One of the big buzzwords in higher education these days is “microcredentials”. Because this term means so many things to different people, it is worth unpacking this term a bit.
One of the biggest challenges we have as a country is keeping adults skilled. Adults are far more expensive to train than young people because their labour has significant market value – it costs them money to take time off work, and their free time is limited due to things such as child or elder care. So, if you are going to entice them into some form of education, the program you’re pushing needs above all to be i) short and ii) have labour market value. The first part is no problem; the second, however, is a major problem.
Credentials are a code, designed to be sent from educational institutions to employers (and, secondarily, other educational institutions) in order to signal something about the skills and knowledge embodied in the person who bears it. Like all codes, they take some effort to understand. The value encoded by the type of degree (Arts v. Science, for instance), the name of the program, and of the institution take a little longer and may be understood differently by different employers – and properly so since they value different skills and attributes. But the basic meaning of a “bachelor’s” or “master’s” degree is reasonably well understood because as a society we’ve been giving those out for a few hundred years and employers have had that long to work out what it means.
Now imagine trying to create a new credential, one employers have never heard of. How will they value it? If they can’t value it, how will they decide to compensate potential employees who want to see a return on the credential? If they compensate inadequately, why would anyone take the credential? This is not an idle problem: in Ontario, it took a good decade or even decade and a half for “applied” Bachelor’s degrees – that is, delivered by colleges – to really take hold in the labour market, and that by comparison is a relatively small tweak. Trying to value something genuinely new – like a credential which takes only months or weeks to earn – is going to be much harder.
Fortunately, there seem to be a lot of people with open minds on this front and incentives to spread the use of these new credentials. Broadly speaking, these new initiatives to offer “short” credentials come under two different headings: “badging” and “microcredentials”. Badging is mostly an attempt to certify the presence of specific skills that are not necessarily program related (the term is meant to be redolent of Guides and Scouts); microcredentials tend to denote mastery of certain content, in the same way a degree or diploma does. This nomenclature is not universally observed – a number of institutions in Canada and elsewhere (Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand for example; ) use the term “microcredentials” for things which are actually badges or use the terms interchangeably (for instance, Humber College). But to avoid confusion, I will stick with the badges = skills and credentials = content mastery definitions because they are cleaner.
Badges work pretty much anywhere in the educational system: provided you can define and measure a skill, it is possible to add them into existing programs without a lot of fuss (see this example from McMaster University). Microcredentials are different in the sense that they require designing from scratch: what is the minimum amount of content that employers might be willing to reward, when signalled in a credential?
The most popular example of such microcredentials right now are things likeCoursera’s various “specializations” – that is, a series of short courses which result in a certification once completed (from a specific university rather than Coursera). The labour market value of these is at this point unknown though generally speaking online credentials seem to be gaining greater acceptability among employers. Unfortunately, perhaps because Coursera is the most prominent provider of microcredentials, many people equate microcredentials with online provision when this is not the case.
Indeed, in some cases, individual courses really are equivalent to microcredentials. In Singapore, for instance, there is the whole Skills Framework portion of the SkillsFuture system, which is designed to help Singaporeans find and pay for short courses of immediate career value. They don’t call the courses microcredentials, but the fact that each course has been aligned with the national skills framework in each industry means they function exactly like microcredentials (for more on Singapore see here.)
Canadian institutions are going to need to think a lot more about microcredentials over the next few months. The last federal budget introduced the Canadian Training Benefit, to start in 2020, under which the Government of Canada is prepared to fund 50% of the cost of any piece of adult education (subject to some unspecified eligibility criteria). That makes the prospect of short-course education for Canadians much more affordable, but it will still be incumbent on institutions to design attractive short-courses and short credentials. With a potential annual market in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it should be enough to set off a round of very interesting experimentation from Canadian colleges and universities and – if we are lucky – propel us to the global forefront of this field. Exciting times.
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