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Are microcredentials the future of higher ed?

They’ve been on the lips of a growing number of postsecondary administrators and faculty in recent years, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend.

BY MOIRA MACDONALD | JAN 12 2022

Like most health-care organizations, Lakeridge Health, east of Toronto, faced an urgent demand to redeploy its staff and recruit new employees when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But pandemic restrictions meant it could not run its mandatory in-person onboarding training in occupational injury prevention.

It was a moment when groundwork laid months earlier by nearby Ontario Tech University started to pay big dividends. The Oshawa, Ont., university had solicited input from Lakeridge for a program on the safe transfer of patients, initially for the university’s nursing students, but with the goal of reaching a range of health-care professionals. Designed as a “microcredential,” it was something that could be completed in under 12 hours, providing solid competency in a specific set of skills sought after by employers, and supported through pilot funding provided by Ontario’s government for microcredential development in 2019.

While its launch of the microcredential had been postponed by the pandemic’s onset, Ontario Tech sent the online portion of the program’s content to Lakeridge on request so that it could serve as a stopgap for the training Lakeridge could no longer provide its new hires, some of whom were Ontario Tech’s own recent graduates.

“It was a tiny thing that we could do in those early days,” says Fiona McArthur, strategic project manager at Ontario Tech. “[Lakeridge] had co-created the material with us.” The university offers an array of microcredentials; some are in soft skills such as active listening, supported by funding from TD Bank Group, others focus on more technologically oriented skills such as business analytics, through a subsidiary of the university.

“If we didn’t have this, we would have been hard-strapped to find something to replace it,” says Philip Salim, a member of Lakeridge’s occupational health and safety team. “It covers everything that we would want to cover in our training program.”

The term “microcredential” has been on the lips of a growing number of Canadian postsecondary administrators and faculty over the last four years, reflecting a global trend. But the pandemic has been an accelerant, with microcredentials showing up in the COVID-19 recovery playbooks of governments anxious to address massive job losses on one hand, and frustrated employers complaining of skills and labour shortages on the other. While definitions vary, as do the names (digital badges, micro courses, nanoprograms and the like are all related labels) the basic idea is that these are short courses that cultivate and verify a particular skill, knowledge or competency that employers want, and help learners bridge their pre-existing skills and knowledge to meet rapidly changing labour market demands without removing them from the workforce. Microcredentials are intended to be convenient. They are often delivered online, and usually through continuing education departments. Some are so digitally integrated that the holder can display them on their social media resume, such as LinkedIn, allowing prospective employers to click the credential and immediately verify its authenticity and the skills it covers.

“We really see microcredentials providing access to skills-based programming led by subject-matter experts that can enable students to hone their abilities in their skill and discipline, as well as just gain more confidence and preparedness to pursue their goals,” says Alishau Diebold, president of Wilfrid Laurier University’s graduate students’ association, which has been consulting with the university’s administration on the implementation of microcredentials.

A bit of history

The lineage of microcredentials can be traced back to the movement to digitally democratize and disrupt traditional postsecondary education through offerings like massive open online courses (MOOCs), and online education platforms, such as Coursera. New Zealand pioneered the incorporation of microcredentials into its education system in 2017, when its qualifications authority collaborated with Otago Polytechnic, which had been offering “edubits,” and Udacity, an American online education company that was running “nanodegrees.” Microcredentials are now part of New Zealand’s National Qualification System, making them a recognized credential with fixed criteria and subject to an approval process, just like diplomas and degrees. Frameworks for the recognition of microcredentials are also being developed internationally by groups such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Commission, intent on supporting lifelong learning and flexible opportunities for adults to “upskill and reskill.”

Canada has reflected that global interest, with major government investment over the last two years: $59.5 million announced by the Ontario government in late 2020 to fund microcredential development and related student loans; $9 million announced by British Columbia’s government since 2020, with federal support; and $5.6 million announced by Alberta’s government last August for microcredential pilot projects after the Business Council of Alberta (BCA) issued a report in 2020 urging the provincial and federal governments to expand microcredential opportunities. Ontario’s government-backed digital learning organization, eCampus Ontario, has been working in this area since 2017. Microcredential development is included in the strategic plans of the University of New Brunswick and Dalhousie University. As far back as 2015, the University of British Columbia promoted the use of “open badges” to recognize discrete skills that students had acquired within for-credit courses. It started running several non-credit microcredentials in 2021, thanks to provincial funding.

