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.

Higher Education 4.0: Exploring New Pedagogies for New Times

In the final week of our online masterclass, Higher Education 4.0: Certifying Your Future“, which has so far attracted more than 800 educators from around the world, we explored a number of critical questions related to new pedagogies for new and uncertain times. This blog post provides a brief synopsis of the discussions taking place over the previous week and what we expect will continue for several more weeks. As illustrated below, our NIDL writing team structured Week 3 around a number of guiding questions, such as:

How do people learn? How do you design environments of learning? How do you design for personalised learning? What new pedagogies are on the horizon? How can students become co-constructors of learning experiences and their own assessment? What are the types of pedagogical frameworks that might enable more active, authentic and real-world forms of learning? What are the challenges in doing so, for both students, teachers, and educational systems?

In addressing these questions, we explored several emerging and potentially disruptive trends in pedagogical practices, including Hip-Hop, Gratitude and Enriched Realities, but most of the facilitated discussion was framed in the language of “authentic pedagogies” and the notion of a “learner-centred” approach. This specific focus was predicated on three interwoven assumptions:

  • Authentic pedagogies following learner-centred principles offer considerable potential in terms of responding to the future skills agenda.
  • Such pedagogies anchored in real-life challenges are well-suited to supporting new flexible life-long learning pathways and recognition models promoting the co-construction of micro-credentials.
  • The adoption of learner-centred, authentic pedagogical approaches helps to connect the classroom to the real-world, and provides greater opportunity to exploit the benefits of digitalisation in reimagining teaching, learning and assessment.

For the purpose of this masterclass, we loosely defined our use of these terms by stating that:

  • Authentic pedagogies – refers to a constellation of pedagogical approaches which emphasise real-world problems and meaningful tasks where teaching, learning and assessment is situated in contexts or challenges requiring interdisciplinary inquiry and exploration.
  • Learner-centred approach – refers to a general philosophy or set of principles that places the learner (or student) at the centre of the learning process. Decisions about teaching, learning and assessment take into account the learner’s previous experiences and their individual needs, interests, capabilities and what they want to achieve.

While the term “student-centred learning” has been used over many years to convey a similar meaning to that above definition, we intentionally adopted “learner-centred” to broaden the discussion. After all, you don’t have to be a student to engage in learning, especially in the workplace or as you pursue informal or non formal types of professional development. This important distinction raised the question:

What are some of the principles you would identify as consistent with a learner-centred approach?

In unpacking this question, and inviting participants to identify their own principles, we introduced the messy landscape of learning theories by revealing the dozens (or more accurately hundreds) of different educational perspectives from which to choose from, as illustrated in the HoTEL project’s ambitious attempt to map them. In a similar vein, we alerted masterclass participants to the dangers of adopting what Sfard (1998) refers to in a seminal publication as single metaphor solutions for learning. To quote:

“Because no two students have the same needs and no two teachers arrive at their best performance in the same way, theoretical exclusivity and didactic single-mindedness can be trusted to make even the best of educational ideas fail” (Sfard, 1998, p.11).

This line of discussion raised the importance of intentionally teaching for learning transfer. In a topic devoted to this issue, we discussed concepts such as near and far transfer and the distinction between High Road and Low Road Transfer (Salomon & Perkins, 1989). Drawing on the diagram below, we argued that a lot of traditional assessment of learning in higher education takes place through highly similar tasks set in academic contexts, as illustrated in the lower left-hand quadrant. The real test of learning is perhaps whether there is evidence of transfer to highly dissimilar tasks in more authentic or real-life contexts, as depicted by the upper right-hand quadrant.

In a related poll, we asked participants to critically reflect on the effectiveness of the traditional examination in measuring evidence of learning. As you can see by the results shown in the figure below, a minority of participants agreed that the exam is solid (or valid) evidence of learning. Of course, it’s highly likely that the type of people attracted to this future-focused online masterclass are not representative of all higher educators.

Set against the issue of promoting learning transfer, a particular focus was placed on Challenge-based Learning (CBL) as this is an underlying signature pedagogy for the new ECIU University. The development of this masterclass is supported by the ECIU University as we endeavour to raise awareness of key concepts and implement many features of what might be defined as Higher Education 4.0. For a brief overview of CBL, we suggest you start by watching this short video.

A central element to the concept of CBL, naturally, is that of a challenge. While the phrase might bear some similarities to Problem-Based Learning (PBL), the focus of CBL is on investigating real-life problems related to pressing societal issues.  Recognising there are many variations of CBL, we shared with participants an innovative case study of authentic pedagogies in practice through a unique award winning module called “Learning Innovation for Enterprise” (LIFE) developed by a team in the DCU Business School.

A particular element of the module we highlight is its focus on Hackathons, day-long events at which students apply their skills to collective problems, such as fast fashion, smarter travel, and mental health (to use some of the thematic problems explored in 2020). These Hackathons, as Dr. Roisín Lyons, module lecturer, explains in the video below, provide students with real opportunities to work in a collaborative manner, “focusing on key themes we care about in social issue contexts”.

Another innovative feature of the Hack4Change experience added for the March 2021 week long event was use of the GatherTown platform as a virtual meeting place and space to augment learning. This online environment allows learners to gather and interact in spaces like they would in the real-world, as this brief video demonstrates.

