Micro-credentials, macro-challenges and mega-opportunities

Image by Christian Bass
If you work in the sector, you will doubtless have heard the term “micro-credentials”, but what does it mean (and is it one word or two, with a hyphen?). Lifelong learning is gaining increasing focus nationally and internationally, with an ageing workforce and the need for flexibility in our career paths. This is manifested in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement and the Levelling-Up Agenda. Employers want high quality upskilling courses that employees can fit around the day job, and often they want more than attendance, they want validation that their employee has absorbed the knowledge and skills effectively. Likewise, learners on these courses want to have some tangible evidence of achievement, and something that is both portable to other employers and careers, and potentially stackable into a more substantial award.
Micro-credentials can ably fill this need, and they are of course not new, they have just acquired a new label. Accredited CPD has long been part of University and College offers to employers. However, if these courses are to be stackable as well as portable, a framework at least at national level is a natural step. It is also the inevitable bridge to OfS regulation of these courses. Therein lies the trick. Existing CPD courses and the small credit awards currently being developed to meet employer needs are extremely varied. They have evolved from existing provision in a diverse set of institutions, addressing the multivarious needs of a huge range of employers and learners, and were hewn from differing credit frameworks and teaching and learning modes. The methods of approving them varies from light touch to full fat quality validation. In some cases small awards were designed specifically as an entry route to major awards, and it should be noted that if they do not stand alone in their own right, they don’t fit the bill as a micro-credential. Clearly, a good place to start is a definition, and this has been explored globally by UNESCO, working with forty seven experts from across the world. The draft definition is that a micro-credential:
  • is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do;
  • includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider;
  • has stand-alone value and may also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning; and
  • meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance.
Building from that flexible but clear basis, QAA is now working with a group of practitioners drawn from UK institutions on an interim characteristic statement to frame micro-credentials in our home context. Again, the main discussions in the working group are around credit limits, portability and stackability. Credit is a requirement, and it is acknowledged that the range of credit ratings is challenging to the mobility of learners between institutions. Flexible Recognition of Prior Learning is therefore an integral part of the proposal. Individual institutions are also working on their own strategic approaches to micro-credentials, and here at the University of Derby we are working on a framework that will allow learners to collect micro-credentials across different subject areas and levels. Various sector groups have had robust conference on the topic, including the Northern University Consortium (NUCCAT) and the QAA themselves. We are in a chicken and egg situation in many ways – institutions already have courses that could be categorised as micro-credentials under the current definitions, so do we design tightly-controlled frameworks and require our courses to be reviewed to fit into it, or do we design frameworks that encompass the existing variation? In terms of stackability, do we retain an emphasis on constructive alignment within programmes, or re-embrace the original modular philosophy of polymathy, perhaps with “Combined Studies” type award titles? It is clear to see that institutions are distinctive in their approach, and will have a spectrum of views on this issue, how will we find a common language that is open to all? At its heart, despite all the knots we tie ourselves up in around our credit frameworks and curriculum design proclivities, it is clear that micro-credentials are going to be an important part of the relationship between HEIs and employers. They represent an opportunity to engage with new employers and build up additional offers, to drive economic growth by upskilling the workforce, and to contribute to our civic duties. This particular adventure in education may even lead to more collaboration and sharing between HEIs, facilitating true student mobility and effective, flexible lifelong learning.

Blog by Dr Anne Danby, Course Director, College of Science and Engineering, University of Derby

Elaine Owen, Quality Manager, University of Derby

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