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Microcredentials gain status and find their value for lifelong learners

The institutional barriers to microcredentials are coming down as UK regulatory recognition kicks in and creative thinking begins to support populations of lifelong learners.

For those new to the concept, in this simplest of definitions, microcredentials are equivalent to taught higher education modules. Whilst the concept of taking individual modules rather than a full programme isn’t new, microcredentials have the potential to be interchangeable between programmes of study and even institutions. There is also a greater emphasis on stackability of open learning into microcredentials and microcredentials into full degrees. This is achieved through a common credit framework, such as the EMC framework of 6 ECTS and 150 hours of learning (equivalent to 15 M-level credits in the UK) (EMC, 2019) and policy frameworks that champion portability (EC, 2021; Universities Australia, 2021). 

Whilst the idea of microcredentials has been discussed for some time now, particularly building on MOOC (massive, open, online courses) successes and being actively championed by online platforms, the uptake of this form of study has been slow. Some countries have already embraced microcredentials as part of national frameworks for a number of years (NZQA, 2018), yet it is only now that within the UK more institutions are realising the affordances of sub-degree awards. Part of this is due to learner awareness and marketing of microcredentials yet to break into broad appeal. Part of this is due to the significant infrastructure and process changes required in higher education institutions to manage anytime enrollments, teaching, assessment and award independent of a campus-based calendar. Aside from those considerations, a pedagogical, programme design and quality assurance perspective surfaces further challenges and opportunities for innovation. However, there is clear and significant interest in the higher education sector to drive change with 85% of a panel of global universities identifying microcredentials as strategically important (HolonIQ, 2021) and microcredentials featuring in the top six developments in the latest Horizon Report (EDUCAUSE, 2022).

Bringing opportunities for institutions to unlock the potential of microcredentials in the UK, the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for UK higher education) has published a Characteristics Statement (QAA, 2022) to help define expectations. Though an apparent low profile document, it represents a change in acceptance of microcredentials within the higher education sector as for the first time there is clear acknowledgement of how microcredentials could fit within institutional structures and quality assurance processes. This document acts as a reference point for institutions and raises the key decisions institutions need to make on how they will support microcredentials. The seed for this appears to be planted with growing enthusiasm in renewing the credit framework relevant to the needs of future learners, as described back in 2020 with a QAA blog post:

“If we can design [microcredentials], we add long-term value to short-term expediency, and open the door to the quick design of useful learning residing in a framework that encourages life-long engagement with learning. It works for employers – they get the quick fix they need.  But critically it also works for the people who are being upskilled because each part can build to a larger whole bespoke for their life goals or career aspirations.”

(Rigby, 2022)

The language of that post and the new Characteristics Statement is very much grounded in professional sector relevance of applied subject matter, with an intended professional learning audience and alignment to industry or professional bodies. Microcredentials are positioned within the economic and political context of “upskilling or reskilling the workforce” (QAA, 2022, p. 6), and are more financially and time-commitment accessible than full programmes (EDUCAUSE, 2022; Oliver, 2019). Yet, at the same time keep the opportunity open for individual learners to build up towards a degree programme over an extended period of time, and not necessarily know the end goal when they begin studying. 

The flexibility of curriculum offers an immense amount of opportunity for institutions to be responsive to sector needs, by developing and bringing to market single modules rather than full programmes. It can be argued that this responsiveness, combined with the cutting edge research and application of this to industry and professional practice, allows microcredentials to offer to learners greater access to academic expertise than what can be provided through standard CPD courses and professional accreditation. That is not in any way an implication that the existing provision for professional learners is deficient, as microcredentials still require a level of commitment and academic engagement which may not be appropriate for all contexts or learners. 

Responsiveness to sector needs comes through greater collaboration and relationships between academic institutions and industry partners. As does the crucial issue of learner support. One key aspect of microcredential learning is the academic assessment before completion. In programmes of study, there will be induction, study skills support and specific designed learning activities during modules that develop learners’ capabilities to succeed in assessment. microcredentials equally need to offer this provision for the ethical acceptance of learners onto courses. The QAA refreshingly draws attention to the partnership approach not just for co-design, but also in the support for learners and guidance on the appropriateness of study choices:

“Work-based experience may also play a critical role in some microcredentials. Employers will need support and training in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities, with clear mentoring systems in place. This will need particularly careful consideration where employers are asked for reflections or feedback that may inform assessment decisions. This could include guidance for all parties on how employees might effectively navigate the microcredentials offer for the development of their career and aspirations.” 

(QAA, 2022, p.18)

This explicitly states that employers should be engaged with the process of learning and sets an exciting precedent for lifelong learning as part of professional practice. The interplay between academic study and workplace learning at the heart of the design of microcredentials is where the value of this form of study emerges. Oliver (2019) asserted, “[t]o add value, micro-credentials need to provide robust evidence that they enable skills education that is strongly related to work and results in work opportunities…”. The collaborations that are described as characteristic of microcredentials by the QAA provide such opportunities to bring value. In doing so, some of the marketing barriers will be addressed. There is further evidence of value arising for both employers and employees when considering that microcredentials develop both “technical” and “soft skills”, and improve knowledge of subject matter and competency in its application to the workplace (Ashcroft, et al., 2021). 

The higher education sector can expect to see greater demand for microcredentials in 2022 as this realisation of value and opportunity grows. With it we can expect to see creativity in the academic frameworks, pedagogical design that enables stand-alone and programme coherency, and quality assurance that ensures student success. 

References

  1. Ashcroft, K., Etmanski, B., Fannon, A., Pretti, T.J. (2021). ‘Microcredentials and Work-Integrated Learning’, International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 22(3), 423-432.
  2. EC (2021). Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability. European Commission. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52021DC0770
  3. EDUCAUSE (2022). EDUCAUSE Horizon Report Teaching and Learning Edition. EDUCASE. Available at https://library.educause.edu/resources/2022/4/2022-educause-horizon-report-teaching-and-learning-edition 
  4. EMC (2019). EMC Common Microcredential Framework. European MOOC Consortium. Available at https://emc.eadtu.eu/images/EMC_Common_Microcredential_Framework_.pdf 
  5. HolonIQ (2021). Micro-credentials Global Panel Results. HolonIQ. Available at https://www.holoniq.com/notes/micro-credentials-global-panel-results/ 
  6. NZQA (2018). Micro-credentials. New Zealand Qualification Authority. https://www.nzqa.govt.nz/providers-partners/approval-accreditation-and-registration/micro-credentials/ 
  7. Oliver, B. (2019). Making micro-credentials work for learners, employers and providers. Deakin University.
  8. QAA (2022). Microcredentials Characteristic Statement. Quality Assurance Agency. Available at https://www.qaa.ac.uk/quality-code/characteristics-statements/micro-credentials 
  9. Rigby, S. (2020). ‘Credit where it’s due: How can England’s credit framework recognise microcredentials?’, QAA Blog. Available at https://www.qaa.ac.uk/news-events/blog/credit-where-it-is-due-how-can-england’s-credit-framework-recognise-micro-credits
  10. Universities Australia (2021). Guidance for the portability of Australian microcredentials. Available at https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/policy-submissions/teaching-learning-funding/guidance-for-portability-of-australian-microcredentials/ 

One reply on “Microcredentials gain status and find their value for lifelong learners”

Interesting article Matt. It is taking far too long for the value of microcredentials to be recognised by HE. As you say businesses and learners have voiced their support for several years now. Thank you!

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