Have Your Say on the Role and Potential of Micro-credentials

Last week, Google announced 1,000 scholarships for Dublin job seekers through a partnership with Coursera. The opportunity this initiative provides to complete a range of short online courses and earn certificates in IT, data analytics, project management and UX design is part of an increasing global trend towards alternative credentials.

These credentials, often referred to as micro-credentials, are claimed by their proponents to more flexible and responsive to current employment needs than traditional university qualifications.

While the currency of these short awards and certificates may not yet rival the value of a full degree, and debate continues over where they fit in the credential ecology, the Madrid Micro-credential Statement arising from last month’s EDEN Conference observed that alternative credentials appear to be the next big thing! There is growing expectancy over the role micro-credentials may play in the future. For instance, a recent global survey of 320 higher education leaders conducted by HolonIQ reports that:

“Over 85% of institutions see alternative and micro-credentials as an important strategy for their future.”

A similar level of expectancy was apparent from participant responses shown below to a poll conducted earlier in the year as part of the course Higher Education 4:0: Certifying your Future.

Given the claims and promises of micro-credentials, it is not surprising that discussions on their role and relationship to traditional macro-credentials are progressing rapidly at national, European, and indeed global levels. Importantly, last year, the European Commission (2020) published a major report proposing a common European-wide definition. However, there are many questions that need to be considered in current discussions, as outlined in the above mentioned Madrid Micro-credential Statement, including:

  • What are the problems that micro-credentials are trying to solve?
  • Who do micro-credentials serve?
  • How do you develop and implement micro-credentials?
  • What problems stand in the way of micro-credentials reaching general acceptance?
  • Will micro-credentials live up to the promise they offer?

Currently, several members of the NIDL team are busy undertaking a comprehensive review of the international literature on micro-credentials to help answer some of these questions as part of a wider project for the European Commission. While this literature review is intended to inform the current European policy context the pertinent question, however, at an individual or organisational level is…

What do you think?

Whether a learner, educator, employee, employer, institution or policy-maker, you have a stake in shaping the future of further and higher education. And as highlighted in a recently published report by Skillnet Ireland, A Micro-credential Roadmap: Currency, Cohesion and Consistency, micro-credentials will only work as intended to help close skill gaps and increase participation in lifelong learning when everyone comes to the table. As Nic Giolla Mhichíl et al. (2020) write:

“There is a risk of the transformative potential of Micro-credentials being diminished if the full range of stakeholders do not participate actively in discussion” (p.9).

How can you get involved?

The European Commission have launched a public consultation process to collect the views of individuals and stakeholders on a European-wide approach to micro-credentials for life-long learning and employability. This is your opportunity to share your views on the proposed definition and the most important aspects of micro-credentials to you. This consultation process will remain open until 13th July 2021 so don’t miss your opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

On a related note, the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education has opened an avenue for deeper scholarly discussion and knowledge-sharing through its special issue focusing on micro-credentials. This open access Journal, now ranked 18th out of 263 Education journals in the latest Impact Factor results published last week, is providing an opportunity to consider the “next new normal” for digitally-enhanced and -enabled learning in higher education systems. In particular, the Journal is seeking papers that critically and analytically examine the role of micro-credentials in higher education.

You can read more about this special issue and how to submit a manuscript on the journal website, with a submission deadline of 31st July 2021.

Lastly, please note that the NIDL Micro-credential Observatory provides a comprehensive collection of research, major reports and policy-related literature on micro-credentials. Make sure you take a look at the resources available through this site when preparing your journal submission or response to the public consultation process.

Looking Back, Looking Forward – “Learners and Universities in the 21st Century – Future-ready?”

On March 11th, 2021, the NIDL was truly delighted to host Prof. George Veletsianos, as he shared an address entitled “Learners and Universities in the 21st Century – Future Ready?’.

The address was the first in a wider series of discussions with Prof. Veletsianos, the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and the Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Flexible Learning at Royal Roads University. Earlier in the year, our application was successful for George to be awarded a prestigious Irish Canada University Association (ICUF) D’Arcy McGee Beacon Scholarship.