Drawing on the DCU and ECIU University examples, we then explored a key question, how does CBL impact the teacher’s role? Thinking more generally, if CBL, authentic learner-centred approaches, personalised learning, technology-augmented instruction etc., are at the heart of Pedagogy 4.0, then is there still a role for direct teaching? Does the traditional lecture still have a place in this type of future learning environment? Put another way, is the lecture dead in Higher Education 4.0?

A related and more provocative question that generated some rich discussion is whether in the future the teacher could be replaced by a robot or intelligent digital agent? Some participants agreed “yes” in the discussion posts if the teacher is seen as nothing more than someone who delivers a pre-packaged curriculum largely consisting of digital content. However, as noted by Bonfield et al. (2020) in a future-focused article we provided on the potential impact of robots, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, internet of things (IoT), and so on:

“Yet, it remains open to debate if in Education 4.0 teachers might lose their status as all-knowing experts, and what the future classroom will even look like. Is a paradigm shift and new epistemology emerging, which acknowledges the web as a source of curriculum knowledge, and recognises that learners can occupy the role as content producers and sharers, and that the authority and ownership of knowledge is being transferred from teachers to students?” (p. 243).

Acknowledging that currently DCU Futures and the ECIU University projects are still works in progress, we asked, how do you successfully scale up this type of learning innovation? And is seeing believing? What evidence and success indicators (lead and lag) should be used to measure the longer-term impact of such initiatives? As Dawson and Dawson (2016) point out, higher education learning and teaching research are particularly susceptible to hiding failures and positive reporting bias. In analysing the learning innovation literature they found:

“When the findings of large sets of educational research are pooled together, negative results reporting unsuccessful interventions are rare” (Dawson & Dawson, 2016, p.1).

This valuable line of research highlights the risk of “Hawthorne Effects” arising from learning innovations which often cloud judgments and contribute to change blindness. Accordingly, trying to understand whether “seeing is believing”, or not, raises some challenging methodological issues for those involved in leading learning innovations. As Bonfield, et al. (2020) conclude:

“…more data and research are needed in order to redress the fact that efforts in the field of Education 4.0 are largely driven by intuition and common-sense extrapolations, rather than being solidly underpinned by research-informed models and frameworks” (p. 242).

While the jury might still be out concerning the impact of CBL, masterclass participants were generally positively inclined towards the benefits of such an authentic learner-centred approach, particularly when thinking about their own institutions, as illustrated in the following poll result.

Throughout last week, we encouraged masterclass participants to critically reflect on the transformative power, and potential pitfalls, of authentic learning-centred pedagogies. There was some rich discussion which we expect to continue for several more weeks as people continue to work their way through the masterclass. We finished the week by reflecting back on the big question introduced in Week 1 by asking participants:

What is your vision of Higher Education for the year 2030?

We made a decision in designing the masterclass not to offer a precise definition of Higher Education 4.0 in a practical or detailed sense as the educational context is always important. Instead, our team chose to present and make explicit over each week many of the choices facing higher educators, future policy-makers, and related stakeholders, which deliberately provide a stark contrast with the current normal. In reflecting on the three main topics of future skills, the rapid growth of the micro-credentialing movement, and new and emerging pedagogies for uncertain times, we reminded participants of the words of former US first lady Michelle Obama:

According to Gilly Salmon (2019), the answer to the above question of what Education 4.0 will look like and how it will differ can be defined relationally, through exploring the distinctions between the “other” educations:

  • Education 1.0 (Transmission)
  • Education 2.0 (Social, post-2005)
  • Education 3.0 (Digital Lives and Mobility)

However, a more definitive answer to this question remains open for further discussion and is a challenge for educators to define. In light of powerful change forces explored in weeks 1 & 2, we have argued throughout the masterclass that it’s essential for educators to help drive and shape the future direction of higher education.

In concluding the masterclass, we shared one final supplementary reading from Keri Facer (2020) which very much encapsulates the view that, “The future depends on what we do in the present” as noted by Mahatma Gandhi. Reflecting back on the narrow, heavily biased and somewhat disturbing vision of Education 4.0 presented at the start of Week 1 in a video produced by Jisc (2019), we stress that educators must continue to ask:

What and whose knowledges are being used to create these ideas of the future and where are the absences? (Facer, 2020, p.2).

Our final challenge to masterclass participants, as illustrated below drawing on the recent landing of the Mars rover, is to “Dare mighty things” – quoting a famous line from former US President Theodore Roosevelt. We challenged participants to go beyond critical reflection by identifying what they will do differently as micro-leaders to shape a better future.

So far the feedback we have received from masterclass participants has been overwhelming positive, as evidenced by the following comment from an Irish educator…

“Thank you all so much … a great thought provoking course. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.”

The class has been truly international, and to quote another participant living outside of Ireland…

“I thoroughly enjoyed this course, I learned a lot and really enjoyed engaging with our knowledgeable, committed and encouraging @Educators and the learner community that has such amazingly diverse professional background, open mind and willingness to share thoughts and opinions.”

Finally, our NIDL team will continue to engage over the next few weeks and respond to those participants still completing the learning experience. So you can still sign up to join the masterclass as a later comer to see what others have said about some of the important issues we have explored, and to contribute your own views on the future of higher education. In the meantime, we would like to acknowledge our ECIU University colleagues and the contribution of those who have already completed the masterclass as their discussion posts, in particular, have added to the richness of the learning experience.

The HE4.0 team

PS We have already started planning for our next online masterclass that will explore how higher education institutions shape the digital transformation agenda to achieve their future ambitions.