Microcredentials at Canadian universities:
examples and first

  • The University of Lethbridge Calgary campus, focused on adult learners, is developing a microcredential that would help individuals at risk of, or displaced from industries such as oil and gas transfer their skills into jobs in Alberta’s expanding film industry. It has been collaborating with Calgary Economic Development and the Alberta Local of the Directors’ Guild of Canada, with hopes of bringing a key labour union on board to validate the program. Backed by funding from the Alberta government, the vision is to potentially expand beyond the initial microcredential into a series that can be stacked into a non-credit certificate. The U of L also offers microcredentials that can be stacked towards several graduate-level certifications related to health sciences and health management.
  • Since December 2019, Université Laval has offered 13 “nanoprogrammes,” plus another four in development, under themes such as pharmacology and seniors’ health, teaching social and emotional skills for primary grade students, and wetlands protections. All nanoprogrammes are developed in collaboration with external partners and are intended to develop in-demand professional competencies. They may also serve as gateways into regular study programs. Nearly 500 learners have registered for these programs, which range in duration from 90 to 135 hours over about six months.
  • The University of Regina offers several microcredentials in business-related topics, earned by accumulating digital badges. Last summer, it was the first Canadian university to issue micro-credential certification through the MyCreds platform, a digital storage space for postsecondary credentials established by the Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada.
  • Last year, the University of Manitoba embedded microcredentials in its certificate and diploma framework, creating room for the development of non-degree microcertificates and undergraduate micro-diplomas (nine to 18 credit hours) which could be put towards diplomas or undergraduate degree programs.
  • In 2020, Thompson Rivers University became the first North American university to accept the international transfer of open learning micro-credentials, earned through the Open Education Resource universitas network, which makes its courses available for free with fees for assessments and certification. The credits can be counted towards university-level qualification.
  • eCampus Ontario has launched 36 microcredential pilot programs, half of them at Ontario universities. Examples include Nonprofit Change Management, a partnership between Western University and two local nonprofits, and development towards microcredentials in mathematics, offered through Lakehead University to support worker upskilling or prospec-tive university students in northern or Indigenous communities.

“There’s a lot of potential for different clienteles [of learners],” says Dany Benoit, director of continuing education at the Université de Moncton. He is already intent on creating a “long list” of micro-programs by sometime next year, some as a result of renaming and updating existing courses and some that would pull from the university’s faculties, such as combining knowledge from computer science and health into a micro-program in digital health. “It’s a way for us to meet the needs [of learners] but also to interest them in maybe completing other programs at the university as well,” Mr. Benoit says. “If you have a graduate level micro-program in an area of business administration and the learner liked it and wanted to continue, maybe they’ll register for a master’s degree in business administration.”

Besides creating a fresh revenue stream, microcredentials are seen as a way for universities to re-engage with alumni who want to revamp their resumes in mid-career and respond to the needs of local employers. It’s also a way of catering to learners who are increasingly on the hunt for flexible and convenient educational opportunities, many of which are offered cheaply or free of charge online, by presenting a reputable credential as an alternative.

For business, microcredentials have been touted as a quick solution to overcoming the complaint that new graduates lack vital skills and that universities are resistant to change. Mike Holden, the BCA’s vice president of policy and chief economist, uses the example of a student who submits a final paper or report which gets graded once and then forgotten. “In the real world, that paper goes back and forth a million times,” he says. “It’s a much more iterative process.”

Helping students succeed in the workforce

Besides working professionals, microcredentials have also been targeted at undergraduates. At Simon Fraser University, students can earn microcredentials by taking credited elective courses for in-demand labour skills, such as cultural competency and data literacy, through its FASS Forward program. Some universities are exploring the use of microcredentials to validate specific competencies that students may pick up within regular for-credit courses, work-integrated learning or even co-curricular activities.

“We see [microcredentials] as a very powerful tool to facilitate that movement of higher education graduates into the workforce,” says Dianne Tyers, dean of open learning and career development at Dalhousie University. Her institution has at least two dozen microcredential courses available through open learning, on everything from computer programming to tractor safety. But it’s also in discussions around partnering with sector-specific companies that offer microcredential-style courses of their own, and discussing with faculties how to embed or identify microcredentials in undergraduate courses. “If I invest thousands and thousands of dollars and years of my life in a university degree,” Dr. Tyers says, “I should be able to take that to the labour market and get some value from it.”

“We see [microcredentials] as a very powerfu tool to facilitate that movement of higher education graduates into the workforce.”

