By Ray Tellili
(2022) Micro-Credentials are going mainstream fast and the trend is set to accelerate greatly over the coming decade. Adoption is happening fastest in the anglosphere (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), but also in the EU, OECD countries and indeed beyond.
Many educational institutions are already offering Micro-Credentialing opportunities to their students. Some are in the process of implementing them. And a great many others are either piloting them, seriously examining the idea, or trying to figure out exactly how to go about rolling them out.
What is a Micro-Credential?
A universally agreed upon definition of the term ‘Micro-Credential’ does not yet exist. They are sometimes referred to as badges or certificates. In the September 2021 UNESCO webinar, ‘Moving towards a common language on micro-credentials’, education experts from around the world moved closer to reaching a consensus on a globally recognized definition. We can expect a definition – perhaps – in 2022. In the meanwhile, we can lean on the ISCED interpretation – one that is also accepted by Colleges and Institutes Canada. A micro-credential is, “a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternate, complementary to, or a component of a formal qualification”.
We might loosely interpret them as being, ‘more than a course but less than a degree’, or put another way, they are like learning units that are stackable and that are related to a greater larger learning unit.
To obtain a micro-credential, you generally need to pass an exam. More on this process later.
It is increasingly accepted that formal education (programs that generally lead to certification) needs to include micro-credentials to respond to a rapidly evolving labour market. The demand is significant in both public and private institutions, and in secondary and post-secondary institutions. They can be used as part of a course or part of a program. They can be ported over to another program or degree for credit, or if necessary even ported to another school.
Their interoperability can also serve to foster ties and partnerships between institutions and schools themselves, as well as between the public and private sphere. They are not intended to, or even capable of replacing degree programs. Formal post-secondary degree programs continue to confer large social and economic benefits to society, despite detractor criticism. Some criticism is justified, particularly as pertains to ‘inclusivity’ and ‘accessibility’, after all; setting aside the money, or accumulating debt, or setting aside four years of study (or more) to attain a degree, that in the end, may or may not lead to immediate or related employment, is not an option open to all.
While there is no existential threat to formal post-secondary education, as there will always be those who value education; there is a concern that it slides into a luxury afforded by the privileged few. Ultimately, institutions that do not adapt will find themselves struggling to maintain market share. That is a major reason why micro-credentials have (to a large extent) been embraced by the progressive formal education establishment (albeit at times cautiously). They can enable quality post-secondary degree programs to evolve and to remain attractive.
Why do they exist?
Educational policy makers in the developed world have been busy re-engineering education to make it adaptable to the 21st Century. A mountain of excellent scholarship attests to this, but one key feature of that, and very much related to the micro-credential, is the push to create a learner/human based approach. The learner of the 2020s (especially the one that is looking to upskill) is looking for flexibility (online or in situ), affordability (and inclusivity), immediacy, and relevancy (targeted granular learning). And industry needs a system that can produce skilled and workforce-ready workers, and a system that can adapt quickly; that is innovative, and that can re-tool and respond fast to market needs. A system that can deploy relevant micro-credentials fast.
There is a real need to provide more ‘granular certified learning’ to society. Micro-credentials offer a solution, and an opportunity for all stakeholders; for the learner, educational institutions, and industry. They are not only incredibly flexible, and ultimately help educate and skill more people, they also efficiently lower costs and build on prior learning – an attractive and convenient proposition for any learner or school. All of these features have made micro-credentials incredibly popular.
The OECD Education Working Paper Series No.216 summarizes their increased popularity well, “The scale of alternative credentials – defined here as certificates, badges, and micro-credentials – has expanded considerably, as a consequence of a rising demand for upskilling and reskilling, as well as a sharp reduction in the unit cost of education and training provision made possible by digitalization. Higher Ed Institutions, businesses and other institutions are actively offering alternative credentials that help learners acquire new skills, update their existing skills, and signal the competencies they already have. It appears that alternative credentials do not yet serve as “alternative” to a formal postsecondary education qualification; rather, they serve to complement prior education, experience, and training”.
As previously mentioned, education policy makers and experts in the developed world have been busy preparing the groundwork for the new economy, but it should also be noted, that there is also a great deal of potential, and interest, from developing countries and regions where youth unemployment remains staggeringly high and the mismatch between what is learned in school and what are deemed practical skills are exacerbated by other complex challenges.
