Janice Deakin, Julia Colyar & Jackie Pichette — Microcredentials: Short, focused learning that responds to emerging demands

The microcredential landscape is evolving quickly. Since HEQCO began researching the topic in early 2020, the Ontario government has  dedicated close to $60 million for a micro-credential strategy that includes new programs, an online portal and a public awareness campaign. In March, the government announced that it was expanding eligibility for Ontario student loans and grants to include nearly 600 microcredential programs. It’s all potentially good news for Ontarians whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic and who may be in need of upskilling. That is, of course, if Ontarians know these opportunities exist and see the value in them.

We surveyed 2,000 Canadian adults and 201 employers; the findings from both surveys, which were part of a broader research project, highlight an awareness gap about what microcredentials are and who they serve. This isn’t just a problem for postsecondary institutions trying to attract students, it’s a problem for the Ontarians who could be benefiting from emerging opportunities for upskilling.

To help make sense of the educational innovation happening both across the province and beyond, we’ve been working on a common definition of “microcredential” that Ontario colleges and universities can use and adapt. It’s informed by the definitions put forward by groups like UNESCO, the European Commission, New Zealand Qualifications Authority, and the State University of New York (to name a few), as well as advice from more than 40 individual experts we interviewed.

Our definition centers on microcredentials being shorter and more focused offerings than traditional credentials like degrees or diplomas. We are intentionally descriptive rather than prescriptive, leaving a lot of room for organizations to advance their prescriptive aims (“at X college, microcredentials will be industry-relevant and flexible” or “to be eligible for government funding, microcredentials should feature summative assessment”).

HEQCO’s Microcredential 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.”

A recent report released by eCampusOntario and the Diversity Institute aligns, for the most part, with our work to define microcredentials. For example, the authors of the eCampus report, consider microcredentials to be a “complement” to traditional postsecondary education, rather than a replacement for it. The authors see a role for microcredentials as part of an effective lifelong learning system and emphasize industry relevance as an important feature — something our report will highlight as a “quality marker.”

There are however, two important ways that our findings will differ from the eCampusOntario and the Diversity Institute report.  Because these distinctions have policy implications, we feel that it is important to flag them. 

First, the authors approach the topic with a clear focus on virtual learning, which is understandable given their mandates. We note, however, that this focus is not aligned with either our definition of microcredentials or the reality on the ground in Ontario.* Working with BHER and CICan, we surveyed 105 Canadian postsecondary institutions in November/December of 2020; we found 81% of surveyed institutions with microcredential programs are offering a mix of online and in-person options and just 13% are offering them exclusively online. This mix of modalities is positive from an accessibility standpoint. It’s also not surprising when we consider that hands-on learning is essential for practicing the skills some microcredentials aim to teach. To reflect this reality and support high-quality, accessible programs, Ontario’s microcredential strategy must make room for online, in-person and hybrid teaching modalities.  

The report also promotes the “unbundling of skills into constitutive parts and their re-bundling into stackable microcredentials.” In our view, colleges and universities should focus less on deconstructing existing curricula and focus more on designing innovative, focused content that serves a new market of students. HEQCO sees the primary functions of microcredentials as responding quickly to evolving social and economic needs (like the pandemic), and catering to underserved learners (like adults). We also caution against pursuing stackability at the expense of a credential’s independent value. Like the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, we support the idea of a microcredential as “a stand-alone package of learning, valuable in and of itself.” Stackability should be a bonus, not the primary goal.

We look forward to sharing our full report soon. In addition to summarizing our work on a common definition, the report will share evidence about end-user preferences: What matters to Canadians? What about employers? In the meantime, we encourage our sector partners to take up and communicate the idea that microcredentials are shorter, more focused offerings than traditional credentials. Along with postsecondary providers, we encourage the Ontario government to embrace mixed modalities for learning via microcredentials and to prioritize the development of new and innovative programs that serve the evolving needs of learners and their communities.

*Editor’s Note: The original version of this post quoted the authors of the eCampusOntario and Diversity Institute report as saying microcredentials “need to be digital”. The authors contacted HEQCO to clarify their meaning that the microcredential award, not necessarily the program, needs to be digital.

Janice Deakin is president and ceo; Julia Colyar is vice president, research and policy; and Jackie Pichette is director, policy, research and partnerships at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

4 replies on “Janice Deakin, Julia Colyar & Jackie Pichette — Microcredentials: Short, focused learning that responds to emerging demands”

Great job HEQCO team!

The key points you have highlighted in this post make me smile, and in particular your point that micro-credentials can be standalone or stackable learning packages depending on the strategy for learners.

Your emphasis on unbundling as not necessarily being a sound approach to micro-credentials is also a critical note. There has been too much use of the unbundling approach in my experience, essentially modularizing what already exists without adding real value for learners or employers, while labelling the resulting packages as micro-credentials. This will lead to a kind of micro-washing in the style of greenwashing, essentially institutions looking like they are providing something new and helpful while doing business as usual. This is not the time for a self-healing strategy by institutions, it is the time to provide real support for learners and employers. Building micro-credentials requires institutions to identify actual value for all partners in the process through consultation: learners, employers and yes, the institution itself.

Your mention of the leading-edge work of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority in bringing an enlightened framework to the fore, which incorporates both standalone and stackable credentialing pathways, is heartening. The team at NZQA has demonstrated that you can build an efficient and workable qualification framework that includes micro-credentials, using a light touch, and allowing innovation to flourish without overly regulating the concept in the formative stages. I know that Ontario and Canadian regulators would love to get their hands all over micro-credentials, but my fear is that they will default to conventional thinking and inhibit innovation and keep us from being more experimental, especially in virtual environments and in the potentially connective space between non-formal and formal learning, where new value lives for learners and employers.

Thank you, HEQCO team. You have provided an encouraging and refreshing perspective which I celebrate. Bravo!

Hi Janice, Julia and Jackie,

Thank you for this insightful post.

I am completing my Professional Master of Education Program through Queens University, and I work for a college as support staff.

Education in many forms and shapes plays a decisive role in economic performance. However, we are continuously hearing from employers how higher education is not closing the gap between what the student learns in postsecondary and what the student must do in the job.

HEQCO sees the primary functions of micro-credentials as responding quickly to evolving social and economic needs (like the pandemic) and catering to underserved learners (like adults). Based on your statement, these micro-credentials take a Social Efficiency Curriculum conception, where the purpose is to successfully train students to function in society. The objective of this curriculum conception is to equip students with the needed skills required in the workplace and prepare adults for success in a changing labour market.

A recent report from The Economist suggested that the ROI – the value-added from a college degree decreases as the number of graduates increases. How would the micro-credential be any different from a college degree? As these are both educational credentials. Undoubtedly, the 21st-century market demands educational changes; however, are micro-credentials the right approach to develop the skills students need to be job-ready? Lastly, let us consider experience-centered design or experiential learning design if BHER and HEQCO determined that micro-credentials are the best approach to keeping up with today’s changing market.

Look forward to seeing how this research progresses.

I have been doing a bit of research on micro-credentialing. The challenge that I am experiencing is how is micro-credentialing introduced and established in, let’s say for example, a specific industry. How does one go about doing it? It is in this area that I finda paucity of information and know-how.

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