In the world of training, the prefix “micro” (for “very small”) has been in vogue lately. You may have heard of microlearning, micromodules, or even micro degrees. This article discusses micro-credentials, a type of short, focused training and certification that is beginning to make its way into the post-secondary education system, including universities. The growth and diversification of online learning, the new training needs of workers and employers that have emerged during the pandemic, and the profound changes in the labour market are all accelerating the movement to integrate micro-credentials into higher education. Here are a few points of reference, drawn from eCampusOntario’s bold initiative, to demystify this promising type of training and certification.
A rapidly increasing concept that is slowly being defined
While the supply of micro-credentials is multiplying, there is no comprehensive or universal definition of the concept, and it is unlikely to happen given the diversity of providers, the distinct operations of institutions and the competency considerations involved. However, significant initiatives to better define and frame them in order to improve their quality, transparency and acceptance have been undertaken in recent years, lessening the conceptual disparities. In Canada, Ontario is leading the way in the development of micro-credentials, as eCampusOntario* has partnered with more than half of the province’s colleges and universities to launch 36 “micro-credentials” pilots — a term we’ll come back to later — 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.” The research report released in 2022 on these pilot projects finds that some common vision is emerging here as elsewhere.
“Increasingly, Canadian stakeholders see micro-credentials as being (1) defined by a focus on specific skills and competencies; (2) awarded on the basis of assessment; (3) employer- or employment relevant; (4) flexible in terms of their connection to other forms of accreditation; and (5) accrediting courses of short duration. These common elements are largely consistent with the results of the consultations undertaken as part of this research project.”
To give you a more concrete idea of the skills that such a micro-credentials title can cover, the eCampusOntario pilot projects targeted six areas: human skills, technology, health and human services, manufacturing, natural resources and research. These include a micro-credential in internationally trained professionals, one in digital marketing, one for personal support workers, one in battery electric vehicle maintenance, one in indigenous rights and relationship-building, one in micro-credential research, etc.
For its part, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), the voice of Canada’s public colleges, institutes and CEGEPs, has also taken steps better to understand the current state and potential of micro-credentials and to define them better. Following the creation of a micro-certification program for care support assistants at 18 partner institutions, CICan developed the first national occupational standard for care support assistants, a standard that specifies the skills, knowledge and abilities required to perform this work. It is worth noting that, in the wake of investments made by some Canadian provincial governments to accelerate the implementation of micro-credentials, several universities have developed micro-credential programs that are most relevant to the needs of their communities.
In the Ontario government’s 2020 budget, nearly $60 million was allocated to a micro-credential strategy for employment-related skills enhancement. To optimize the use of this funding, researchers at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) undertook a research project (Making Sense of Micro-credentials) with two objectives: to develop a common definition to promote innovation and effective communication about micro-credentials and to provide insight into the perceived and potential value of micro-credentials by engaging end-users (employers and potential students) across Canada. Among other things, the research found that only one in four Canadians had ever heard the term “micro-credentials,” and very few were sure what it meant. However, once presented with a definition, 74% of working-age respondents expressed interest in them, either for professional or personal development or both.
A clear definition and typology are needed to raise awareness of this concept and to ensure that employers and learners value it. A stakeholder involved in HEQCO’s research notes that “standardizing and increasing use of the term micro-credential will be important for driving interest and addressing concerns working-age Canadians have about pursuing these learning opportunities, especially among those already showing interest.” The term “micro-credentials” is indeed a better term than “microcertifications” for this concept, which focuses on the acquisition and recognition of specific skills and abilities. “This specific focus is critical because it supports one of the key value-adds offered by micro-credentials, namely that they enable more efficient and targeted skills development and training on the part of learners as well as more efficient recruitment and hiring processes for employers,” the research report notes. It also states that skills and competencies, while related, are not synonymous. According to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), skills are “developed capacities that an individual must have to be effective in a job, role, function, task or duty,” while competency is “the combined utilization of personal abilities and attributes, skills and knowledge to effectively and reliably perform a job, role, function, task or duty. In other words, competencies are the combination of skills, abilities, and knowledge needed for workplace success, while skills refer to more specific capabilities.” the report explains.
