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Maximizing the Potential of Microcredentials

Microcredentials can be a win-win for employers, learners and the institution when implemented strategically and thoughtfully. 

It’s no secret that microcredentials have become a hot topic in higher education, especially as the disruption caused by the pandemic has left thousands unemployed. But the launch of microcredentials has to be done strategically and carefully to maximize their potential. In this interview, Heather McRae discusses the importance of microcredentials, the challenges that come with launching them across the institution and how CE divisions can help lead this implementation.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for institutions to focus on microcredentials?

Heather McRae (HMR): Microcredentials have many features of interest to different stakeholders. The courses are short, typically focused on a single measurable skill, ladder to related training or credentials, cost-effective and can be offered either face-to-face or online in a just-in-time format. This is really appealing to both learners and employers looking for immediate training solutions.

The format of microcredentials aligns with the government’s interest in re-skilling and up-skilling for economic growth. Post-secondary institutions have the knowledge and infrastructure to support the development of microcredentials to ensure they have the rigor and quality needed.

Evo: What are some of the common obstacles faced when trying to implement microcredentials, especially across the institution?

HMR: I have heard from many different post-secondary institutions that the lack of a common framework is cause for concern. There’s a fear that there’ll be kind of a free-for-all that will lead to inconsistent approaches and confusion in the marketplace. Many institutions are currently developing or adopting working definitions for microcredentials, but they differ from institution to institution, even though there have been some attempts from organizations to offer a common definition for everyone to use.

Secondly, there is a belief that microcredentials are just shorter courses designed in the same way as traditional courses and offered through CE and extension units. The critical difference is that microcredentials require an assessment of competence. Traditional assessment methods are based on participation or exams and do not take into account the different instructional design approaches that ensure learners have attained the required skill. So many post-secondary institutions are now reexamining their PLAR policies and practices to accommodate the assessment of previously acquired skills, in addition to the skills achieved through the training.

Further concerns within the institution relate to for-credit microcredentials and how they can be effectively laddered into diploma or degree programs, and how they can be mapped to occupational requirements. Additionally, the role of business and industry in developing microcredentials is unclear. Is endorsement enough, or should educational institutions be looking at a more formalized advisory committee or co-creation role? If so, what would that look like? Particularly given that many small businesses don’t have the resources or the expertise to do this.

Some businesses may be looking to offer their own microcredentials. Should these microcredentials map to post-secondary programs? That’s still unknown as well.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles?

HMR: We need to participate in discussions about establishing provincial frameworks consistent with the skills in need nationwide, including scaffolding the various frameworks and ensuring some alignment and consistency.

We also need to develop strategies to assess competencies based on best practices and use approaches like specification grading and revising current PLAR practices to align skills assessment and establish an internal approval system that outlines the requirements for non-credit and credit-bearing microcredentials. This is something that many universities and colleges are already working on that—developing strategies to work with business and industry, looking at ways to map microcredentials to skills requirements.

One of the challenges is that the national occupational codes—the NOC codes—do not align with the kinds of skills that business and industry are interested in developing. So, there’s a lag between what is currently identified in the occupational code framework and what is needed by businesses to improve their economic outcome.

Evo: What role should CE divisions play in helping the broader institution develop and implement microcredentials?

HMR: Continuing Education units are uniquely positioned to do this work. That’s why many of them have taken the lead within their institutions to develop microcredentials. Given the unknowns associated with microcredentials, including the lack of congruence throughout the post-secondary system, this has been an effective strategy. This is the world we know very well, and we are not constrained by the requirements of provincial frameworks.

As microcredentials become more established, Continuing Education units can inform their institution of best practices relating to governance, business, industry involvement, assessment and learner preference.

Microcredentials are an effective learning approach that will become even more effective and sustainable with an overarching framework that connects competency-based learning to other credentials and employment requirements.

A funding model for microcredentials is needed to develop curricula and support learners. So, there is a lot to do, but this is a very exciting time for CE departments.

Evo: Is there anything that you want to add about how we’re developing and launching microcredentials?

HMR: I’m very excited and optimistic about my collaborations and those I’m hearing about in other jurisdictions. Continuing Education providers from post-secondary institutions are working together, sharing ideas and helping each other determine how to approach microcredentials in a way that makes sense for the learner. We want microcredentials to have value in learners’ careers, in their personal lives, so that they can be the kind of individuals they want to be.

Identifying criteria for a digital record is another ongoing conversation. How will badges or certification of competencies be issued? Will they be recognized by industry and across institutions? And how can we ensure authenticity? I think we will start to see the development of principles and standardization of practices in the near future.  We also need to work with business and industry to understand their role. Certainly, the conversations I’ve had with a variety of different stakeholders indicate there is support in identifying ways to build new microcredentials together. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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