Visit Modern Campus

How Do Microcredentials Stack Up? Part 2

As some people caution their concerns around stackable credentials, it’s important to recognize them as bite-sized education that complements a learner’s lifelong learning journey. 

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 from HEQCO, to share findings from a recent research report: Making Sense of Microcredentials. This two-part series started 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. The conversation transcript has been lightly edited and the members’ anonymity preserved.

NCRN member: Jackie, you noted being surprised that prospective students and employers don’t appear as interested in microcredentials’ stackability as colleges and universities are. That finding got me thinking… I wonder if this quality of stackability has been taken for granted. The cynic in me worries higher education has a stake in people accumulating more and more credentials; meanwhile many individuals and employers likely just want to solve immediate problems and access the skills needed. Should we think more carefully about the context in which stackability is pertinent rather than assuming it’s always necessary?

Jackie: My colleagues and I heard this line of questioning in the interviews HEQCO conducted for the Making Sense of Microcredentials research. Some institutional representatives we spoke with were adamant that microcredentials should be stackable. Looking at microcredentials from an accessibility perspective, these interview subjects saw microcredentials as an opportunity when pursuing a larger credential was not otherwise possible. There’s a lot of merit to that view. 

We also heard from people concerned that some important transferable skills and knowledge may be lost in the deconstruction of curricula. In Ontario, for example, college diplomas have a general education component to ensure graduates leave with strong transferable skills, like writing and communication, regardless of the discipline. If we’re talking about stacking together small microcredentials, some interview subjects questioned whether those skills will be lost. And if they are lost, have we done a disservice to students? 

HEQCO has taken the stance that stackability can be positive, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it is always positive. A microcredential should always be valuable to the learner in and of itself. 

NCRN member: I would argue that stackability is essential from an equity point of view because it clearly has to have value in the labor market and in the education system. That’s a problem on the education—not the individual—side. If you have a truly competency-based credential, then some value should be attached to it. We have years and years of experience of valuable vocational education on the non-credit side because it didn’t go through the accreditation program approval process. Then, people who choose to progress have to start all over again because they don’t get credit for any of it. So, we call it stackable, but it’s all about providing credit for prior learning and integrating it into our systems. It’s a cop out to just say, “Students don’t think it needs to be stackable, so let’s just not deal with that problem.”

Jackie: Absolutely. HEQCO’s report includes what we called “quality markers.” These are microcredential features about which we think postsecondary institutions should be transparent to facilitate transferability. We’re differentiating between transferability and stackability. For postsecondary institutions to recognize learning that has taken place elsewhere, I would differentiate the transferability element from the stackable piece, which to me conveys the idea that you can take a credential and stack it into another within a preconceived trajectory versus recognizing learning,  transferring it and applying it elsewhere.

NCRN member: I agree a hundred percent that there’s an institutional problem—students obtaining some amount of learning that cannot transfer because of institutional policies regulating the inability to transfer smaller bites of learning into longer-term pathways. I agree with Jackie.  I think it’s about small-bite learning to engage in and then cut away from school. And then intentionally coming back later for another bite.

NCRN member: The cutting away—that’s how we’ve always thought of this. But I’m not aware there’s a whole lot of evidence to suggest there’s a big body of students who want to pursue education that way. The research says lots of adult students would like shorter term credentials. It is not the same thing as saying, “I want to go back to school multiple times to get as many credentials,” when what they want is the shortest amount of education for the greatest outcome. I agree there’s a problem in the ability to transfer your learning over time, but that’s different from creating an intentional system that says, “We will let you come and go as you please.” I don’t know if that is really a natural way for people to get an education, and it was interesting to see that students don’t see that as attractive either. It resonates anecdotally with what we hear from them.

NCRN member: But higher ed policy drives a lot of that. Students enroll in longer programs because that’s how they get financial aid, then they drop out and have nothing. That’s part of it as well. We’re forcing people into programs they don’t actually want to be in. And then they leave with the knowledge they wanted to acquire, but they have no tangible recognition of that knowledge because they didn’t complete the associated program. So, maybe stackable is the wrong word, but to me, these are all totally interrelated issues.

NCRN member: My institution recently completed an 18-month planning grant around Credential As You Go. Part of that involved conducting a landscape analysis across the U.S. to see what was happening around incremental credentialing. Stackability was only one of five credentialing patterns we saw.  I think higher ed would agree that higher ed has a vested interest in the system of degrees. In thinking about everything leading to that, we did see many other ways to look at incremental credentials. The reason we adopted that language—incremental credentials over microcredentials—was that microcredentials only really described part of what was going on. So, we tried to come up with a neutral term: incremental. We also did some pilot work with faculty and found that once faculty got their heads around something familiar and understood how it would fit into the bigger picture, then they started coming up with other ways to implement incremental credentialing. So, I’m wondering whether stackability is a temporary priority and we’re going to see a shift as we become more aware that credentials should also have value beyond single credentials. We don’t want to recreate dead-end pathways for people where different groups of students or workers are encouraged to earn a specific credential and others are encouraged to stack, leading to a tiered system—and that’s worse than what we already have. We’ve been discussing this in terms of avoiding what we already have. 

NCRN member: What about demand for different education modalities? You can look at the number of people who officially enroll in undergraduate programs on a part-time basis as evidence that many want to work and go to college simultaneously. Many are unwilling or unable though, right? There’s not enough financial assistance for them to continue. How do we reconcile those data points while struggling with learner agency and stackability?

NCRN member: The concerns that microcredentials have raised have had to do, in part, with the concept of the public good of education; i.e., that education is not just about enabling people to get their entry-level job, but enabling people to become responsible citizens, to lead satisfying lives. How do we make sure there is somehow, somewhere, a nutritious meal involved (according to the “small bites of education” analogy Ted Mitchell makes)? Otherwise, microcredentials risk becoming the alternate track for the less ambitious, less advantaged —and will in fact become part of the already problematic stratification of higher education. Thoughts on that?

Jackie: I couldn’t agree more. In my view, traditional postsecondary education will always have a role in teaching the foundational knowledge and transferable skills that will set people up for a successful life of continual learning. And this will hopefully be complemented with smaller bites of education—microcredentials or something like them.

Author Perspective:

Author Perspective: