Pichette, J., Brumwell, S., Rizk, J., Han, S. (2021) Making Sense of Microcredentials. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
Back to blogging
It’s now two weeks since my knee replacement operation, and I’m off the painkillers, so although the recovery is still slow (hobbling around with a walking stick at the moment), I feel ready to indulge my addiction to blogging about online and distance education. And what better place to start than this report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario that came out while I was in hospital (I don’t think their timing was deliberate).
Who did the study?
HEQCO is an agency of the Government of Ontario that brings evidence-based research to the continued improvement of the postsecondary education system in Ontario. (Their words, not mine).
What are microcredentials?
Good question, as one of the main results from this study is that there is an awareness gap, among Canadians and Canadian employers, about what microcredentials are and who they serve. Even among postsecondary institutions, the term is used inconsistently.
HEQCO therefore provides its own definition:
“A microcredential is a representation of learning, awarded for completion of a short program that is focused on a discrete set of competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, attributes), and is sometimes related to other credentials.”
It is interesting to note that this is different in some ways from the definition used by another Ontario government agency, eCampus Ontario (which in turn ‘borrowed’ its definition from RMIT in Australia):
Micro-credentials are used to certify an individual’s achievements in specific skills and differ from traditional education credentials, such as degrees and diplomas, in that they are shorter, can be personalised, and provide distinctive value and relevance in the changing world of work
There’s not a lot of difference, and eCampus Ontario’s is slightly more specific, so I think it is a pity that even within the same province there are now two definitions from government bodies.
HEQCO goes on to list several features of a microcredential:
- relevant: tied to industry and/or community needs
- stackable: part of a sequence of learning, leading to a larger credential
- narrow scope and short completion time
- assessed: evaluates learning through for instance assignments or tests
- flexible: the pace and/or structure of content can be personalised by the learner
However, even these are not written in stone: for instance, HEQCO does not consider the features listed above to be defining of microcredentials. For instance, there are many examples of microcredentials that are not stackable.
Indeed, as their Figure 4 illustrates (at the top of this post) microcredentials can come in many configurations. For instance, they do not necessarily have to be online, although given the target group (adult learners) there are some obvious advantages in a microcredential being available online.
However, the broader the definition, the less useful it becomes. It can mean many different things to many different people, and that becomes a problem, especially if employers are uncertain about what a specific microcredential is actually worth.
Nevertheless, I think you get the main idea: shorter, employer-focused credentials that have some validity to the needs of the labour market (more on that later).
Why are microcredentials important?
The short answer is that the Ontario government in 2020 announced nearly $60 million for a microcredential strategy, including new programs, an online portal and a public awareness campaign. The funding is also being used to expand the eligibility of Ontario student loans for those enrolled in ‘ministry-approved, quality-assured microcredentials programs.’
A longer answer is that because of the disruption in labour markets being caused by automation and digitalisation, which has been intensified by the economic impact of Covid-19, the labour market is rapidly changing, and governments believe that the labour force needs massive re-training in order to adapt. Microcredentials, being employer-focused and relatively short (and hence low-cost), offer potential benefits in this restructuring of the labour force.
As my prof in grad school always said: ‘Great theory: but where’s the proof?’. The HEQCO study specifically sets out to inform the strategic development of microcredentials in Ontario and other Canadian provinces.
Working in collaboration with the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICAN), HEQCO used the following methods:
- a review of the literature on microcredentials
- semi-structured interviews with international experts and stakeholders
- surveys of 201 Canadian employers
- surveys of 161 representatives from 105 Canadian postsecondary institutions (there are just over 200)
- surveys of 2,000 prospective students (i.e., adults, aged 18–64 not currently enrolled in a postsecondary program).
The employer and postsecondary surveys were voluntary, non-representative and non-random. A good description of the methodology is available in an appendix to the report.
What were the results?
As usual, this is a summary and as always you are recommended to read the actual report for the nuances.
- most of the employers interviewed were unclear about the meaning of the word “microcredential,”: 59% of respondents were “not familiar at all” with the term, and only 10% indicated they had a good understanding
- 70% of employers said that they would have a highly favourable view of microcredentials that were competency-based. Alignment with industry and flexibility were the next most favourable features.
- about 60% thought it would make sense to develop and offer microcredentials in house for their employees, and 54% were open to working with postsecondary partners to deliver them.
- about half (52%) reported spending $1,000 or less per employee on staff professional development; almost a third spent less than $500 per employee
Potential microcredential students
HEQCO surveyed 2,000 Canadian residents, aged 18–64. HEQCO referred to this group as “prospective students” as they were not enrolled in postsecondary programs at the time of the survey.
- only one-quarter of the Canadians surveyed had heard of microcredentials, and fewer (19%) could provide some kind of definition. Awareness of the term was higher among younger, working-age Canadians; those with greater household incomes; and those with a university education.