Questions about what a microcredential actually is and who it’s best suited for continue to be debated, and represent the biggest challenge to moving projects ahead. Should it be industry-verified or not? Should it take six hours, six weeks or longer than six months? For credit or non-credit? Digitized? And who approves it? eCampus Ontario released a framework for new microcredential development last spring, including a common language for describing skills and competencies and a requirement that the microcredential be validated by an external industry partner, where possible. While most provinces lack such frameworks, Colleges and Institutes Canada proposed a national one last year. Saskatchewan has one in development, and Nova Scotia began working on its own in late 2020.

“There’s concerns that the microcredentialling space could become like this Wild West, where there are hundreds of microcredentials and they’re all different and what do they mean and what value do they have,” says Dr. Tyers. “We do not want to have a Wild West in Nova Scotia.”

Microcredential proponents often speak about the importance of portability and “stackability,” as in credits that can be accepted by another institution and accumulated, potentially into something bigger, from certificates right up to degrees. That raises prickly questions about approvals and quality assurance. In a March 2021 report, the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. wrote that if a growing number of continuing education courses were converted into microcredentials “with crossover to for-credit programs, then continuing studies will need recalibration to align better within the collegial governance model of the institution.”

Another concern it raised was the potential “unbundling” of degree programs if competency-based pieces of for-credit curricula were to be converted into microcredentials, especially if they could be eventually stacked into diplomas or degrees, as some, including the BCA, have supported.

That interest “is based on the notion that the whole is made up of adding up all the bits rather than the whole being more than the sum of the parts. Any notion that you’ve got [an educational] progression, coherence, sequencing, all of that goes out the window with microcredentials,” says Leesa Wheelahan, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She and colleague Gavin Moodie have critiqued microcredentials as “gig qualifications for a gig economy,” that further the privatization of education. Rather than bending to the needs of ever-changing workplace requirements, societies should ensure everyone has access to more substantial qualifications with labour market value, they argue.

Besides, the complaint that universities are out of touch with employers’ needs is untrue and ignores that universities are often on the leading edge of the new knowledge that will transform workplaces years later, says Susan McCahan, U of T’s vice-provost for academic programs and innovations in undergraduate education. The university considers anything less than a minor as fitting the microcredential bill – and subject to dean approval – although its school of continuing studies offers explicitly-identified microcredentials. Dr. McCahan says U of T faculty and staff stay on top of necessary skills through regular contact with private- and public-sector entities, and many academic divisions have advisory boards with external members to keep curricula relevant. “Our goal is for our alumni to be highly successful,” she says. “We do well when they do well.”

For all the effort and money being poured into microcredentials, their initial promise has fallen flat for some. Many programs carrying the label so far are rebranded pre-existing curricula, with institutions arguing that they have long offered short, career-oriented courses. Developing them from scratch can be cost-prohibitive, especially when a shorter course is supposed to cost less. “It’s a rapid development cycle and a lot of the time, universities are not set up to meet that,” says Emma Gooch, program manager for microcredentials at eCampus Ontario.

Ken Steele, a higher education strategist who initially enthused about microcredentials when he heard about them several years ago, comments that “the hype is losing some steam, just like MOOCs did 10 years ago. While the vision for microcredentials was that these were something that could open up access to postsecondary education and allow students to accumulate stackable credentials that gradually become a degree or diploma, there’s very little evidence that that’s happening.”

For her part, Ms. Gooch acknowledges that stackability is “the dream, it’s the goal for a lot of people, but we’re not there yet.”

Skeptics notwithstanding, Ontario Tech is moving full steam ahead with a follow-up to its patient transfer microcredential, this one in patient safety, responding to lessons learned through the pandemic in long-term care and backed by another pilot investment from eCampus Ontario. Given the health system’s growing demands for more staff, the program seems tailor-made for the times.

“I’ve been working on microcredentials for three years,” says Ontario Tech’s Fiona McArthur. Yet, only lately has her toil been recognized, thanks to government investments that she believes are helping education professionals turn the creativity they’ve always had into fresh and exciting learning opportunities. “I’ve gone from talking to myself in the corner to being the most popular person on campus.”

PUBLISHED BY
Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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  1. Chaz / January 12, 2022 at 16:06

    Answer to the question: An obvious “No”.
    Case closed.

  2. Jennifer Beale / January 13, 2022 at 22:24

    Thanks for this article and for collating what’s happening across the country. To add to it, at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business we’ve introduced a new graduate micro-credential that stacks into our Grad Certificate program: https://beedie.sfu.ca/ideas/2021/11/sfu-beedie-and-kpmg-introduce-new-tech-focused-micro-credential-graduate-program/
    Please reach out if you’d like to learn more.