Who is using Micro-Credentials?
They are being used by different sectors. The private/corporate sector uses them. Accounting firms, Law firms, and Engineering companies, for example, might require that their staff be credentialed. At other times they are ‘offered’ as perks/benefits for professional development. In lieu of a degree, an employee might ‘stack’ appropriate micro-credentials together. The successful worker, after all, is a continual learner.
Government and public sector workers are, and will be, using them more in the years ahead. Like their counterparts in the private sector, employees are constantly having to train and learn new skills. Micro-credentials can also help serve as a stepping stone toward a different job internally (laterally or vertically) or externally. When you consider that the average Millennial or Gen Z remains in any one job for less than 3 years, the micro-credential as a gateway to another job makes sense.
Given that these micro-credentials can offer a quick path to employment, there is also significant use and demand from workforce development agencies. The availability of these options (inclusivity) has led to real life changing experiences for many a job seeker or career changer.
In Secondary Education, certainly in the United States and Canada, a great many School Boards and Schools have implemented micro-credentials including the largest school board in Canada. In secondary schools, these micro-credentials can be used as a component of a course (e.g. if you pass the micro-credential exam, you not only obtain the Certification/Badge, but de-facto pass the course). Micro-credentials can, and will, increasingly be used as credits that count for University admissions. Their fast adoption in high schools (essentially Grades 10-12), despite the most rigorous vetting (due to privacy and security) is in large parts thanks to forward thinking instructors and administrators looking to future proof their students. Educators really are heroes!
Worldwide, Colleges, Trade Schools and Polytechnics (especially) are also widely embracing micro-credentials since they make sense for the vocational and technical focused learner. One wonders if Germany’s vaunted and successful apprenticeship programs, where industry and education move so well together, has played a role in accelerating their adoption. Anecdotally, it seems that the pendulum has shifted in Germany where apprenticeship programs remain strong, but where they have seen a resurgence in University enrollment, as well as a surge in University funding.
Within Universities, widespread adoption is well underway. From Business Schools to Digital Media Departments, to Computer Science Departments, faculties are welcoming the idea of having their students graduate with not only a degree in hand, but also a Certification/Badge demonstrating mastery; skills that can help them get employed. Continuing Studies/Continuing Education Departments have really been pioneering their use. That’s not at all surprising when you consider that the micro-credential’s raison d’être is deeply linked to Lifelong Learning.
The Lifelong Learning DNA of the Micro-Credential
In fact, Lifelong Learning is at the core of the micro-credential revolution. Today, Life Long Learning isn’t solely a healthy lifestyle choice or an evolved philosophical position; we keep learning because we must, in order to stay relevant in our chosen fields. Micro-credentials serve this purpose well. They are more than just a bridge between what industry needs and what schools produce – they are that for sure, but they are also a bridge to the new economy – the digital 5G economy of the 2020s, and the upcoming AI economy of the 2030s that will be running on 6G. Already, upon the completion of a micro-credential, the badges and certificates that are conferred are themselves almost entirely digital (example of a digital badge here).
Fraud-Proofing the Micro-Credential
These micro-credentials will soon all be safely stored on decentralized blockchains, making credentials easily verifiable, accessible, and fraud/tamper proof. BC Diploma for example, a company based in France, is already capitalizing on the demand.
In fact, a micro-credential in some regards resembles a block in the blockchain, considering that, when you add a micro-credential to your foundational education, you’ve added to your education, you’ve built on and complemented it. The micro-credential is recognized proof of your competence. Today, someone wanting to learn about blockchain technology (for example) on their terms (cost, convenience, accessibility, etc.) and wanting to be formally recognized as competent in blockchain technology with a certification or badge that could boost their career prospects; they are going to look for institutions that can deliver. A cursory online search in my region reveals that these 3 institutions for example are offering blockchain micro-credentials: The University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, and the University of Canada West.
