Micro-credentials are the difference between a CNC machine tools operator and a CNC technician. Micro-credentials allow educational assistants to add ASL to their list of classroom skills and for bookkeepers to gain extra knowledge in fraud prevention and spot money laundering attempts. The range of opportunities is vast.
The Benefits of Micro-credentials
Micro-credentials, as opportunities for rapid skilling and re-skilling of workers, serve many purposes:
- They enable employers to address immediate skills shortages in the job market
- They enable students and workers alike to make smaller investments of time and finances to become job-ready
- They enable educational and training organizations to open alternative paths to revenue and enrollment stability
- They enable all stakeholders to ensure skilling achievements are assessed and that those assessments support trust-worthy standards of professional competence
With so many benefits, there seems to be universal recognition that micro-credentials are a useful, flexible approach to ensuring lifelong learning and lifelong employability. Where there is disagreement is on how to recognize the value of micro-credentials across institutions, political borders, and professional or trade organizations.
Moving Towards Acceptance of Micro-credentials
Administrators in higher education are struggling with some big questions about the acceptance of micro-credentials. Questions that are completely valid. How do assessments capture both course and hands-on learning? Are the standards for achievement harmonized across regions, states or the country as a whole? Are the micro-credentialing programs up-to-date and accredited by appropriate government and industry associations? Is the accreditation communicated to stakeholders appropriately?
Higher Education is seeing movement toward answering these questions. In June of 2022, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted a recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials. The text of the recommendation includes a highly-detailed definition of what a micro-credential is:
“Micro-credential’ means the record of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a small volume of learning. These learning outcomes will have been assessed against transparent and clearly defined criteria. Learning experiences leading to micro-credentials are designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills, and competencies that respond to societal, personal, cultural or labor market needs. Micro-credentials are owned by the learner, can be shared, and are portable. They may be stand-alone or combined into larger credentials. They are underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standards in the relevant sector or area of activity.” (Council of the European Union, Education Area 2022)
In creating this definition, the European Council called for submissions to inform its work. One highly-influential response came from The Groningen Declaration Network (GDN), a global community of organizations and individuals dedicated to making digital learner data portability a reality. Their membership includes substantive participation from higher education administrators from the US, Canada, and other countries outside the EU. They identified several barriers to the widespread acceptance of micro-credentials and proposed solutions for overcoming those barriers:
“For micro-credentials to become widely accepted, there needs to be a mechanism, enabled by some agreed standard(s) or protocol(s), to validate the credential recipient’s identity and credential to ensure quality assurance and enable and promote recognition. Once micro-credentials have attained the maturity to provide such granularity, digital credentials, in general, will have made a significant step towards enabling lifelong learning.” (Micro-credentials: Towards a Universal Definition 2021)
Five Dimensions of Micro-credentials
The GDN took the position that there are five dimensions to the current understanding of micro-credentials: learner autonomy, trust, a focus on learning outcomes, interoperability, and portability. The Babb Group believes these five dimensions can all be supported and reinforced by the application of instructional design best practices.
Learner Autonomy and a Student-Centered Approach
While industry may inspire, require, or financially contribute to their employee’s skills acquisition, it is clear that the student is and must remain in control of their learning and its results.
“Ensuring micro-credentials support rapid upskilling and reskilling and subsequently contribute to global mobility requires the definition recognize the unique value of micro-credentials as enablers of learner autonomy, agency, and control,” The GDN position states. “Affordability, employer recognition, and flexibility are priorities for learners when they consider the value of micro-credentials.” (Micro-credentials: Towards a Universal Definition 2021)
Trust and Trustworthiness
Certificates of competency are only as good as the reputation of the issuer. That widely-held perception is how institutes of higher learning build their brands. Their success depends not only on teaching and learning but on the quality of contributions their graduates make to their workplaces and society. Micro-credentials must be an extension of the institution’s reputation, brand, and history of graduate contributions.
The GDN calls for a ‘triangle’ of trust to support the broad acceptance of micro-credentials.