The prefix “micro” refers primarily to the fact that it is shorter in duration than traditional post-secondary programs. There is no consensus on the optimal length of training for a micro-credential. There is, however, an agreement that it corresponds to shorter, more specialized learning units than a three-month or three-credit course. In its preliminary report, Towards a Common Definition of Micro-credentials, UNESCO states that micro-credentials are “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.” Ontario has regulated that such a program must not exceed 12 weeks. In Europe, a consortium of MOOC (massive open online course) providers has attempted to regulate micro-credentials and has proposed that they be the equivalent of 100 to 150 hours of college or university-level study.
A tool to democratize access to continuing education
As the workplace undergoes profound and rapid changes (digital shift, growing presence of artificial intelligence, climate change, pandemics, etc.), workers must adapt to this context and integrate the idea that learning will now be lifelong. While micro-credentials are not the first post-secondary training courses to be shorter in duration — there are “micro-programs” in particular — this feature is an integral part of this new concept, which aims to bridge the gap between learners (workers or future workers) and employers or industry flexibly and efficiently, by closely involving the latter. By being shorter than traditional degree programs, micro-credentials programs are generally more affordable. Delivery methods should be flexible and chosen according to the content taught and the type of assessment preferred. While they can be taught face-to-face, the asynchronous online mode that allows the learner to learn at their own pace is preferred. The synchronous online mode and the hybrid mode, which combines face-to-face and online learning, are also possible options. Micro-credentials should be offered several times a year and not necessarily fit into the traditional semester schedule; ideally, they should be available at any time. They can therefore promote a certain democratization of continuing education by allowing adults who, due to time or financial constraints, would not have been able to consider upgrading or retraining, to try a new avenue, to promote their value to employers or to have their previous experience validated to increase their employability.
The introduction of micro-credentials into the post-secondary education system, including universities, is not intended to replace existing programs or traditional forms of education. Rather, they are designed to be different and to better adapt the delivery of post-secondary education to the new realities of the labour market and learners. While short courses of various types — massive open online courses (MOOCs), badges, micro-courses and “micro-certificates” — offered by non-educational providers have been proliferating in recent years and vary considerably in quality, one of the benefits of integrating micro-credentials into the established education system is that they provide rigorous guidance for short, focused courses and, therefore, value. However, this concept is often confused with “badges,” which are actually emblems of acquired competencies. As eCampusOntario’s Micro-Credential Toolkit explains:
The key difference depends on whether or not the credential is “transcriptable,” meaning it could appear on a traditional college or university transcript. To elaborate:
- “Micro-credentials are related to a formally approved or accepted set of standards or competencies.
- Micro-credentials 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.
- Micro-credentials may be stackable to achieve a credential recognized by other institutions.
Badges, on the other hand, can be for anything and awarded by anyone. The value is in learning the specific skill or knowledge (Contact North, 2020). In short, the micro-credential is the course of study and the badge is a representation of success in its learning.”
Features of Micro-credential Recognition
Any micro-credential must be recognized by some form of an institutional certificate of completion or achievement or a digital badge that specifies the learning outcomes achieved or skills acquired. The majority of micro-credentials are issued as badges, specifically open digital badges, a technology option that makes them easier to verify and manage. A digital badge is a digital file conferred by an issuing organization to a learner, including a visual representation and verifiable and unforgeable informational metadata. It can motivate the learner in a learning path, recognize their achievements or learning, or 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 copyrights-free and standardized system that 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 giving a deadline for the use of the digital badge or micro-credential certificate, which makes sense when skills need to be updated or validated periodically, for example, for security or technological evolution reasons.
As mentioned earlier, micro-credentials can be combined to form a set of competencies that are useful in a given field. However, it is important that they retain a “stand-alone value.” In other words, the learning acquired in one micro-credential should be relevant in the labour market without having to be combined with that of one or more other micro-credentials. This feature is also part of the definition of a micro-credential proposed by UNESCO in its report cited above. Participants in the eCampusOntario research study also emphasized the importance of this stand-alone value, particularly in meeting the needs of learners for flexible, on-demand learning.