Furthermore, in the spirit of accessibility, and lower entry barrier points, the micro-credential can also serve as a powerful marketing and recruitment tool for institutions to entice learners in to enrolling full-time by offering to stack that earned micro-credential as credit towards a full degree. Not only that, but the micro-credential can also serve to attract more teaching expertise from industry itself. While pedagogical training remains essential in all learning environments, particularly with younger learners, it is an incredible waste of resource and talent not to allow experienced industry professionals to participate as instructors (at least in some capacities) in education. The micro-credential opens this door, and with interactive kinesthetic software set to increasingly replace; not the instructor, but rather the repetitive and mundane teaching tasks borne by the instructor, the cost benefit of the micro-credential, and the whole digital learning environment is self-evident.
Certification Integrity and Transcripts
Like the guilds of old, any reputable school or institution must safeguard its integrity and reputation. Despite arguments that the traditional static transcript is not necessarily serving the labour market, it still demonstrates completion in a relatively standardized format; but one of the biggest challenges facing the use of micro-credentials is standardization, or lack thereof. How does industry for example (or a job recruiter) know which micro-credential to accept, as proof of know-how. The definition of quality varies – all micro-credentials are not created equal. For effective interoperability and industry acceptance, standardization in accreditation (within national and international frameworks) are key to ensuring and maintaining quality. Standardization also serves to safeguard the consumer financially, as well as the tax payer who funds programs.
Globally Recognized Industry Micro-Credentials
The importance of standardization has made ‘industry recognized micro-credentials’ very popular within the micro-credential world.
Consider ABC College, that has a digital marketing program that teaches students to use Photoshop and Illustrator. ABC College decides to offer micro-credentials from Adobe – the actual software developer. A student takes the course, and if they pass the official Adobe exam, they obtain a micro-credential from the actual developer, Adobe. The student would thus graduate with a Diploma in Digital Marketing from ABC College, but also with the designation of Adobe Certified Professional (ACP) in Photoshop, or/and ACP Illustrator; designations issued by Adobe ‘via’ ABC College. It is these types of designations that can serve the learner and industry well. An employer looking for a graphic designer with Photoshop skills will welcome the applicant with the Adobe Certified Professional (ACP) designation. The employer will reason that the applicant really does know how to use Photoshop – because Adobe says so.
Examples of Globally Recognized Industry Micro-Credentials
As a Solution Consultant (Academic) for a leading Canadian Ed Tech company, I have the privilege of partnering with a large and diverse number of educational institutions, academics and administrators (from K-12 to Post-Secondary), as well as with the world’s top industry software developers. Here are a few real examples of industry and education working nicely together.
Adobe Certified Professional (ACP)
The designations for ACP can be obtained for Adobe After Effects, Adobe Animate, Adobe Dreamweaver, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere Pro.
A learner can stack 2 of these ACP certifications, e.g. Dreamweaver + Animate and would earn the designation. ‘Adobe Certified Professional in Web Design’.
App Development with Swift (ADS)
This designation is conferred by Apple. It recognizes competency in IOS app development (creating apps for the Apple ecosystem with Swift, Xcode, and app development tools). There are 2 Certifications for Swift: 1) App Development with Swift Associate. 2) App Development with Swift Certified User
Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS)
It seems unfair to cite Apple, and not Microsoft. Especially in light of the fact that Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) is the most popular of all the micro-credentials (by far); certainly, in the space I work in.
MOS is in demand in High Schools, Universities, in Continuing Studies and Business Schools, Polytechnics, Private, Public, Government, Corporate, Workforce Development and more. It makes sense, since using Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Outlook are absolutely essential digital literacy skills. In fact, micro-credentials are particularly well suited to elevating the digital literacy rate – a stated ambition of responsible governments and policy makers worldwide. Some of the most prestigious Business schools are now mandating that their students obtain a MOS certification in Excel for example. Some institutions are offering their students the ‘opportunity’ to get certified, meaning they can attempt the certification independently of any course, as a way to enhance their resumes. Microsoft Office is after all a top skill requested by employers. Microsoft confers the MOS designation for Access, Word, Word Expert, Excel, Excel Expert, Outlook and PowerPoint. To obtain the ‘Microsoft Office Specialist Associate’ designation, 3 certifications need to be obtained or ‘stacked’. To obtain the ‘Microsoft Office Specialist Expert’ designation, 2 expert levels need to be stacked, e.g. Excel Expert and Word Expert.
