Short online training courses are gaining popularity, particularly among those wishing to acquire specific skills to add value to their professional CV. In this frenzy of new terms and concepts, some are misunderstood and sometimes confused. Such is the case with micro-credentials and badges. Let’s take a closer look at what distinguishes these two concepts and why it’s essential to understand their differences.

Generally speaking, micro-credentials are short, targeted training courses and certifications. They are offered by different types of providers, both public and private, such as higher education establishments, vocational education and training organizations, companies, NGOs, industrial organizations, etc. It should be noted that there is no exhaustive or universal definition of this concept and that training quality and certification standards can vary widely. That said, major initiatives have been launched in several countries in recent years to accelerate the integration of this concept into higher education institutions.

In Canada, the use of the term “micro-credentials” is favoured by one of the leaders in the field, eCampusOntario, to identify the micro-credentials offered by higher education institutions.

“Recently, significant progress has been made in agreeing on a definitional consensus and conceptual convergence, both globally and in Canada. Increasingly, Canadian stakeholders see competency-based micro-credentials as:

  • defined by a focus on specific skills and competencies;
  • assessment-based;
  • relevant to the employer or job;
  • flexible in terms of their relationship to other forms of accreditation;
  • short accreditation courses. “

One of the advantages of integrating competency-based micro-credentials into the established education system is that they provide rigorous benchmarks for short, specific training courses and, therefore, add value. However, this concept is often confused with that of “badges” (or “digital badges”), which are in fact emblems of acquired skills. As the eCampusOntario 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, whereas “badges can relate to any field and be awarded by anyone,” micro-credentials are :

  • “linked to a set of formally approved or accepted standards or competencies;
  • formally taught by a teacher or mentor who is responsible for ensuring that the student learns and meets the expectations for micro-credentialing;
  • can be accumulated to obtain a credential recognized by other institutions.

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

A badge is described as “digital” since it is a digital file conferred by an issuing organization on a learner, featuring a visual representation and verifiable and unforgeable informative metadata. It can motivate learners along a learning path, recognize their achievements or learning, or certify that they have acquired knowledge or developed skills.

Digital badges are used as a visual representation for the recognition of skills micro-credentials. In fact, all micro-credentials must be recognized by some form of institutional certificate of completion or achievement or digital badge that specifies the learning outcomes achieved 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 said to be “open” when 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). The issuer can, however, set a deadline for the use of the digital badge or micro-credential certificate.

In conclusion, although linked, the concepts of microcertification and badges are quite distinct. While the former evokes training and certification content, the latter is a visual representation of its completion. So, while most micro-credentials are issued in the form of badges, not all badges represent micro-credentials attestations. And to add a further degree of complexity, it’s important to bear in mind that in the teeming landscape of micro-credentials, these are offered by different types of providers, and not all are of equal quality. Only those offered by institutions of higher education, and could benefit better from being known as “micro-credentials,” can appear on a traditional college or university transcript and are taught and assessed to rigorous standards.

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.