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The Skills Agenda

Why faculty need to talk about microcredentials

There is reason to believe that shorter, competency-based programs will play an important role in the university landscape in the coming years.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | NOV 15 2021

Badges and certificates and alternative credentials, oh my! As anyone working in university leadership has heard, non-degree programming is expected to play a big part in the future of higher education. Microcredentials – also known as micro-credentials (the hyphenation question has yet to be settled), nano-credentials, badges, certificates, alternative credentials, and probably several other names – were creating buzz before COVID-19. The pandemic has further fuelled momentum.

While postsecondary leaders and governments are increasingly focused on microcredentials, it is not clear that they are fully on the radar for faculty. In this month’s column, I will outline what microcredentials are, how they tie to career skill training, and why faculty should pay attention to this quickly evolving educational space.

What are microcredentials, anyway?

Defining microcredentials is much harder than one should expect. This is due to the lack of governance, oversight, and regulation. Writing for Forbes in 2017, Michael B. Horn referred to the “wild west” of badges and microcredentials, an apt phrasing and one that is used broadly. Australian commentator Stephen Matchett expands: “MCs are the wild west of post-compulsory education and training, with neither law on what they actually are or order as to how they interact with formal providers. … Until (or if) this is sorted by regulators there needs to be a sheriff providing workable rules that stop the cowboys running riot.”

The lack of standards is also an issue in Canada. While  degree standards have been agreed upon – the Canadian Degree Qualification framework, contained in the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC)’s 2007 Ministerial Statement on Quality Assurance of Degree Education in Canada, outlines expectations for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees – the CMEC has yet to issue a pan-Canadian framework for microcredentials.

In the absence of a pan-Canadian model or definition, for the purposes of this column I will use the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO)’s definition, put forward in its May 2021 report, Making Sense of Microcredentials:

“A microcredential is a representation of learning, awarded for completion of a short program that is focused on a discrete set of competencies (i.e., skills, knowledge, attributes), and is sometimes related to other credentials.”

The key words to focus on here are short (a.k.a. “micro”) and competencies.

How do microcredentials link to career skill training?

Discussions of microcredentials typically focus on the idea of labour market-relevant competencies, with discussions of “up-skilling”, “re-skilling”, “retraining”, “transferable skills”, and “technical skills.” Governments see microcredentials as a means to meet labour market skills training needs quickly. For example, the Government of Ontario’s 2020 budget describes microcredentials as a means to “help people retrain and upgrade their skills to find new employment,” and allocates $59.5 million to its three year microcredential strategy.

While universities are important actors, they are not the only potential sources of microcredential programming; colleges, polytechnical institutes, for-profit education providers, non-profit organizations, and professional associations are other players in this space. These other actors may have some advantages over universities, such as being inherently more comfortable with seeing career skill training as aligned with their institutional mandates, and/or being more familiar with competency-based learning.

Indeed, as microcredential momentum grows, it will almost certainly reinvigorate long-standing questions about whether it is the responsibility of universities to prepare their students for careers. (My own position on this is yes, absolutely; please read my past column on this for my reasoning).

It can be tempting, particularly as a faculty member, to simply dismiss microcredentials as the new MOOCs (massive open online courses): a big idea that eventually proves to have limited impact upon universities. But there is reason to believe that shorter, competency-based programs will play an important role in the university landscape in the coming years – even if only due to universities being incentivized by the potential tuition revenue and government funding available.

What does all of this mean for faculty members?

Developing and running effective microcredential programs is not simply a matter of bundling a group of existing classes into a new sub-degree level program (although there will certainly be some who try that approach). Effective microcredential programming needs to be an institution-wide effort, with appropriate resourcing and guidelines, along with effective recruiting and student support.

But this does not mean that microcredentials must be a top-down effort. Indeed, I believe there is potential for academic units and faculty to identify innovative microcredentials programs that allow them to advance their own academic priorities.

As a starting point, I encourage department chairs and other unit leaders to lead collegial discussions about the following questions:

  • Gaps: who is not being served by our current degree offerings? Is there potential demand for our disciplinary knowledge and skills from people who don’t want a full degree program? Are there ways people could upgrade their skills by taking certain types of our courses? Can we identify potential short programs to meet new, distinct learning outcomes?
  • Student diversity: are there opportunities to develop short programs that could introduce a new demographic of students to our discipline? How might microcredentials be developed that meet the needs and interests of Indigenous students, first-generation students, or international students?
  • Connection: how might we create partnerships with external organizations to inform our understanding of skill-training needs? Can these partnerships be leveraged to create new career pathways for students, and/or new research opportunities for faculty, postdocs, and graduate students?
  • Impact: in what ways do our discipline’s insights relate to Canada’s current and future public needs? How might our disciplinary knowledge be combined with knowledge from other disciplines to train students to help address particular challenges? In what ways could our discipline contribute to student competency development that we consider meaningful and impactful?

These are valuable discussions that can lead to exciting ideas and possibly program innovations.

While there is opportunity for units within the microcredential space, faculty should be cautious about the potential workload involved in their development. Since microcredential skills training is often industry-specific (e.g., health care, technology), to be effective microcredentials must be informed by current and future labour-market needs. Most units are sufficiently busy with their existing program responsibilities and lack the capacity to do true market-need assessments. For this reason, if universities are serious about microcredentials, they need to step up and invest university-level resources to support their actual development, especially identifying labour-market needs.

Overall, I encourage faculty and units to get ahead of the curve here, rather than waiting to be told what to do. Identifying possible opportunities and working with university and external partners is the best way to ensure units can develop effective microcredential programs that complement rather than undermine or compete with their existing programs.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation 

What are your own thoughts about microcredentials? Please let me know by commenting below.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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