This first talk was timed to coincide with Higher Education 4.0: Certifying your Future, an online learning masterclass delivered by the NIDL team, in close collaboration with colleagues at the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU). This discussion is now available on the ICUF’s Youtube channel, where you can watch an array of useful webinars on the strong links between Ireland and Canada across an array of academic contexts and subjects.

What’s “new” about the “new normal”? 

Prof. Veletsianos grounded his discussion in the key tensions that face educational systems in the 21st century, and brought a valuable longer-term perspective. While COVID-19 is often presented as a temporary, radical disruption of a pre-existing “normal”, from which we will recover, he notes that the pandemic has in fact “accelerated and amplified pre-existing trends and pressures”, rather than being in any sense a clear break.

Examples of these trends and challenges include: 

  • Wealth inequality, 
  • Technological advances which promote some form of economic growth but risk mass unemployment, 
  • Climate catastrophes, 
  • Financial concerns, such as declining revenues in HE institutions, 
  • Trends towards digitalisation. 

Prof. Veletsianos argues that COVID has instead brought these challenges to a head with greater speed, bringing them to public awareness in a manner which might not have been clear pre-pandemic. Building upon this argument, he notes that online learning is often viewed as a panacea, or an inherent means of promoting “flexible” learning (which can occur “anytime, from anywhere, at any pace”) – this promise being viewed as both good, and neutral, a promise of online communication, to move towards new models of learning. 

Towards radical flexibility 

Presenting a hypothetical learner (“Jordan”) who is working and has a family, Prof. Veletsianos asks us to question – can Jordan truly study anywhere and at anytime? Sanguinely, he notes: 

The challenges facing Jordan aren’t just technological, and those challenges can’t solely be solved by technology. 

Relatedly, he argues that while student responsibility, that learners are expected to direct their own studies, is laudable, it can also prove problematic, when failing to account for the fact that “different people have different levels of control and support over how they manage their life”. A cogent example presented is social expectations of gender, particularly in the division of labour. While self-identified men and women might (theoretically) be equally likely to avail of flexible learning opportunities, a woman who is a mother may be expected to cook and care for her children, where no such social expectation exists of a father. Thus, flexibility is “neither neutral, nor universal” (a point explored further in Veletsianos et al., 2021). 

In highlighting this problem, Prof. Veletsianos argues for an alternative, Radical Flexibility, that is “relative and relational, resisting placing onus solely on the individual”. Such flexibility entails trusting students, where the emotional and relational nature of teaching and learning is highlighted. 

“We ought to do better”

Prof. Veletsianos closed with an important call, that we must seek better alternatives, and work together to consider what possibilities exist. He notes that: 

“We ought to do better, because the future isn’t a given, the future is up to us to design and to make better, and we know that our pre-pandemic reality wasn’t the best that we could have; it was inequitable, right? It had all sorts of problems. I believe we can do better than that and I believe we are at the point in time where we have the opportunity to do better than that, and we should take advantage of it.

What does doing better mean? This is something that can only become clear through participation, collaboration, and an awareness that all learners are not “just” learners, but also caregivers, friends, explorers, dreamers, and many more. Prof. Veletsianos’ challenge is to think bigger, and was an inspiring and uplifting message for the many participants, who engaged in a lively Q and A session with the speaker following the main event.

Further opportunities to hear Prof. Veletsianos speak

Two further events will be hosted with Prof. Veletsianos as part of this ICUF-sponsored series of talks: 

  • On the 17th of June, George will participate in a further NIDL panel discussion , in which he will focus on the student experience drawing upon his recently published book, “Learning Online: The Student Experience” and stories and lessons from the pandemic. This discussion will also contribute to the new DigiTEL Pro Strategic Partnership where DCU is leading the student research and readiness development work package.

Both events will be open for registration shortly, and we encourage you to keep an eye on the NIDL’s twitter feed for further details and information. We also encourage you to explore Prof. Veletsianos’ work through his website, both written in a manner accessible to lay readers, and asking many of the key questions which face 21st century education systems, including expanding access for all.