Evaluation: a key element
Assessment is a crucial element of the micro-credential concept. It provides assurance that the holders have demonstrated that they have acquired the targeted competencies and are ready to apply them in the labour market. The assessment also distinguishes micro-credentials from other badge achievements that may not have been assessed or evaluated to reliable standards. While micro-credential assessments differ in some respects from traditional post-secondary coursework, it is essential that they be equally rigorous. In Canada’s post-secondary system, there is a tendency for the assessment of a micro-credential to be “authentic.” According to the Future is Micro report, this means that the assessment “should be focused on providing learners with an opportunity to demonstrate competencies in the context of job-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 being taught and how they are taught, the form that assessment takes can vary. An assessment may be problem-based, project or scenario-based, video demonstration, written assessment, audio recording, portfolio, interview, etc., or a combination of approaches. It is recognized that a single approach to assessing the ensemble of micro-credentials is not appropriate. In principle, the final assessment of a micro-credential results in either a pass or fail of “mastery” of the competencies, which may be set at a very high threshold, such as a score of 90%, unlike the assessment for a traditional course, which is usually split into several assessments and does not require mastery, but rather competency, which is usually set at 50%. Before taking the final assessment — when the learner feels that they have mastered the skills involved — the learner should have had the opportunity to practice using formative assessments designed to support the achievement of the program’s learning objectives. Note that some micro-credentials can be earned through the assessment without the need for the candidate to attend classes or study, representing a complementary option to the traditional way of recognizing acquired skills and competencies (Woods & Skapenko, 2021).
From a broader perspective, assessment is central to the development of a micro-credential “ecosystem” as envisioned by eCampusOntario, as explained in the report The Future is in Micro:
“Ultimately, for a robust and healthy micro-credential ecosystem to expand, there must be a general acceptance that someone who holds a micro-credential can reliably be understood to possess the skill or competency claimed. The importance of this point is better understood when framed in terms of the three key concepts used by eCampusOntario to understand the functioning of a micro-credential ecosystem: trust, value, and exchange. Without assessment, the value of a micro-credential is undermined by a lack of trust in the ability of any learner to demonstrate the skill or competency targeted by the micro-credential offering.”
The ecosystem concept seemed appropriate since the development of micro-credentials relies on the close collaboration of accredited educational institutions with employers or industry sectors, learners and sometimes community partners. To better understand this choice of eCampusOntario, the three concepts that underlie its approach are defined as follows.
- “Trust: The willingness to accept the validity of the actions of another agent, organization, or system. Trust from learners and employers, in particular, has been a central concept in many publications on micro-credentials to date.
- Value: The thing an agent or organization is willing to exchange for something owned or held by another agent or organization. Evidence of achieved learning or ability is frequently cited as a key component of value in a micro-credential.
- Exchange: The action of passing value from one organization or agent to another. In the world of micro-credentials, exchange is often underwritten by assessment and facilitated through a digital trail or record.”
Micro-credentials are characterized by great diversity in both design and means of assessment. In order to ensure consistency in the quality of assessments, stakeholders working on their development have put in place certain guidelines, as described in the eCampusOntario Framework:
“Micro-credentials should be designed to meet quality standards and include instructional design principles such as appropriate measurable competencies or learning outcomes and objectives. As well, the design should extend to instructional materials and resources, learning activities, and intentional assessments that measure the stated competencies or objectives. Ideally, all these factors would be decided at the beginning of design of any micro-credentials, with consideration given to pathways or transferability—topics that should be discussed with and considered by program coordinators and chairs, and the registrar’s office. Similarly, clear expectations concerning grades or benchmarks (such as pass or fail) for targeted-skill or competency need to be developed.”
