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How Do Microcredentials Stack Up? Part 1

Microcredentials may very well be paving the way forward in higher education, but successful implementation depends on a common definition, stackability and industry relevancy. 

The Non-Degree Credential Network (NCRN) and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) share an interest in microcredentials. On September 9, 2021, the NCRN invited Jackie Pichette, Director of Research and Policy for the HEQCO, to share findings from a recent research report: Making Sense of Microcredentials. This two-part series starts by summarizing Jackie’s research presentation, facilitated by NCRN. Part 2 shares some of the robust discussion with NCRN members and guests who followed Jackie’s presentation.

Why is HEQCO—a policy-focused research organization—interested in microcredentials?

In 2019, my colleagues and I made the case that the economy is changing quickly and unpredictably. The pandemic is a prime—though extreme—example of unforeseeable economic influences. We argued that while we can’t predict specific economic changes coming down the pike—whether new technology, a public health emergency, or business disruptor—we can anticipate and prepare for change in general. One way to do that is by building an educational system that prepares people to adapt and thrive in turbulent times. At HEQCO, we’re interested in short, affordable, and flexible programs that top up the skills and knowledge adults already have and help them advance or pivot in the labor market. 

Is that what microcredentials are—short, affordable, and flexible programs?  

They can be! There’s a lot of confusion around the definition of the microcredential. When my colleagues and I started our research in February 2020, just before the world turned upside down, one of our aims was to help establish some common understanding. We engaged experts and consulted literature from around the world to help us answer questions like, What constitutes a microcredential? How is a microcredential different from a digital badge or a certificate?

We landed on an umbrella definition of programs focused on a discrete set of competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, attributes) that, by virtue of having a narrow focus, require less time to obtain than traditional credentials. We also came up with a typology to show the variation in this definition. For example, microcredentials can be self-paced to accommodate individual schedules, can follow a defined schedule or feature a mix of fixed- and self-paced elements. Both the definition and typology can be found in our Making Sense of Microcredentials report. 

You said HEQCO sees potential for microcredentials to serve adult learners–do we know whether adults are interested in them?

They seem to be. In September 2020, HEQCO surveyed just over 2000 prospective students, all Canadian adults not enrolled in a postsecondary program at the time. We wanted to know what about microcredentials, if anything, appealed to them.

We found that once they understood what microcredentials are, Canadian adults were quite interested. Nearly 75% of the working-age Canadians surveyed showed interest in microcredentials for either professional development, personal development, or both. They recognized the value that quick, focused programs contributed to accomplishing their current and future goals. And 70% said upskilling and Continuing Education would be important for future-proofing their careers.

Survey respondents highlighted flexibility and affordability as appealing microcredentials’ features. Employer recognition was also important to them. Our findings aligned pretty well with American research conducted by Strada. Though we use slightly different terminology, we see similar themes of employer interest and affordability ranking highly for learners. 

It makes sense that employer recognition would matter to prospective students. What do employers need to recognize microcredentials?

Part of our research project involved HEQCO surveying employers about how they felt about microcredentials, from both hiring and  internal staff development perspectives.

We asked just over 200 Canadian employers how they would react to seeing a microcredential on  a job application. About 60% of respondents said a microcredential would increase their confidence in a prospective employee’s skills. About two-thirds said they would see  it as highly favorable if it were directly related to the job at hand, competency-based and/or accredited. 

Responses varied when we asked employers about applying microcredentials to internal staff training and development. In this context, even more employers (nearly 70%) said they would have a highly favorable view of microcredentials if they were competency-based, industry-aligned, and flexible. We see a similar emphasis placed on industry alignment from American research out of Northeastern University.

How do prospective student and employer interests line up with what postsecondary institutions are offering or planning to offer in Canada?

To round out our research, we surveyed 161 publicly assisted colleges and universities across Canada. We found most institutions were either already offering microcredentials or planning to do so in the future. Most (about 90%) said their programs target working adults looking to change their occupation or the employees of industry partners. In terms of features Canadian colleges and universities value, we saw industry alignment ranking highest. A common understanding or definition and  short and competency-based education were also top priorities. 

Were you surprised by any of your survey findings?

I was not surprised to see that, above all, Canadians care about affordability. Or that, for employers to see value, microcredentials should feature an assessment of competencies and be tied to industry needs. 

The one feature  for which we received mixed—and maybe surprising—feedback from prospective students, employers, and postsecondary institutions alike is stackability. Stackability, or the ability to accumulate credentials over time and in a value-adding way, is a feature in which our research suggests Canadian colleges/universities are very interested. The employers and prospective Canadian students we engaged, however, showed less interest in this. Americans also ranked this feature lower than others (Strada research shows only 10% of Americans indicate this feature as a priority). 

I was fortunate to participate in a fascinating conversation about the potential positives and negatives of stackable microcredentials with the members of the Non-degree Credential Network (NCRN). Part 2 of this series will share highlights from that discussion. 

Check out part 2 here.

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