These certifications are also very popular, mostly in Higher Ed. These micro-credentials demonstrate a ‘fundamental’ understanding of Azure based cloud computing. The MCF micro-credentials include MCF: Azure Fundamentals, Microsoft 365 Fundamentals, Azure AI Fundamentals, Azure Data Fundamentals, Power Platform Fundamentals, Dynamics 365 Fundamentals CRM, Dynamics 365 Fundamentals ERP, Security, Compliance, and Identity Fundamentals.
The equally popular, Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) designation is designed to recognize a professional level understanding, beyond the fundamentals.
The aforementioned are but a few examples of developer created credentials.
Here are a few more examples of major developers that have created popular and widely accepted credentials:
Autodesk, Intuit (creator of Turbo Tax and QuickBooks), Unity (they make the software and platforms that make Video Games, Movies, AR, VR, etc.).
Governing bodies or recognized educational entities also creates credentials. Some examples are the Project Management Institute’s PMP designation (Project Management Professional) or PMI Ready designation. The EC Council for example is the leading and recognized organization when it comes to Cyber Security education and training. They offer the Ethical Hacking Associate (E|HA) and the Cyber Forensics Associate Certification (CF|A).
Naturally, instructors teaching these subjects align their courses to meet the exam objectives of the certifications. Fortunately, the exam objectives for any major Certifications are well defined and easily accessible, and most developers have excellent and often free teaching support material. Example here
Cost and Implementation
The 2 biggest challenges institutions face when implementing Micro-Credentials are cost and deployment (technical and IT related). When it comes to cost, institutions benefit largely from wholesale pricing. The business case for micro-credentials is very straightforward. First, educational institutions benefit because they pay less by virtue of being accredited educational establishments (they have access to licenses which greatly reduces prices) and secondly, with economy of scale – a 500 exam pack for example, costs significantly less per user than an individual purchasing 1 exam at retail rate. Schools can therefore provide truly outstanding value to their students (or staff). Consider the fictitious case of Anna. She is not enrolled in any school or program but wants to take (an equally fictitious) ‘ABC Exam’ independently to get certified as an ‘Expert Level ABC User’. She purchases the exam on-line (this is possible for most certifications) at retail rate for example at $165 and receives a voucher # that she will submit at her scheduled exam location and time. Now, she must find an accredited testing Centre in her locality to sit the exam. Many exams, it should be noted can also be done online now. In any case, XYZ Testing Center charges her upwards of $100 proctoring fee (prices vary by centre and exam type). So, the total retail cost to sit the exam and get certified for Anna in this example is $265.
Ironically, her sister Dolores will be taking the exact same exam with Certification in mind at the local Polytechnic she is enrolled in. The polytechnic purchased 1500 Exams. In this example, the bulk rate purchase (per user) works out to cost ‘significantly’ less than the retail cost per user. Dolores’ Polytechnic decides to include the cost of the exam as part of her tuition fees.
Like almost all schools that offer Micro-Credentialing Certifications, Dolores’ Polytechnic is also an accredited testing centre with staff that are trained to proctor exams. In the case of Dolores’ Polytechnic, they only allow its testing center to be used by its registered students or alumni. Other institutions have opened up their testing centres and charge the public as an added revenue stream or to subsidize their programs. Some institutions will provide students with the option of taking exams (non-mandatory) to obtain valuable certifications, simply as a value add on; (much like a student might have access to heavily discounted gym programs, or access to costly databases). Oh, to be a student again! Increasingly, schools are embedding exams in the courses.
Ultimately, institutions are able to price their exams as they see fit. This makes it a win-win proposition for both the school and the student. The school provides excellent value and service, and can increase revenue, and the student/learner saves money. It should also be noted that all exams are generally valid for 1 year from the date of purchase.
Developers want future generations to be using their software, platforms and systems. Thus, major developers not only provide schools and Universities with discounted (or free software), they also provide extensive support in the way of subsidizing certain programs. To cite Microsoft again (they do a truly excellent job of this), consider the ‘Canada Skills Program’– a well designed program that enables industry and education to collaborate. Via this program (U of Toronto example here), Microsoft Canada works with educational institutions to provide in-demand skills such as AI and Cloud computing leading to Certification. In this instance, both industry and educational curriculums work together to build the fundamental skills needed in the market. These programs are imperative to societal prosperity. As labour economist, Lawrence Katz, at Harvard points out, “When technology education and training move together, you get shared prosperity. Otherwise, you don’t”.
