Published on 2022/02/14

Microcredentials: Why Industry Is in the Driver’s Seat

Clear and consistent definitions for microcredentials are critical to our capacity to scale and leverage these new models to make learning more accessible, flexible and outcome-oriented.
Clear and consistent definitions for microcredentials are critical to our capacity to scale and leverage these new models to make learning more accessible, flexible and outcome-oriented.

Background/Context

As Alberta’s industry, government (Ministry of Advanced Education and Ministry of Labour) and postsecondary institutions (PSI) focus on the skills development required to support the post-COVID economic revival, there are ongoing discussions on the use of microcredentials (MC) as one important strategy.

These have resulted in many meetings, provincial funding for MC products and a draft of a provincial framework to guide PSI in developing and delivering courses that address industry and individual learner competency requirements.

The process of developing and delivering MC in Alberta in predicated on three important requirements:

–        MC are accepted as a means to validate industry-based skills and competencies

–        MC are developed in consultation/collaboration with industry

–        MC support learner journeys in the world of work, reskilling and upskilling by providing a pathway to additional non-credit and credit courses, training and lifelong learning opportunities

How did we get to this important focus on MC?

Microcredentials are rooted in the digital badge movement that first gained traction to support adult learning in the workforce. One of the earliest players was a group called Open Badges, created by Mozilla Foundation in 2013 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. This focus can be traced back to the “use of symbols in ancient times to reflect different meanings (and) has evolved into modern-day usage of digital badges and microcredentials to indicate achievements, knowledge, skills, and competencies.”[1]  From hieroglyphics and cave drawings to barcodes and Scout/Girl Guide signs, symbols have been shorthand to communicate all types of information for thousands of years. In today’s modern world, we still focus on symbols to illustrate capabilities. Digital badges are the most recent example of a symbol taking the world by storm. Companies are looking for ways to enhance their workforce skills in the shortest possible time. Employees are looking for ways to keep abreast of industry developments and standards, so they can remain relevant in the workplace, progress or change jobs.

As Lane and Murgatroyd note in their article, “Amid the enthusiasm to implement microcredentials, there’s little clarity and agreement on what they are and, crucially, how they can work consistently and effectively for both people and jobs. In their most useful form, microcredentials certify that the holder has the knowledge, skills and attributes—the competencies that are required to successfully and reliably complete different job-related tasks.”[2]

As with relatively new concepts like MC, there are ongoing debates, normalization and agreements on what they mean and how to implement them. Such debates and discussions are useful to ensure we have a common understanding and use of such education credentials.

Defining Microcredentials to Enable Industry Competencies

Work done by CICan, Polytechnics Canada, Pan Canadian Microcredential Committee, eCampus Ontario, BCCAT and similar provincial bodies—as well as work from other key countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States—has been instrumental in building a pan-Canadian definition of a framework for microcredentials. This discourse supports building the pan-Canadian understanding, a critical element to enable students, companies and PSI to be better informed of MC as a credential tool that has an important place in the range of credentials available and what they offer the individual, industry, and society. In developing the draft of MC framework for Alberta, a provincial microcredential working group forum identified the CICan/Polytechnics Canada and Pan Canadian Microcredential Committee definition as capturing the essence of what this type of credential offers learners and industry. It sets the basis for us to look at what this means when implementing a MC framework—perhaps most importantly, how this framework can enable students, corporations and PSI to better use the credential to support a resilient provincial economic recovery and be responsive to change.

The essence of MC reflects competencies required by the industry. Further, it reflects a trend toward on-demand, short-form skills development focused on competencies and specific abilities. MCs need to be viewed as another worthy credential, just as we recognize the role and importance of other credentials like certificates, degrees and diplomas. This recognition is strongly driven by the need for in-demand competencies that complement degrees, diplomas and certificates. This complementary approach is noted in the use of terms like laddering and stacking between credentials. A “ladder-able” MC leads into undergraduate and graduate programs. This approach focuses on the learner and their learning pathways, enabling greater flexibility and using the credential tools available. In some cases, stacking is required before an MC can be laddered. The term stacking is used when two or more microcredentials are combined to form a larger complement or component of learning or credential.

Such an alternative short-form of learning and credentials are important as we look at building the Albertan and Canadian lifelong learning system to have meaning at different stages in a learner’s journey. This evolution has shifted the focus to industry and the learner. Institutions need to adjust to this fact, as it gives credence to the mantras that we consistently evoke: learner-focused and industry-driven.

Importance of Emerging Definitions and Guiding Principles

In October 2019 the Pan-Canadian Microcredential Committee was formed, a group comprised of a wide range of postsecondary institutions across Canada. The Pan-Canadian MC Committee worked collaboratively to develop guidelines that support quality MC development for institutions nationally. In 2020 Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) and Polytechnics Canada accepted a version based on the Pan-Canadian guidelines. The next section of this article will explore the importance of each guideline.

CICan/Polytechnics Canada: Microcredential Guiding Principles

Definition

A microcredential is a certification of assessed competencies that is additional, alternate, complementary to or a component of a formal qualification.

Guiding Principles

1. Microcredentials can be a complement to traditional credentials (certificate, diploma, degree or post-graduate certificate) or stand-alone.

