Micro-credentials are a type of short, targeted training and certification that is beginning to carve out a place for itself in the post-secondary education system. In recent years, UNESCO and several countries have taken a close interest in this concept, aiming to grasp its potential better, define it and integrate it into established education systems.

There is no exhaustive or universal definition of the concept, nor is there likely to have one soon, given the diversity of providers, the distinct operation of institutions and the jurisdictional considerations involved. However, significant initiatives to better define and frame them have been undertaken in recent years, lessening conceptual disparities. Here are a few ideas to help you better understand the concept of micro-credentials.

Around the world. Several countries’ governments and higher education institutions have recently grasped micro-credentials’ relevance as a flexible and effective bridge between learners (workers or future workers) and today’s and tomorrow’s job market. As an example, in 2022, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted a recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability, while Australia published a national micro-credentials framework in the wake of the advent of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) micro-credentials system.

In Canada, some provincial governments have invested in accelerating micro-credentials’ introduction. As a result, many universities have developed micro-credential programs that are most relevant to the needs of their communities. Ontario stands out in particular in the creation of these programs, as eCampusOntario* has partnered with more than half of the province’s colleges and universities to launch 36 “micro-credentials” pilot projects from 2019 to 2021 to test their Micro-credential Principles and Framework. This repository is described as “an openly licensed living document designed to be updated and adapted as more is learned about micro-credentials in practice.”

*eCampusOntario is a provincially-funded non-profit organization that leads a consortium of the province’s publicly-funded colleges, universities and indigenous institutes to develop and test online learning tools to advance the use of education technology and digital learning environments.

Towards a common vision. A common vision of what characterizes micro-credentials is beginning to emerge among those with a keen interest in it, both here and elsewhere, as noted in the eCampusOntario pilot project research report published in 2022. As far as Canadian stakeholders are concerned, this report indicates that they increasingly see micro-credentials as “1) defined by a focus on specific skills and competencies; 2) assessment-based; 3) employer or job relevant; 4) flexible in terms of their link to other forms of accreditation; 5) short accreditation courses”.

In its preliminary report entitled Towards a common definition of micro-credentials, UNESCO proposes four criteria for a provisional consensus definition of the concept. Thus, what it calls a micro-credential: “1) is a record of targeted learning achievement that verifies what the learner knows, understands or can do; 2) includes an assessment based on clearly defined standards and awarded by a trusted provider; 3) has a stand-alone value and can also complement or contribute to other micro- or macro-credentials, notably through the recognition of prior learning; 4) meets the standards required by the relevant quality assurance”.

The “micro” trend. In the world of training, the prefix “micro” (for “very small”) is all the hype. You may have heard of microlearning, micromodules, micro certificates, or micro-diplomas. Regarding micro-credentials, the “micro” prefix mainly refers to the fact that the training is shorter in duration than traditional post-secondary training. There is no consensus on the optimal length of training leading to a micro-credential. However, the general agreement is that it corresponds to shorter, more specialized learning units than a three-month course or three 36-hour credits.

The UNESCO preliminary report cited above states that micro-credentials “consist of modules of learning much smaller than those covered in conventional academic awards, which often allow learners to complete the requisite work over a shorter period.” In Ontario, regulations stipulate that such programs must not exceed 12 weeks. On the European side, a consortium of MOOC (massive open online course) providers has attempted to regulate micro-credentials, proposing that they represent the equivalent of 100 to 150 hours of study at college or university level.

For a clear definition and typology. In creating its repository and deploying its pilot projects, eCampusOntario opted for the term “micro-credential” rather than “micro-certification.” The Making Sense of Micro-credentials research project conducted by researchers at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) found, among other things, that only one in four Canadians had ever heard the term “micro-credential,” and very few were sure what it meant. However, once presented with a definition, 74% of working-age respondents expressed an interest in them, whether for professional or personal development, or both. A stakeholder involved in this research explains that “it will be important to standardize and increasingly use the term skills micro-credential to generate interest and alleviate concerns among working-age Canadians about taking advantage of these learning opportunities, particularly among those who are already expressing interest.” Indeed, the term “micro-credentials” is more appropriate than “micro-certifications” for this concept, which focuses on the acquisition and recognition of specific skills and abilities. The eCampusOntario pilot project research report points out that “this emphasis is essential, as it supports one of the key value-adds offered by skills micro-credentials, namely that they enable more effective and targeted skills development and training for learners, as well as more efficient recruitment and hiring processes for employers.”

