The global micro-credential landscape: a snapshot
The trend towards micro-credentials and skill-competency based training is growing globally. Skill and competency development aligned with workforce skills in cooperation with government and business employers is not entirely new. University continuing education units, professional agencies, private providers, and many large corporations (e. g. Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, HSBC, Suncor International, Royal Bank of Canada, Toyota) have been delivering skills-based training (Carnevale et al., 2020; Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020; Kato et al., 2020; ICDE, 2019).
In the last decade, numerous universities and consortia worldwide have started to look seriously at this entire area (e.g. Western Governors University, Athabasca University and PowerED, the Open University and FutureLearn, Deakin University, RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), MIT, eCampusOntario, Udacity, Coursera, and edX). The traditional credentials continuum is being reconsidered, with an increased emphasis on the need to unbundle the content and the credential (Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020; Fong et al., 2016). The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for expansion of micro-credentials as unemployment and devastating economic crises during the pandemic have crippled many industries and sectors.
From a global perspective, Europe, the USA, New Zealand, and Australia have taken the lead in supporting micro-credentials, particularly amongst universities and collegess, with emerging developments occurring in Canada, Peru, Indonesia, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Malaysia, and others. Moreover, existing private providers have geared up their business to address skills and competency markets. In addition to growth in these regions we are seeing increased interest and public commentary amongst many government, higher education, and corporate leaders internationally.
This section will provide a snapshot of global activity in micro-credentials. It is not intended to be a comprehensive study of the provision landscape, which is growing as this report is being written. A few government agencies and professional associations that are taking leadership roles moving micro-credentials on to national workforce agendas will also be discussed briefly. A few issues and questions will be presented in the discussion which relate primarily to the final section of this report that covers strategic perspective and options for university leaders going forward.
North America: the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
At times it is hard to fathom how the U.S. consistently maintains the strongest higher education systems in the world. The individual state focus creates many factors that take on a very different context than national systems like in most European countries, Australia, and most of the rest of the world. Many of the US characteristics are similar in Canadian provinces, and create both challenges and opportunities for micro-credentials. Nearly all colleges and universities in the U.S., since the Covid pivot, have some level of digital distance education activity and most have histories building public–private partnerships for workforce training and economic development.
Despite not having a national qualifications framework, U.S. and Canadian institutions are already offering a range of micro-credentials, and this can only expand. Athabasca University, eCampus Ontario, the State University System of New York, the University of Albany, University of California-Irvine, Georgetown University and hundreds of others are already getting into the mix. MIT Open Learning is leading a major global consortium called the Digital Credentials Consortium (https://digitalcredentials.mit.edu/).
The American Council of Education (www.acenet.edu/) has been exploring innovative ways to combine credit and non-credit/nonformal credentials into progressively formal credentials. In New York, a new initiative by the Workforce Development Institute’s Future Skills Exchange Platform partnership with Credential Engine to provide job seekers across New York state with easy access to a growing body of national and industry-recognised certificates (WDI, 2020).
The U.S. market has been front and centre in micro-credentials given the visibility of edX, Udacity (2020) nanodegrees, Coursera specialisations, and MIT’s MicroMasters. Additionally, many universities have adopted a competency-based approach such as Western Governors University, whilst others have expanded historically non-credit continuing education training and skills programs to prepare workforce personnel. The data on U.S. micro-credentials are extensive but the outsider must link directly with institutions because much of the activity is evolving from outreach and continuing education units that have historically been the driving force and locus of control for corporate training and professional development, particularly for credentials without formal academic credit.
In Canada, PowerED at Athabasca University, BCcampus and eCampus Ontario are leading the way in the micro-credentials arena. Alberta, BC, Ontario, and the Maritime provinces all have formal qualifications frameworks. Unique initiatives such as the MyCreds.ca MesCertif.ca (2020) by the Association of Registrars and Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC, 2020) are collaborating with Digitary and Split Mango, two private Vancouver-based companies, to provide students, providers, employers, and third parties with a readily accessible national bilingual credentials wallet. This is similar to the EuroPassport which is designed for European students to house their portfolio credentials in one document and so rendered readily accessible digitally for the student and for potential employers.
Given that online digital learning is pervasive across Canadian higher education, we should expect continued expansion and innovation by universities familiar with online learning, particularly those with a history of distance education like Athabasca Unversity, Thompson Rivers University, Memorial University, the University of Waterloo and many others, especially since the pivot to online learning resulting from the Covid epidemic. Public–private partnerships and engagement by select Canadian institutions in the Global Consortia for Micro-Credentials will continue to grow.
Mexico, though slowly exploring the micro-credentials trends will likely benefit from its previous North American collaborations with the U.S. and Canada. In particular, the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC) is a long-term initiative that remains vitally active today and so is a natural starting point for Mexican Higher Education to engage. Miriadax which is a partner in the European MOOC Consortium and Tecnologico de Monterrey provide distance learning expertise and experience to tap for workforce development and training across Mexico.
