Challenges in defining a micro-credential

In a recent blog post on WonkHE, David Kernohan states that micro-credentials should be distinguished by referring to discrete or standalone learning experiences “…not just a possible component of something bigger”. So a micro-credential is not a single module of a larger degree, or various degree programmes. While the rest of his post raises many useful practical challenges to implementing micro-credentialing sector-wide, this assertion of standalone-ness seems to be problematic. Contrast that with the European Commission’s description of a micro-credential as a “sub-unit of a credential” and that can be accumulated into something larger. This idea of ‘stackability’ as a key characteristic of micro-credentials is more explicit in the USA. Kano and colleagues (2020) identified definitions of micro-credential in the USA as more than a single course but less than a full degree. Hence the use of titles such as ‘nano-degree’ or ‘micro-masters’.

Micro-credentials are a growing area of activity in higher education. The 2021 Educause Horizon Report on Teaching & Learning report identifies over 700,000 micro-credentials on offer globally. The EdTech market intelligence firm (yes, such things exist), HOLON IQ calculated a 2019 spend of $9.9bn on a spectrum of micro-credentials: (a) short courses & badges; (b) bootcamps; (c) professional certificates/ licenses; (d) non-university issued non-degree certificates; and (e) university issued non-degree certificates.

But, to be credit awarding, such alternative credentials have to work within various bureaucratic and regulatory constraints. This may be the issue with the European MOOC Consortium’s (EMC) Common Microcredential Framework (CMF) that specifies micro-credentials as consisting of a total learner workload of 100-150 hours (something like 5-7 ECTS) including summative assessments. So the CMF excludes most MOOCs, one-week intensive professional development courses, bootcamps/ hackathons etc…. Could micro-credentials as defined by the CMF really be the mechanism for opening up new pathways into higher education or for attractive pathways flowing through someone’s career and educational goals? I’m thinking more granularity would be need. In which case, a radical rethink of credit structures and, in particular, quality assurance processes would be a step in the right direction.

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