A concept distinct from badges. Designed to be different from existing programs, micro-credentials aim to better adapt post-secondary training to the new realities of the job market and learners. While short courses of various types offered by providers other than educational institutions have increased in recent years, with quality that varies considerably, one of the advantages of integrating micro-credentials into the established education system is that they provide rigorous benchmarks for every short, targeted course and, therefore, value.

However, this concept is often confused with “badges”, which are symbols of acquired skills. As eCampusOntario’s micro-credentials repository explains, “the key difference depends on whether or not the credential is “transcriptable,” meaning it could appear on a traditional college or university transcript.” More precisely, as the repository points out, whereas “badges can relate to any field and be awarded by anyone,” “micro-credentials:

  • are related to a formally approved or accepted set of standards or competencies.
  • are formally taught by a teacher or mentor who is responsible and accountable for ensuring the student learns and demonstrates the expectation for awarding the micro-credential.
  • may be stackable to achieve a credential recognized by other institutions.

The value lies in learning a particular skill or knowledge (Contact Nord, 2020). In short, the micro-credential is the curriculum, and the badge is a representation of the successful completion of its learning.”

Recognition of a micro-credential. All micro-credentials must be recognized by an institutional certificate of completion or achievement or a digital badge that specifies the learning outcomes or competencies acquired. The majority of micro-credentials are issued in the form of badges, more specifically, open digital badges, a technological option that facilitates their verification and management. A digital badge is a digital file conferred by an issuing organization on a learner, featuring a visual representation and verifiable and unforgeable informative metadata. It can be used to motivate learners along a learning path, to recognize their achievements or learning, or to certify that they have acquired knowledge or developed skills.

A micro-credential is a so-called “open” digital badge because it is “a digital badge designed in a rights-free and standardized system, which can be used by any issuing organization that wishes to do so” (Grand dictionnaire terminologique, OQLF). Unlike “closed” digital badges, it can also be made public by the learner to whom it is awarded – who becomes its holder and manager – and in particular, be shared on their social networks or added to their online CV using a link (URL). However, the issuer has the option of setting a deadline for the use of the digital badge or micro-credential, which makes sense when skills need to be updated or validated periodically, for example, for reasons of safety or technological evolution.

Micro-credentials can be accumulated to form a set of valuable skills in a given field. However, it is essential that they retain a “stand-alone value”; in other words, that the skills acquired under a micro-credential can be relevant on the job market without having to be combined with those acquired under other micro-credentials.

Assessment: a key element. Assessment is a key element of the micro-credential concept. It ensures that the holder has demonstrated that they have acquired the targeted skills and is ready to apply them in the workplace. The evaluation also helps to distinguish micro-credentials from other achievements conveyed by badges that have not necessarily been evaluated or assessed according to reliable standards. While assessments of micro-credentials differ in some respects from those of traditional post-secondary courses, it is essential that they be just as rigorous. In Canada’s post-secondary system, there is a tendency for micro-credential assessment to be “authentic.” According to the Future is Micro report, this means that such assessment “must give learners the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in the context of work-related situations,” “be meaningful and relevant to learners and employers,” and “aim to assess a learner’s skills and knowledge while providing opportunities for practice, access to resources and feedback while completing a complex task.”

Depending on the skills taught and how they are taught, the form of assessment may vary (video demonstration, written assessment, portfolio, etc.) or a combination of approaches. It is recognized that a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing micro-credentials is not appropriate. In principle, the final evaluation of micro-credential results in either a pass or a fail for “mastery” of the competency, mastery which can be set at a very high threshold, such as a mark of 90%, unlike the evaluation for a traditional course, which is generally split into several evaluations and does not require mastery, but rather competency, generally set at 50%. Before taking the final assessment – when they feel they have mastered the skills in question – learners must have had the opportunity to practice using formative assessments designed to help them achieve the program’s learning objectives. Note that some micro-credentials can be obtained through assessment without the candidate having to attend classes or study, representing a complementary option to the traditional voice of recognition of prior learning and competencies (Woods and Skapenko, 2021).

Last but not least, collaboration between the educational institutions that issue skills micro-credentials and the relevant collaborators in the labour market is seen as a sine qua non for establishing reliable assessments, and for creating the trust, value and exchange essential to the emergence of a robust micro-credentials ecosystem.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Communication Strategist and Senior Editor @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.