Finally, a collaboration between educational institutions that issue micro-credentials and relevant labour market collaborators is seen as a prerequisite for implementing reliable assessments. As eCampusOntario’s micro-credentials toolkit points out:
“In reviewing micro-credentials presented by eCampusOntario, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities (2021) and UNESCO (2021), the overarching consensus is that shared characteristics involve collaboration between an accredited educational institution and an employer or industry sector. Together, they can identify, create, and review workplace relevant training that is of value to the learner and the employer or industry sector. ”
An ecosystem of collaboration and partnerships
At the root of the micro-credential concept is the desire to offer a flexible approach that is adapted to the new realities of the labour market. In other words, to help learners (workers or future workers), regardless of where they are in their career path, to develop the targeted skills sought by employers; and, at the same time, to better meet the needs of employers who must fill more specialized positions for which certification of demonstrable skills facilitates the recruitment and hiring process. Employers are reportedly increasingly interested in demonstrable skills as well as in workers who demonstrate a commitment to continuous development (Gallagher, 2018).
In this context, educational institutions considering the development of micro-credentials should do so in close collaboration with relevant employers and occupational sectors. Surveys conducted as part of the Making Sense of Micro-credentials research project led by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) found that this collaboration is viewed positively by the various parties involved, all of whom seem to benefit from it, as summarized in The Future is Micro:
“Micro-credentials offer the value of being able to be quickly designed to be relevant to employer and industry needs. Existing research indicates that this characteristic is appreciated by stakeholders. For example, one survey shows that “industry alignment” is seen as the fourth most attractive feature of micro-credentials by employers. A more general survey of Canadians found that being “employer recognized” is the second most important feature of micro-credentials for this group. Even more impressively, in a survey of representatives from colleges and universities, micro-credentials being industry aligned registered as their most important quality. Additionally, because of their focus on workplace relevance, micro-credentials have the potential to play an important role in helping to foster improved systems of lifelong learning and continuous workforce up-skilling.”
The genesis of a micro-credential is different from that of traditional post-secondary training, as eCampusOntario’s toolkit reminds us: “It is important to develop micro-credentials with the end in mind; for example, examining high-demand jobs in the workplace and working backwards to include and target the required skills and attributes for success.” In order to respect the DNA of micro-credentials and to support their successful deployment, employers and relevant occupational sectors should be involved at various stages of the life cycle of these training and certifications. Input from professional experts is desirable, whether to establish a common and equitable certification that supports recognition and portability across sectors or to ensure that skills are sought by industry, taught in real-world contexts, and assessed in an “authentic” way. As The Future is Micro report points out, “collaboration enables the creation of the trust, value, and exchange critical to the emergence of a robust ecosystem.”
In addition, micro-credentials can be an attractive option for employers, whether to update or upgrade their employees’ skills, train them in a newly required skill (e.g., new technology), offer them developmental opportunities (e.g., retention), or support equal opportunity for potential candidates who may be missing a required skill.
Preserving the added value of a unique concept
As the workplace undergoes rapid and profound changes to which employers, workers and educational institutions must adapt, micro-credentials seem to be a natural fit to complement the current post-secondary education offering. The popularity of short, open online courses offered by various providers may be credited with prompting several established educational systems to propose a similar but “transcriptable” concept that meets their quality standards. While there will probably never be a single that is comprehensive or universal definition of the concept, a consensus is beginning to emerge that there is an urgent need to develop this type of training and certification. Although the concept still faces some challenges, micro-credentials seem to be well received by the various parties called upon to collaborate in bringing them into the world. eCampusOntario and its partners are to be commended for the bold initiative of launching 36 pilot projects and developing a “living” toolkit that will better guide us in building a robust micro-credential ecosystem. In closing, let’s reiterate an important recommendation from The Future is Micro report about the need to preserve the distinctiveness that adds value to the concept:
“There is an overwhelming desire to define micro-credentials within the model of traditional modes of higher education credentialing, but the fundamental point is that micro-credentials are designed to be different. It is critical to remember the promise of micro-credentials: short duration, highly focused, and workplace relevant learning that provides access to higher education with more flexibility and fewer barriers. An increased emphasis on research, experimentation, pilots, and conversation will not only provide more data to make informed decisions, but will support collective learning and growth as we move closer to consensus.”
*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.