Micro mania — that’s what we called the mix of excitement and uncertainty brewing around microcredentials in Ontario last Spring. Since then, HEQCO partnered with the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) to help address some of the uncertainty surrounding microcredentials. We’re building an evidence base that anyone from the college, university or government sectors can draw from to inform their strategies for development and delivery.
As a first step, we engaged Abacus Data to survey 2,000 working-age Canadians (those 18–64) who are not currently enrolled in a postsecondary program. The survey was completed the first week of September 2020 and was designed to explore both the upskilling needs of Canadians and their perceptions of microcredentials.
The biggest takeaway? Just one in four Canadian respondents have heard the term “microcredential” before, and even fewer are sure what it means.
The results reinforce the need for a definition of microcredentials that resonates with Canadians and accurately describes the range of offerings in the sector; one that the sector can use to increase Canadians’ awareness of these new offerings. With that goal in mind, we’ll be engaging stakeholders in the months ahead to refine and improve our typology and working definition:
“A microcredential is a representation of learning, awarded for participation in a short program that is focused on a small set of job-relevant competencies (i.e. skills, knowledge, attributes), often related to other credentials.”
Editor’s note (Dec. 15): Since publishing this blog, HEQCO researchers have been conducting interviews with international experts and we have updated the working definition for microcredentials. At the time of publication, the working definition had been: Microcredentials are credentials tied to short, flexible learning opportunities that are focused on specific skills and/or knowledge. They are distinct from more traditional university or college degrees, diplomas and certificates which teach interconnected sets of competencies over a number of years.
Once provided with our working definition, 69% of respondents were interested in the idea of short, skill-focused learning for professional development while 68% were interested for the purposes of personal development. Still, 69% indicated that without a clear and widely used definition of microcredentials, it’s difficult to assess their potential value.
“Standardizing and increasing use of the term microcredential will be important for driving interest and addressing concerns working-age Canadians have about pursing these learning opportunities, especially among those already showing interest” – Oksana Kishchuk, Abacus Data
Our ongoing research, which will include surveys of employers and postsecondary institutions, will also offer insight into the types of microcredentials that hold most value for whom. Some microcredentials are earned through an assessment of competence, for example, and some can be combined (or “stacked”) to achieve a degree or certificate. Our survey suggests Canadians are in favour of these features: 58% of respondents said it’s important that microcredentials are competency based, and 51% said the same about stackability.
Respondents also highlighted affordability as being particularly important — 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 and many respondents are hopeful employers would help foot the bill.
Our survey also revealed characteristics about the potential market for microcredentials: 42% of employed respondents expressed interest in switching jobs in the next year (changing either employers or roles), and 78% of survey respondents agreed that upskilling and continual learning will be important for “future proofing” their career, many of whom have encountered disruptions in their professional life because of COVID-19. Meanwhile 57% of unemployed respondents expressed interest in re-entering the workforce in a different career than the one they left. Overall, respondents were particularly interested in developing transferable skills like critical thinking, communications, leadership and teamwork through microcredentials.
We’ll report on these findings in more detail alongside the results from our employer and postsecondary institution surveys in a few months. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on a clear definition and typology of microcredentials — something these results show will be key to ensuring microcredentials hold value for Canadians.
Notes about the survey: The margin of error for a comparable probability based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.1%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s working-age population according to age, gender, educational attainment and region.
Jackie Pichette is director of Research, Policy and Partnerships at HEQCO.