage post-secondary institutions to agree to internal governance, quality assurance and operational processes that are relatively seamless for lifelong learners.  Government funding and policy can also support student access to continuous learning through student loans and grants.  

Individual learners are not the only ones who need support, employers can be motivated to offer work-integrated learning experiences and provide opportunity for workers to attend continuous learning through Government incentives. Government at both the provincial and federal level need to get involved to encourage the ecosystem stakeholders to work together, but the devil is in the detail.  Getting everyone aligned is not a small undertaking.   


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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