Special Issue on Micro-credentials: A First Taster…

Though highly contestable, it’s not uncommon to hear of a particular challenge facing university students; the transition from learning environments which are structured and (partially) directed by educators, to the “wilds” of employment, where they must demonstrate skills, competences, and offer valuable knowledge and experience to prospective employers.

Photo by Håkon Grimstad on Unsplash

Viewed in this light, the formal university student is something of a caterpillar, cloistered and tentative, until blooming through authentic and real world experiences, becoming valued, and valuable. The issue of employability generates heated debate regarding educational futures and highlights tensions concerning the role of universities and the linking of educational practices to employers’ needs.

Micro-credentials are a topic of interest in this debate, as Brown and Nic Giolla Mhichíl (2021) illustrate using a different four-legged animal metaphor. As we have previously reported through the NIDL blog, issues regarding micro-credentials and employability are the central theme of a forthcoming special issue of the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education(ETHE), co-edited by Dr. Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl and Prof. Mark Brown, of DCU, in conjunction with Prof. Beverley Oliver, emirata of Deakin University. The special issue theme is…

“Micro-credentials and the Next New Normal in Digitally Enhanced Higher Education Ecosystems”.

The recent explosion of interest and literature on micro-credentials and the worldwide growth of new policy developments suggests the special issue is timely.

The newly-published first piece, authored by Marcelo Fabián Maina, Lourdes Guàrdia Ortiz, Federica Mancini, and Montserrat Martinez Melo, of UOC, is titled A micro‐credentialing methodology for improved recognition of HE employability skills. The article reports findings from an innovative, mixed-method pilot study conducted in Eastern Africa. The authors foreground this study in the challenges described above, “to provide students with the option to accumulate meaningful, skills-focused digital credentials in order to meet today’s workforce requirements.” (p.2). The article presents a detailed methodology for developing skills through student articulation both within learning content and employment contexts, as illustrated below.

Student articulations were collated into an ePortfolio, following which students were awarded a digital badge as a micro-credential. An innovative element of the study was the use of a cross-sectoral sample, containing students (n=169), lecturers (n=13), and employers (n=24).

Lecturers were positive in response to the innovation, particularly regarding outcomes assessment, with seven  (of 8) viewing it as helpful in this regard. Qualitative findings also demonstrated that lecturers valued the “contextualisation of evidence” (p. 10) within student accounts, which prompted many to consider how they could incorporate demonstrable evidence within wider teaching practice. Students were also very positively disposed towards the project, with a particular interest in how the use of an ePortfolio could support constructive and iterative engagement, with one student noting:

Due to the feedback I got from my teachers and the employer about my evidence in the ePortfolio, I realized that there are some aspects that I needed to improve in my professional development”.

Employer attitudes are understudied as regards micro-credentials, and findings were interesting in sharing further insights from this perspective. As the paper reports, some “commented that the badges and the attached evidence provide a clear view of the candidate skills that is due also to the availability of rich information that complements what is reported in a traditional curriculum vitae” (p. 14). 

Putting it into practice

In a strong discussion, the authors synthesise their findings and highlight several positive elements that the programme provoked in educators, students, and employers. Sagely, they also note that…

this approach could be challenging when dealing with a large number of students” (p. 16).

This observation arising from the study would appear a common challenge and tension when considering the simultaneous pressures of teaching at scale and attempting to enable and encourage more innovative personalised forms of learning.

A broader, pressing issue regarding micro-credential adoption is the lack of efficacy and applied implementation evidence. While a discourse of micro-credentials as “solutions”, “key tools” and “huge for the future of work” is prevalent amongst media and industry commentators, scant evidence exists to support this discourse. This article is refreshing as a contextual, pedagogically-grounded and applied example of a successful pilot programme, which generated diverse perspectives. The authors are realistic in noting that this is a small-scale pilot. Still, educators and course designers interested in micro-credentials will find much interest in this piece. They should look forward to the further articles coming shortly in this timely, special issue.

All Roads Leading to Micro-credentials: Latest ECIU University White Paper

Last week we were pleased to launch a new ECIU University white paper on the rapidly evolving micro-credential movement. This paper, Paving the Road for the Micro-credential Movement’, follows close on the heels of a much anticipated report presenting a European approach to micro-credentials with a related roadmap published in December (Commission Consultation, 2020). A major contribution of this report is a common European definition and language for micro-credentials to address what is acknowledged as a global barrier to wider uptake. 

Video of Launch Event

In April 2020, ECIU University published its first white paper on this topic which identified a number of guiding principles and emphasised the point that micro-credentials should be in the service of big ideas rather than being the big idea itself.

The latest white paper illustrates how the new ECIU University is one of these big ideas with its focus on developing an exciting new co-creation learning ecosystem that connects learners for life.

Micro-credentials are core to the 2030 Vision and concept of developing smart new learning pathways for learners across the ECIU University partners. An implementation roadmap with defined actions across a number of building blocks is also presented in the white paper.

The launch event anchored growing worldwide interest in micro-credentials in a number of competing and consisting drivers, including a trend which is emphasising skills over degrees and the need to urgently address an increasing skills gap due to ongoing digital disruption and the changing nature of work. A focus on developing and recognising transversal skills was also noted along with the global impact of MOOCs. 

While Neoliberal critiques of the movement were noted the role of different interest groups with competing agenda was claimed to be precisely the reason why educators need to be in the driving seat. After all, one of the most important underlying drivers of the micro-credentialing movement is the need to develop new flexible pathways to address current low rates of life-long learning across Europe. Such pathways may be able to better support the pillars of life-long learning:

  • Learning to be
  • Learning to know
  • Learning to do;
  • Learning to live together
  • Learning to transform

Moreover, the development of micro-credentials can potentially support more agile responses to new and emerging developments and growth areas, such as the European Green Deal and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Over 300 participants from Europe, and beyond, participated in the virtual launch event, which included presentations from Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, Head of the Unit in charge of Higher Education Policies and Programme at the European Commission. Anthony Camilleri, Director at Knowledge Innovation Centre, Dr Henri Pirkkalainen from Tampere University and Professor Mark Brown. 

In his keynote presentation, Mark shared news of a new online course, “Higher Education 4.0 – Certifying your Future” available later in February through the FutureLearn platform. This course, developed by a NIDL team to support the ECIU University initiative, explores the new skills agenda, the emergence of the micro-credentialing movement and new authentic pedagogies for new times. The course also draws on findings of a National Irish Survey on Micro-credentials that will be published shortly.

This forthcoming report and the latest ECIU University white paper can be found on the NIDL’s Micro-credential Observatory that is regularly updated to provide a comprehensive collection of policy and research initiatives in this burgeoning area.