Australia/New Zealand and Fiji
In their ACODE Report entitled Survey of micro-credentialing practice in Australasian universities 2020, Selvaratnam and Sankey (2020) provide a good summary of the Australian higher education sector’s current status with micro-credentials. Griffith University, Deakin Universityand RMIT lead the micro-credential market in Australia. However, there is significant activity by other universities and collegess across Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Forty-seven (47) institutions were sent the survey with 34 responses (72%). Seventeen (17) or 50% have micro-credential policies with the remaining respondents indicating they we are reformulating policies.
Eleven (11) of the institutions have validation systems in place and nearly all inferred this would be the most complex feature of maintaining consistency and quality standards. These institutional systems are based on either the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) (Australian Government DoE, 2020) or the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (2020).
The data on types of credentials suggest short-courses are driving 82% of institutions and 50% are graduate level and about 30% at the undergraduate level. The short-course focus is typical of micro-credentials, but also a focus area of the Australian government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic impact on unemployment and economic crisis. Most of these institutions presently focus on micro-credentials, with those associated with academic credit following guidelines traditionally outlined in the qualifications frameworks for Australia and New Zealand respectively.
The combining or stackability of credentials, non-credit and credit, into traditional credentials is in various levels of development at different institutions. Again, these systems are progressively mature at Griffith, Deakin and RMIT in Australia and with Otago Polytechnic (home of OERu) in New Zealand. Overall, 88% of responding institutions have developed or are developing micro-credentials. New Zealand has formally instituted a funding mechanism for micro-credentials (Tertiary Education Commission, 2019).
A critical point in Australia and New Zealand is that micro-credentials are technically considered outside the formal qualifications frameworks, which have historically focused on credit-based qualifications. In 2019, an Expert Panel appointed by the Australian Government Department of Education (2019) conducted a major review of the Australian Qualifications Framework. In Sect. 4 of their final report, This panel recommended in their final report that micro-credentials and shorter-qualifications be addressed and integrated into the AQF’s formal qualifications.
In essence, this is consistent with the approach being taken in New Zealand and Europe to align with existing national and European qualifications frameworks with a priority on stacking micro-credentials into formal qualifications. This is not suggesting that non-credit or non-formal training and competency validation won’t be pursued by providers—quite the opposite—but it does mean for these to have maximum acceptance for stacking they will have to meet consistent credit qualifications criteria of formal credentials. And, as previously discussed, the number and applicability of academic credit will rest with the hosting organisation of the formal qualification.
Open educational resource universitas (OERu)
Based at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, OERu is one of the most innovative organizations in the world to combine online learning, OER and open systems across digital formats, with a diverse system of micro-credentialing. OERu offers a range of short-courses and seminars for non-credit that are stackable together into traditional credentials with partner universities. Students can also earn OERu certificates ranging in duration anywhere from two weeks to a sequencing of short-courses for a few months. OERu reflects a model that can be a replicable reset for institutions that are coming out of the global pandemic and are exploring their future strategic options of combining open resources and systems, digital online delivery, and the integration of micro-credentials.
In a recent survey by OERu (n.d.) of over 2000 enrolees taking OERu short courses, 39% indicated they were taking a course towards a formal academic credential; 46% indicated they would pursue an available micro-credential, and 34% indicated they were strongly considering this option. Clearly, these options for short-term qualifications are consistent with the growing interest and potential value of micro-credentials.
The most ambitious in scope and coverage driving the micro-credentials landscape is the European higher education area. A European approach to micro-credentials (European Commission, 2020 provides a comprehensive summary of major reports, next steps and building blocks for micro-credentials. These resources, in concert with numerous ERASMUS project documents and policy documents (MicroHE, EuroPass, EduOpen, and others), provide a rich resource for novices and experts designing their micro-credentials capacity.
As stated earlier in this report, Europe has taken an EU strategic approach to micro-credentials building collaborative components around existing structures created during the Bologna Process and the European higher education area. Moreover, the European Qualifications Framework has provided another core structure from which to align these together (European Commission, 2020). Again, similar to Australia and New Zealand, these national/EU wide qualifications frameworks are not driving rigid requirements for micro-credentials; however, they are the foundations for formal credentials in which nonformal competency-based skills credentials will need to adhere for stackability and combinations towards formal credentials.
Possibly, the leading micro-credentials provider in Europe, the European MOOC consists of the main European MOOC platforms FutureLearn, FUN, MiriadaX, EduOpen and OpenupEd. These partners represent most of the MOOC development work in Europe in terms of learners and number of MOOCs, by offering together over 2000 MOOCs. Together, they represent a large network of 250 universities and collegess and companies working in a variety of European languages, including English, French, Spanish, and Italian. The creation of the European MOOC Consortium accelerates the collaboration amongst major European MOOC players, creating the power and the volume for a serious European MOOC movement. The Consortium has created the Common Micro-credential Framework (CMF) which aligns with the EHEA (EMC, 2020).
