As colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes start rolling out micro-credentials, 10 key actions must be taken to ensure these credentials meet the needs of both learners and employers. Otherwise, higher education risks missing out on opportunities to achieve meaningful outcomes and help people secure skills-based employment.
Micro-credentials are a key component of many government strategies for upskilling and reskilling. They are designed to help close the skills gap and get people back to work. They also reflect a trend toward on-demand, short-form learning that is focused on skills, competencies and specific capabilities — a shift away from long-form learning, such as degrees and diplomas.
Short-form learning is already very popular. Worldwide, more than 50 million people, including 650,000 Canadians, took a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2020, many of these courses being part of a micro-credential. There are 1,170+ MOOC-based micro-credentials, the most popular being technology skills, business and entrepreneurship, social science and humanities, engineering and health.
Key to the popularity of MOOC-based micro-credentials is that they are available on demand rather than on a few fixed start dates. They are also short (hours or days rather than weeks and months) and are affordable. Many college and university offerings are also short, focused and skills-based, but are generally semester-based. Making more of these credentials on demand will increase their utility and spur growth.
Faculty, instructional developers, academic administrators, policy- makers and funders need to do the following to ensure micro-credentials fulfill their promise and deliver to learners and employers the skills- and competency-based learning they need.
- Make a clear connection between learning modules, the credentials offered and skills or qualifications frameworks.
Not all jurisdictions have a qualifications framework (Ontario is an exception), but many professions do. For example, the Federal Government and several partner organizations developed a comprehensive competency framework for climate change adaptability. Several modular courses were developed that are based on these competencies.The intention is for students to stack these courses and eventually obtain a micro-credential. In addition, micro-credentials in mechatronics that are offered in Canada are generally based on a competency framework developed by Siemens. Others are emerging with their roots in similar frameworks from professional bodies, such as the Canadian Professional Sales Association.
- Link micro-credentials to the in-demand (or soon to be in-demand) skills and competencies employers are actually seeking.
A policy driver for the development of specific micro-credentials is to help people impacted by the pandemic return to work or upskill to retain existing employment. Focused labour market intelligence is critical, both about the current skills gap and the emerging skills needed to boost productivity and competitiveness. A specific example is the emerging need to rethink and refocus the skills and competencies needed for eldercare and childcare. Sector Councils, both federal and provincial, are engaged in this work and often provide valuable evidence of what is needed and how sizeable the market may be. A good example is the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council, which provides outstanding insight into demand and needed skills.
- Engage employer organizations or professional bodies in the design of micro-credentials at the earliest possible stage.
In particular, engage them in determining which skills and competencies will be assessed and how this assessment will occur. For example, Microsoft Certification, offered by several colleges across Canada, has students complete a Microsoft-designed certification assessment. Competency banks exist based on known and verified employer needs and can be leveraged to speed up the design process. The key is that employers agree that a specific micro-credential and its assessment provide a sufficient basis for employability.
- Strengthen the focus on demonstrable competencies and reduce the over-reliance on “soft” assessments of what the learner can actually do.
This is a challenge with apprenticeships. The Canada Red Seal plumbing apprenticeship, for example, specifies 2,987 competencies, but few are consistently assessed for every Red Seal candidate in Canada. Simple logbooks are used to record satisfactory completion, with some of the logbooks being just two to three pages. The quality of assessment is inconsistent between assessors and it is not possible to secure a third-party validation of the assessment. Attempts to require assessment of every competence have met with significant resistance. Yet employers need to know if an apprentice has demonstrated all the competencies required for certification, not just some. Effective assessment systems allow employers to watch videos or other evidence of performance through a student’s e-portfolio.
- Launch a national conversation, perhaps facilitated by the Future Skills Centre in partnership with the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, on the portability of micro-credentials.
If micro-credentials are developed with major employers, are based on recognized competency frameworks and make use of legally defensible competency assessment that is “designed in” right off the bat, then portability can be quickly navigated. Credentials are a provincial matter, but Canada should seize the opportunity to “build back better” to navigate this space. For example, a micro-credential in AUTODESK REVIT from Humber College in Ontario should be acceptable by employers in Vancouver or Halifax. In order to stack micro-credentials and then “ladder” them into undergraduate or graduate programs, as some already are, the process should be transparent and the provincial credit transfer agencies should be quickly evaluating them and recognizing them.
- Identify those micro-credentials that can be laddered into undergraduate and graduate programs and ensure they are nationally portable.