Business savvy developers are not the only ones providing funding. Some forward thinking corporate entities (some of the larger Banks) sponsor and fund some micro-credential programs. And because the benefits of the micro-credential are so clearly understood, governments around the world have really stepped in to accelerate their use and assist schools. In Canada, for example, Provincial Governments especially (even some Chambers of Commerce) are facilitating their adoption. Funding of Micro-credentialing initiatives, from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training in British Columbia, to Ontario’s ecampus micro-credentialing, to the Government of Saskatchewan’s Advanced Education Ministry, to basically all the Provinces and Territories are finding their way to school programs.
IT Set up
Major software developers or entities that issue micro-credentials generally partner with major Education Technology Companies (ETs) like Pearson Vue or Certiport for example to manage the process. Everything is done through the Ed Tech company (ET), from the contract signing to the exam taking. Well run micro-credential programs generally benefit from one magic ingredient – sound communication between departments. A designated and dedicated program lead for communication and internal training is highly recommended.
It is the developers or entities that issue the certifications once exams are successfully passed, but everything else is done through the Ed Tech (ET) including account management and deployment. They provide the service, the proctoring, the training and support.
Once the school makes their purchase, and gives the green light to proceed, the first step is to make certain that the labs and computers are set up correctly to ensure that the right software is installed and operational. IT set up is generally straightforward but can be a challenge for some remote locations with connectivity issues. Privacy and security protocols are of course important, but ETs are accustomed to working within strict compliancy parameters.
Testing Centre Set up
Next, a testing center needs to be set up and the teachers trained on how to efficiently dispense and proctor the exams, either online, or in-person. Again, the ET walks the institution through the process. A train-the-trainer approach is usually favoured. School staff learn to operate the testing centre and train new staff as they come and go. There is usually an initial onboarding fee for testing centers that enables them to set up quickly and easily. This is generally a one-time, non-recurring charge. Each school is unique, so some institutions may require more support after the set up (above and beyond regular support), particularly larger institutions or Schools Boards servicing multiple schools. In those instances, they can access extra support or continual support at usually very reasonable rates – flexible options exist to service those needs.
The Exam Process
Once the testing centre is set up, instructors can then access an interface that allows them to schedule the exams. Blocks of time are generally available every hour, on the hour, and instructors generally book exams 2 weeks ahead of time, except during peak exam times when hundreds of schools are booking exams at the same time. During those busy periods, they usually book anywhere from 3 weeks or more ahead of the exam day. This is because when instructors book the exams, they are actually reserving virtual machines from the ETs and although there are plenty of virtual machines, they are finite in number. If the exams are held in a lab, or at the school, on school computers, where the exam software is pre-installed, one invigilator can proctor a large room full of students. S/he only needs to verify identification. The students log in, and the proctor just keeps an eye on the room.
If the students are taking exams from a ‘virtual lab’, from home; or if the schools are set up as a BYOD (bring your own device), proctoring is done online through a web browser and so no software download is necessary, but student computers must have cameras. The proctor verifies the Students’ ID via video and will see both the student’s screen and the student at work, via camera. During the exam, the online proctor will see multiple students on his/her screen and can answer any questions they may have via a dedicated chat channel. They can also take over the student’s screen if necessary. Typically, an online proctor can proctor up to 20 students at a time. The ETs train the proctors and will often oversee the first exams with the proctors to ensure success. Institutions can turn to companies that offer proctoring services for a fee, but schools generally do this themselves.
The processes I have just described above are based on typical processes for micro-credentialing for major industry recognized certifications. Naturally, processes differ depending on the micro-credential, the level, and the institution. The higher the level, the stricter the rules, and the more sophisticated the technology, monitoring and AI.
If the goal is to either increase digital literacy or to create a more educated workforce, the mighty micro-credential will continue to gain widespread acceptance.
Ray Tellili is a Solution Consultant at CCI Learning based in Vancouver, B.C.
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