Dublin City University, in partnership with Future Learn has taken a European leadership role in micro-credentials. The Open University UK is also expanding in this arena, although it is beyond the scope of this report to predict the potential impact of Brexit on OU activity in Europe. FutureLearn, along with being a key member in the European MOOC Consortium, is also global, through its affiliation with the Open University.
Asia, Africa, and Central-South America
Although micro-credentials development has been slower in Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin and South America, some institutions are slowly starting to explore their potential. Many of these nations have qualifications frameworks in place. In addition, clearly targeted skills and competency development leading to employment is a powerful resource particularly in the developing world. Organisations like the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), with a rich history in serving underserved disadvantaged populations, will be critical not only in Commonwealth countries but also in sharing practices and models for use in other developing regions. We are already seeing some activity in China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In South America, Brazil's very early experience with mini-certificates for jobs training has not been sustained (D'Antoni et al., 2011).
Consortia for micro-credentials
We have already covered the OERu as well as the Digital Micro-credential Consortium (DMC) led by MIT’s Open Learning unit. The European MOOC Consortium was discussed under European initiatives as well. Moreover, many professional associations take on consortia-like characteristics in advocacy and policy, and the micro-credentials arena is no exception. International organisations such as UNESCO, OECD, COL, ICDE, as well as many nationally-based associations, will play an increasing role in the development, policy formulation, and collaborative initiatives across the globe and in the different regions.
Navigating the micro-credentials landscape
Pickard (2018) reminded us that the micro-credential landscape is massive, confusing, unclear, and difficult to navigate for both students and employers. Moreover, pricing schedules are all over the board and yes, some micro-credentials could cost more than regular academic credit credentials if compared by per unit cost (Kato et al., 2020). Unbundling and re-combining will be messy because we are not completely certain what we are creating, only why we are creating this new credential base: to better enable students to get jobs and companies to thrive. It is an economic and workforce development initiative that uses university level education to enhance workforce mobility and student career trajectories.
Many, if not most, employers are still unaware and confused about the entire micro-credential landscape (Cirlan & Loukkola, 2020). Kato et al., (2020) reported that amongst OECD countries, employers generally still place a high value on traditional credentials—academic degrees and certificates.
Complementary collaborative contexts
In the U.S. and Canada, we see very little engagement by the national government in the micro-credentials arena directly. The autonomy of the states in the U.S. and the Canadian provinces provides a locus of control for higher education much different than in other countries where the national government and related ministries drive policy, accreditation, qualification standards and most importantly funding. There is also no equivalent European Commission in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. This suggests that standardising micro-credentials globally may be difficult as well as trying to create a definitive taxonomy of micro-credentials. We currently have a reasonable sampling of different types of micro-credentials. Although difficult to implement, there is of course value in standardisation, provided providers retain the necessary flexibility to design, implement and assess effectively.
Micro-credentials are built around specific competencies where the student/employee can demonstrate minimum levels of performance to be certified by a designated agency at a specific skill domain level. This suggests more than one roadmap to drive micro-credential development and implementation globally. We should see significant global differences in how micro-credential policies, certifications, minimum standards and stackability evolve but the goals will be similar: (1) to provide employees and employers a stronger talent pool; (2) to provide increased valued-added capacity for companies and organizations as well as employees to thrive; and (3) to contribute to the overall workforce and economic development locally, regionally and perhaps nationally. In the end, the diversity of these paths will likely expand the validations of micro-credentials in meeting performance outcomes.
Lessons from practice
A few general lessons have emerged from the valuable work done by existing micro-credential providers globally that are reciprocally beneficial. First, micro-credentials are building off of existing qualifications frameworks or systems that have guided training and competency-based learning in the past. This does not mean all micro-credentials will have identical criteria; however, it does suggest that stackability or combining of nonformal training and competency-based credentials into higher formal credit-bearing qualifications will be aligned and easier to realise in some universities and colleges systems (e.g., Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.).
Secondly, assessment and precision are critical for ensuring credential and competency validation for issuance of credentials. Thirdly, a digitally secure and readily accessible repository for students and employers will exist outside of traditional university transcripts. This will ensure a portfolio home for employee/student credentials that, presented with traditional credentials, will provide employers with comprehensive metadata on potential hires. These data can be made available to employers digitally.
The ICDE (2019) report offered some basic recommendations to its members. Most of these consisted of sound advice, such as: set up a special unit for implementation, ensure top level support, pay attention to the research, allocate funding for micro-credentials, develop an implementation plan, ensure uniform standards and policies, use a third-party vendor such as Credly to house and transcript the credentials, clarify clearly the criteria for issuance of the micro-credentials and the assessments and levels used in the process, and stay up to speed on evolving technologies.