A student may enrol, for example, in a MOOC focused on statistics and data science from the MicroMasters offered by MITx and then transfer that to the graduate program at Queen’s University — one of the 22 MIT pathway universities worldwide that accepts these courses for credit. Similar arrangements exist for other MOOCs with Royal Roads University in British Columbia. Athabasca University’s LMD program from the Faculty of Business has several micro-credentials called certificates, including those focused on leadership, manufacturing management and supply chain management. These certificates can be recognized as an elective in the Athabasca MBA and were intentionally designed with this in mind. Not all micro-credentials can or should be “ladder-able” in this way, but if the design is intentional — as it is with the micro-credential in climate adaptation now under development — then these micro-credentials need to be “transcriptable” and must meet the requirements for credit courses at the appropriate level of learning.
- Clearly identify the mode of delivery for each micro-credential. Not all will be online.
Collège Boréal offers a micro-credential in battery electric vehicle maintenance, in partnership with Mayhew Performance, which requires face-to-face work. Lethbridge College’s Aquaponics Design micro-credential is intended to be an in-person course, but other micro-credentials may be offered as hybrid: partly in a workshop or class environment and partly online. Yet others, such as Wellness Works Canada Health Performance Master certification, are fully online. Students need to understand the delivery model, and any portal created to ease access to these credentials should make explicit the delivery mode, time to complete and costs.
- Encourage employers to partner with colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes in the design of work-based learning micro-credentials.
Many companies, including Shopify and Amazon Web Services, offer training and skills development for their clients and staff. In Europe, colleges and universities commonly use work-based learning recognition agreements for both non-credit and for-credit certification. Middlesex University, for example, has a long history of partnering with employers to accredit training and development activities as equivalent to undergraduate or graduate work, up to and including doctoral work. This is also the case in Australian universities — RMIT, for example, has a substantial program of work-integrated learning — and in many Canadian institutions, especially those offering professional studies programs in hospitality and tourism. Quality assurance agencies in Canada should accelerate the ability of our institutions to engage in this work, using micro-credentials as a way to ensure quality through transparent, valid assessment.
- Identify and develop assessment-only micro-credentials.
Colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes have a variety of skills recognition systems in which the role of the institution is assessment, not teaching. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s certificate programs in Health Care Informatics and Substance Use Disorder Counselling permit students to accelerate through them with assessment of their skills and competencies as the basis for credit recognition — assessment without attending a course. Students complete the courses they need based on a “gap” between what they already know and what they need to know. The Kentucky College System “on demand” (start any Monday) uses pre-tests and post-tests. If a student admitted to a course passes the online pre-test, they are immediately given the online post-test. If they also pass that, they are awarded the credit. The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand is also moving toward a competency-based assessment centre separate from instruction to recognize skills and capabilities individuals have developed through experience and their own learning.
- Foster more collaboration within and between provinces to strengthen the skills, competencies and capabilities of Canadians seeking work or upskilling to improve their job prospects.
New collaborative micro-credentials, with modular learning from various institutions across the country, could truly leverage the skills and capabilities within different institutions. This is what is attractive about the climate adaptability work led from the Resilience by Design Lab at Royal Roads for Natural Resources Canada and the British Columbia Climate Action Secretariat. Already courses were developed at a variety of institutions across Canada, and more are being commissioned. Creating a national set of micro-credentials through aggregation of these courses is the intention, all driven by the competency framework. This could well be a prototype for similar developments in other fields, especially those that are quickly emerging: cybersecurity, AI ethics, AI-enabled health diagnostics and others.
The moment for a systematic approach is now.
In their development of micro-credentials, New Zealand very deliberately set out a framework linked to the qualifications required by industry partners. Australia did something similar to avoid a disconnect — and a lack of portability and transparency — between micro-credentials and the skills sought by employers.
Initial developments in Canada point to three urgent needs:
- A national skills strategy
- A national qualifications framework
- Stronger capabilities in many of our institutions to design, offer and assess competencies
Colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes must promptly address these urgent needs so students can benefit from the full potential of micro-credentials.
At the heart of the challenge is assessment. How do employers know that a person with a specific micro-credential has the skills and capabilities the credential says they have? Using certain platforms for assessment would enable employers to be directly involved in the assessment of general capabilities (e.g. RIIPEN) and specific competencies (Valid-8). The use of MyCreds to capture these abilities in transcriptable ways would be key.
The moment is ripe for a focused, systematic approach to micro-credentials that is Canada-wide and stakeholder driven. The 10 actions outlined above will help Canada become a leader in the delivery of what micro-credentials are fundamentally about: short-form learning.