This principle supports the development of MC to benefit learners no matter where they are in their life journey and to acknowledge that MC can both co-exist within other structured systems or have independent value. The goal of MC is to ensure that the required skills, competencies and abilities identified by industry are successfully mastered by learners. These learners may be fresh out of high school, switching careers, upskilling or reskilling as they move to a new field.

2. Microcredentials are subject to a robust and rigorous quality assurance process.

For MC to be useful and accepted by industry, the government and the broader public, PSI need to ensure they have a rigorous quality assurance process in place. The quality assurance process should verify that MC are developed and taught with the same assessment quality and rigor as approved credit programming. Quality assurance could exist within the PSI system, individual institutions systems or through a government process. We need to ensure we are enabling the learner journey with high-quality products, support for industry skill requirements and credit/non-credit mobility.

3. Microcredentials should represent competencies identified by employers/industry sectors to meet employer needs.

MC development, specifically the creation of competencies, skills and abilities should be led by industry and industry associations. Employers should be deeply involved in developing each MC and reskilling employees or future employees. Having close employer involvement and collaboration ensures the industry gets EXACTLY the skills they want and need. MC have the strong potential to join the range of accreditation methods that support different learner requirements at any stage of their lifelong learning journey—and in this case, to offer immediately needed competencies that support industry requirements and employment.

This guideline is important as we recognize changes to the workforce and the increased reliance on gig workers. The gig economy has seen an increase “from 5.5% in 2005 to 8.2% in 2016.”[3] Perhaps more importantly, the bottom 40% (annual income) of workers are “twice as likely to be involved in gig work as other workers.”[4] Canadian companies are huge contractors of gig work, with “more than one in three Canadian businesses (37 percent) employ[ing] gig workers.”[5] This workforce relies on having industry-required skill sets in the shortest possible time, making MC an important model to support this workforce.

4. Microcredentials may provide clear and seamless pathways across different credentials (both non-credit and credit) and be stacked.

As noted in Guideline 1, the credential’s value and its use in the student’s lifelong learning journey is critical for developing skills based on industry needs and supporting learner pathways. MC offer a unique modality for competency-based learning that can be stacked toward existing credentials in both credit and non-credit opportunities. Expanding pathway opportunities allow students to explore various ways to come into, move between and move out of programs or other learning paths. Ideally, these pathways will also be recognized across institutions.

5. Microcredentials are based on assessed competency proficiency, not on time spent learning.

What is important is rigorously assessing and validating the demonstration of competencies, skills, abilities, not the time spent in class. Once a student can demonstrate the required competencies, they get the MC. One of the learner benefits is that MC doesn’t require the time commitment of traditional credentials but can still help the learner advance. Another benefit is that learners can demonstrate the skills they have acquired through experience (experiential learning, applied training, previous jobs or life experiences) and achieve the MC. In some cases, this may mean that students only require the assessment, without having to spend time completing learning opportunities first. MC open doors for exciting new possibilities by keeping the competency assessment at the forefront.

6. Microcredentials are secure, trackable and portable, and competency is documented in students’ academic records.

As mentioned in the background/context section, digital access to the learning record is part of the MC movement. Having secure, trackable and portable MC puts the credentials into a very postsecondary-focused environment to enable sharing based on the learner’s choices. Students can take more ownership of their transcripts and records, much in the same way that the healthcare system is opening up health records.

7. Microcredentials are to follow institutional approval processes.

Guidelines 6 & 7 reflect PSI requirements and are designed to give industry the assurance that the MC is authentic and the course, assessment and rating reflect the PSI’s quality and standards. Each institution has its committees and oversight processes, and it is through these that MC should be given the nod of approval to ensure these guiding principles are kept front and center to decision-making.  

Summary

We often hear that the world is at an inflection point, where the global pandemic has shifted societal thinking, actions and engagements in ways that we are only now starting to understand. This significant change is also taking place in Alberta and Canada, and as postsecondary institutions in the province, we have an opportunity to rethink how we engage in the fundamental human right of education. The use of microcredentials offers us a significant opportunity to make a huge difference in learning and economic and social development. We note that MC is not a new model of recognition and that the focus on competencies required to reskill and upskill to enable greater involvement in work and the economy is a positive outcome.

The principles that inform the CICan and Polytechnics Canada definition of MC have been a guiding light, as this form of training and certification becomes embedded into the credentials that support learners and skills development by leading to meaningful employment. We recognize that while this is not the only arrow in our quiver of credentials, it plays a particular role designed to support the skills required by industry and the workforce. Provinces are able to adapt the MC, in keeping with its definition and guiding principles, to current contexts and requirements. This flexibility is welcome as Alberta engages in building a provincial MC framework for PSI to use as we build policies, frameworks and MC-based training programs. It is in the best interests of learners that industry and postsecondary institutions work together in this exciting reskilling and upskilling space.


[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304614783_Digital_Badges_and_Microcredentials_Historical_Overview_Motivational_Aspects_Issues_and_Challenges (June 2016)

[2] https://researchmoneyinc.com/articles/microcredentials-require-specific-components-to-be-credible-and-effective/

[3] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11f0019m/11f0019m2019025-eng.htm

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

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