- once survey respondents were provided with a definition, their interest in microcredentials was high: 74% of working age Canadians demonstrated interest in microcredentials for either professional development, personal development or both. Survey respondents recognized the value of short, focused programs, with 78% saying upskilling and continual education will be important for “future-proofing” their careers. In particular, respondents expressed a demand for upskilling related to transferable skills like critical thinking, communications and leadership.
- 42% of employed respondents expressed interest in either changing employers or careers; 68% of respondents experienced some kind of disruption to their work as a result of COVID-19, including, for 32% of employed respondents, having to learn new skills on the job. Of unemployed respondents, 57% were interested in returning to the workforce in an entirely new field.
- cost and perceived value by industry were the biggest concerns about microcredentials voiced by respondents. Only about 25% of respondents said they would pay more than $250 of their own money for a hypothetical microcredential. That said, a third of respondents indicated they have access to financial support for professional learning through their employer.
70% of the Canadians surveyed indicated that the lack of a widely used definition makes it difficult to understand the value of microcredentials. Standardizing use of the term will help address concerns working-age Canadians have about microcredentials, especially for those already showing interest.
Universities and colleges
- Most institutions represented in the survey were either already offering microcredentials or planning to do so in the future. Most of those already offering microcredentials indicated doing so as stand-alone credentials (89%) or as part of corporate training (73%), and some are offering stackable microcredentials that can be combined (39%).
- Most respondents see microcredentials as a way of accessing a new market of students.
- 83% reported their institutional leadership is encouraging the development of microcredentials (though less than 40% claim to have a framework or strategy to guide them).
HEQCO’s research team translated these findings into what they called “quality markers” for microcredentials. The quality markers are features that both end users (employers and Canadians) and postsecondary institutions view favourably.
With verifiable digital credentials, this kind of information could be embedded in the credential’s metadata alongside information about the issuer and program. Being transparent about these markers will also facilitate transferability between institutions.
Establish a common framework
The Ontario government should work towards establishing a common framework for microcredentials. This process should leave room for innovation.
Microcredentials a part of a larger ecosystem for adult education
Microcredentials are just one component of an effective lifelong learning system, as a complement to traditional education, not a replacement. There are also other forms of lifelong learning such as competency-based education. Which is best will depend on the context
This is a very useful report for anyone not sure about what microcredentials are. However the report raises as many questions as it answers.
What’s the difference with a continuing education certificate?
Certainly in Canada, continuing education departments have been offering certificates for specific courses focused on competencies for many years. Many students don’t take the whole certificate, but just the courses that they need or are of interest to them.
The main difference seems to be that a microcredential would be a shorter course. But would this result in certificate courses losing out to microcredentials, with no net gain to the institution?
Where’s the demand?
While clearly there is a large, potential market for microcredentials, most Canadian employers are not even aware of them, and nor are the learners for whom they would be most relevant. Like many markets, supply is more likely to drive the market than demand, at least over the next few years. This means a lot of marketing, at least initially.
What about the competition?
The report only briefly mentions the supply coming from the private sector. Google and Microsoft are already offering their own microcredentials. What are the unique advantages that colleges and universities have in offering microcredentials compared with the advantages of taking them from large employers?
Where’s the business plan?
There is no mention in the HEQCO report about the cost of developing new microcredentials, although the report warns against cannibalising or re-purposing existing credentials.
It must be a concern for administrators that many individuals are not willing to pay more than $250 for a single microcredential. Designing a short course that delivers on specific competencies requires considerable design expertise and learner support. This comes at a cost. This is where I am guessing that online microcredentials could have an advantage as they can scale and be used over several years without the need for new design or course preparation. But how many enrolments would you need at $250 a head to break even? What will employers be willing to contribute? Although the $60 million will be useful as a kick-start in Ontario, eventually microcredentials must have a sustainable business plan.
Who should be responsible for microcredentials?
This is a particular issue for universities. In recent years many universities have run down their continuing education departments, handing responsibility back to the mainline academic departments. This makes sense in principle as the sharp distinction between academic post-graduate degrees and continuing education and lifelong learning breaks down.
However, it could be argued that mainline academic departments do a poor job of continuing education and lifelong learning. It’s not their focus or interest. However it is important that any microcredential qualification is backed up by the reputation of the institution, which means some sort of academic quality control.
This is not an insuperable problem – it also applies to continuing education certificates and diplomas – but an institution will need to put in place some kind of process for validating microcredentials, and this process needs to be consistent with what other suppliers of microcredentials are offering, which is why there is task force being set up in Ontario.
You need a plan
Although they are a bit of a buzzword – almost a fad – microcredentials are not going away. There is a need for them. The danger is that they have no validity or there is no way to measure their credibility.
This means putting in place a proper process within institutions for quality control, and for a system-wide co-ordination between organisations offering microcredentials, so there is some comparability, so employers and lifelong learners know what they are getting.
Ontario is already some way down this road but every institution needs a policy for microcredentials that fits within the broader ecosystem of educational providers, employers and lifelong learners.
Over to you
Are you already offering microcredentials? If so, how’s it going? What are the main challenges you see?
I’d love to hear from you – please use the comment box at the end of the screen or send an email to tony.bates @ubc.ca