“Using the concept of a triangle of trust, the learner is the owner of the credential (i.e., they are who they say they are, acknowledge the credential as theirs, and give permission to others to access and use it for assessment purposes); the issuer is the trusted entity that provides the micro-credential to the learner in a manner that is informed by quality assured policies and assessment and sharing practices (internally and externally provided); and the verifier is the consumer of the micro-credential who needs to understand, assess, and trust in the learning outcomes represented.” (Micro-credentials: Towards a Universal Definition 2021)
While the learner’s autonomy helps to cement their role in this triangle, it is the fact that they are responsible for their qualified contributions to society that creates trust. Institutions must stake their reputations in issuing micro-credentials. Instructional designers, along with subject matter experts (SMEs) and instructors, also play a role in ensuring the credential can be trusted. Mapping the achievement of outcomes from introduction to application and throughout the assessment process is the result of collaborative design work between instructional designers and SMEs.
A Focus on Learning Outcomes
In all forms of education, regardless of the level of credential earned, students must be aware of what they are learning, why they are learning it, how to apply it, and what it means in the greater scheme of professional, industrial, or academic process. These are the essentials of learning outcome statements that describe the results of education.
“Micro-credentials should be designed with locally determined purpose and with a clear focus on providing verifiable evidence of what learning outcomes have been assessed and achieved. Micro-credentials directly focus on showcasing achievements of what a learner knows and can do through skills and competency attainment around specific subjects. Micro-credentials are designed with focused intent and aspire to provide access to employment, further education, or both.” (Micro-credentials: Towards a Universal Definition 2021)
Whether you call the practice outcomes-based learning or competency-based learning, it requires the application of reverse design principles. Through the relationships between industrial partners, professional organizations, and institutions of higher learning, what a student must learn to complete a professional function is clearly stated. From there, an SME and instructional designer will work together to define and develop the learning opportunities required to meet that objective. Once a learning objective is assessed and has demonstrated and achieved some competency in the topic, the objective becomes an outcome. Through instructional design, this evolution can be structured, reviewed, and validated on a module-by-module basis.
The skills and competencies learners acquire when achieving a micro-credential may meet the needs and requirements of their local communities, but still have appropriate application in the broader world.
“The diversity of regional political context, technology, and participants requires that the definition embed respect for regional autonomy and authority enabled by interoperable systems and best practice standards for data sharing. The risk of not doing so for learners includes undermining their privacy, autonomy, agency, and control and subsequent portability of their micro-credentials.”
In selecting materials and assignments, instructional design must consider a wide application of the subject area. While the hands-on portion of any micro-credential program will be local to the learners, video visits to similar industrial settings or a pairing or twinning partnership with students in a similar program elsewhere can add national or international context to the subject matter. Case studies and scenarios gathered from a variety of sources also enrich the interoperability of micro-credential programs.
Since learners own their micro-credentials, they must be able to take their certificates of competency with them. That means the credentials themselves must contextualize the demonstrations of learning, whether those are assessment examination results, portfolio entries, work exemplars, or video evidence of skills mastery. This ability to access proof of learning is not defined by any one technology, such as the blockchain or NFTs.
“The GDN acknowledges and values the contribution of technology platforms to the credential ecosystem that align with Verifiable Credentials, self-sovereignty, and distributed identity but also believes in the importance of bridging today and tomorrow to ensure inclusive access for all actors involved.” (Micro-credentials: Towards a Universal Definition 2021)
Instructional design considers and creates opportunities for students to save and store demonstrations of their learning in a variety of ways. Working with institutional partners and students, instructional designers plan the portability of assessments and other proof of learning demonstrations.
The universal definition of what a micro-credential is and how it works from the EU is not a threat to the autonomy of any learner, institution, profession, or industry. Rather, in consideration of the GDN’s international contribution, it is a standard safeguard that protects the reputations of all stakeholders as they pursue this new and interesting kind of qualification. As society moves toward a model of lifetime learning for lifetime employment readiness, any tools that support the design of micro-credentials should be given the deepest consideration.
Micro-credentials present one more opportunity for higher education to support learner autonomy, create community trust, articulate learning outcomes, and provide access to demonstrations of competence mastery. That micro-credentials meet local needs and differences is a bonus for partners industry and professions. That they introduce students to the world of learning and opportunity is a bonus for the globe.
The conversation about the role of instructional design in micro-credential programs is just beginning. If you’d like to talk to us about continuing the conversation, please reach out to Sheila.Fry@thebabbgroupcom