Microcredentials as a Democratic Tool
Without equal opportunity for all, there is no authentic freedom in a democracy. Without options to choose from, any purported freedom rings hollow. Most essentially, freedom is the right to exercise individual choice as an equal member of a civil society. It is from this perspective of enhancing and adding new dimensions of choice that I want to examine the potential of microcredentials in higher education.
Alternative credentials are nothing new to higher education; however, microcredentials—if designed and mapped properly—have a unique potential to address multiple needs and create fresh opportunities for access and choice. A considerably large body of reports, studies and articles have been dedicated to mapping the landscape for microcredentials, so I will not reiterate that. In addition, a number of jurisdictions and organizations are developing models to deploy microcredentials consistently. The European MOOCs Consortium, for instance, has articulated a Common Microcredentials Framework, and in Canada, national organizations such as Colleges and Institutes Canada and Polytechnics Canada have adopted a basic definition of microcredentials. In the U.S., Credential As You Go, a national initiative that approaches credentialing from an equity perspective, is also developing an extensive model for pathways via an Incremental Credentialing Model.
It is in this context, and with the democratic philosophy of equity and choice as the foundation, that I would like to share the design and intentions behind Surge microcredentials, which Saskatchewan Polytechnic launched in October. I hope to show how Surge microcredentials is implementing a democratic educational philosophy that places access and choice at its very centre.
Surge brings together key features from earlier innovations in education and combines them with fresh curricular design principles that create greater agility, increased access and expanded choice for the learner. In particular, it coalesces elements of the open education model with modular competency-based learning, mergeing aspects of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) with characteristics of badging, genuine micro-learning and stacking. This unique blending enables microcredentials to achieve the next stage of evolution in democratic practice in higher education.
Let me begin with the principles of equity and access. Surge microcredentials eschew barriers to entry that mandate certain admission requirements, a feature they share with most MOOC courses (as opposed to MOOC degrees, almost all of which have some requirements for entry) and in alignment with open university models. But it goes a few steps further by often feeding directly into established credential offerings, thus removing the need to meet admission requirements. Completing the Surge microcredential suffices as having met the entrance requirement, demonstrating the capacity to learn and master the concepts that form an accredited postsecondary certificate or diploma (as distinguished from a Continuing Education certificate or diploma).
But it does not stop there. Most critically, Surge micro-credentials present authentic micro-learnings events. Unlike almost all open learning courses and MOOCS, and even most current “microcredentials” (programs that comprise standard length courses and group them in smaller chunks. In a number of cases, these are standard format Continuing Education or postsecondary courses that have been re-christened as part of a microcredential), Surge actually takes the “micro” component to heart as a central differentiator in its delivery model. It offers, in other words, genuine innovation in curricular design that makes access even greater than in MOOCs or standard open learning courses. The time required to complete a single micro-learning event is often between 3 and 5 hours. This curricular design keeps learners engaged and provides them with a sense of tangible progress through their course of study.
By keeping learners engaged in their progress, Surge microcredentials will avoid the pitfall from which MOOCs generally suffer: Data consistently shows that a very low percentage of learners complete MOOC courses or persist in a MOOC program (Lederman, 2019; Newton, 2020; U2B Staff, 2021). With Surge microcredentials, learners earn a digital badge toward a microcredential at each step of the process, so they always walk away with some tangible evidence of acquired knowledge and skills. The focus is on the quality and level of engagement, rather than the length of time spent to acquire a skill. The curricular design is competency-based, not time-based. A collection of three or four earned digital badges leads to a Surge microcredential.
In fact, this is what makes the Surge microcredential model so nimble and sophisticated. On one hand, the microcredential is composed of a small number of micro-learning engagements (usually no more than three or four), and these micro-learnings can be stacked in multiple ways to construct different microcredentials. This model therefore provides significant flexibility to bundle learning to fit students’ customized needs,feeding directly into the democratic principle of choice, even as the model activates access to skills.
On the other hand, a large number of Surge microcredentials are actually reverse-engineered; they are unbundled content of existing courses that students can re-bundle in customized ways, either to the equivalent of full-credit courses or to their own combination of desired competencies that meet their professional and learning needs to build a customized microcredential. The microcredentials can thus be leveraged toward higher education credentials (in many cases) or for upskilling to meet professional career aspirations (in all cases). A Surge microcredential most closely resembles a collection of Lego pieces that can be assembled and configured in endless ways and that each deliver skills in a specific competency. This reverse-engineering is what makes the model so scalable from an institutional perspective, even as it remains extremely flexible for learners.
This unbundling of full-credit courses makes it easier to grant equivalency toward established credentials, thanks to the direct and linear track between the two. In this way, the Surge microcredentials model authentically enhances access and choice without dismantling or artificially negating the value proposition of the current, globally accepted credentials model. It provides a very graceful, practical solution to the dynamics of freedom of choice and equal access without necessitating a painful revolution that wholesale reforms of higher education often (invariably?) demand.
Colleges & Institutes Canada (2021). National framework for microcredentials.https://www.collegesinstitutes.ca/policyfocus/micro-credentials/
European MOOC Consortium (n.d.) The Common Microcredential Framework (CMF). https://emc.eadtu.eu/cmf-awarded-programmes
Lederman, D. (2019, January 16). Why MOOCs didn’t work, in 3 data points. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2019/01/16/study-offers-data-show-moocs-didnt-achieve-their-goals
Newton, D. (2020, Jun 21). The “depressing” and “disheartening” news about MOOCs. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2020/06/21/the-depressing-and-disheartening-news-about-moocs/?sh=41ce26ee76ed
U2B Staff (2021, March 15). How education providers are responding to low MOOCs completion rates. U2B Education for Careers. https://u2b.com/2021/03/15/moocs-completion-rates/
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