25yearsedtech,  assessment,  higher ed

25 Years of EdTech: 2019 – Micro-credentials

This is year 27 in my 25 Years of Ed Tech series (no – YOU do the math). The book is scheduled to come out next year, but I thought I’d add one for this year which won’t make it in to that.

For 2019 the educational technology I would choose would be micro-credentials. I was at OpenEd and WCOL conferences recently, and micro-credentials were a common topic, plus in my place of work, IET at the Open University, we are busy developing courses for these. So it seems I can’t turn anywhere at the moment without bumping into them.

Micro-credentials are smaller, certified chunks of learning, often allied to a specific, vocational skill. In New Zealand the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) have teamed up with EduBits to recognise and promote them, and FutureLearn are proposing a Common Microcredential Framework to allow for standardisation. So they have some high level backing and are beyond just the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ stage.

Micro-credentials are a good example of how in ed tech several technologies and concepts align in to one commonly shared idea. They have their roots in OER, MOOCs and digital badges, all of which promote the idea of learning chunks that are smaller than a degree, and focused on specific areas that some people want recognition for. They also grow out of the lifelong learning drive that was prominent in much of the 00s, and more recently issues about employability and skills in a digital economy.

Like so much of ed tech, micro-credentials induce mixed feelings. On the positive side, higher ed needs to be more flexible to appeal to the different needs of as many learners as possible. Dominic Orr and colleagues in the AHEAD project have a nice summary of four different educational models, which they characterise around toy metaphors:

  • Tamagotchi – the current dominant model where education in one block at the start acts as preparation for subsequent employment.
  • Jenga – a chunk at the start and then smaller pieces that build on this
  • Lego set – a more disaggregated version, acquiring different aspects of learning from different providers across a lifetime but with no foundational chunk.
  • Transformers – students who come into higher education later and may have different requirements from that system.

These are summarised below. I quite like this model for thinking about the different formats of education, and also for emphasising no single model is ‘correct’. All can co-exist and will meet the different needs of different learners. Higher ed doesn’t need to be precious about making it a Tamagotchi only world (the OU has implemented Transformers successfully for instance, but much of the discussion in higher ed policy occurs in a Tamagotchi world).

For the second and third models to be effective then something like micro-credentials is required. In general, I feel that different takes on what constitutes higher ed for different people is a positive thing.

But I have some reservations (of course I do!). First amongst these is that I stated micro-credentials were the culmination of several ed tech developments, but there is also a sense in that they are driven by these very developments in order to validate themselves. The argument goes something like “we’ve spent all this money and made all these claims about MOOCs, we’d best show some value for them.” And lo, a market for MOOC type credentials is manufactured. This is not the same thing as there being an actual need or demand for them, and it’ll be interesting to see if learners and employers embrace them with the same enthusiasm.

A second reservation is around cost. Since around 400BC I, and others in the field have been trying to tell people that elearning is not a cheap option. But alas, this lesson needs to be relearnt every 5 years or so. Developing shorter courses is problematic because many of the costs remain fixed, so a standard 60 point undergrad modules is cheaper to produce than 4×15 point courses. Once the initial enthusiasm to experiment and accept losses has worn off, universities will need to make micro-credentials cost effective. Inevitably this means those costs will be passed on to students. So while a micro-credential course will be cheaper than a three year degree, in order to stack them up they may be more costly over time. It’s like the shopper who can’t afford to bulk buy their washing tablets so buys a small box every fortnight – they are paying more per wash. So micro-credentials may disadvantage poorer students.

The last reservation is an old one that we’ve seen with learning objects, OER and MOOCs, which is whether higher education can be effectively broken into discrete chunks, and what is lost without that synthesis across a longer time period and integrated curriculum. But while this may be true for some subjects, it may not be the case for all learning requirements.

In short, micro-credentials represent the latest chapter in the attempt to make the shape of higher education more amorphous and flexible. In this, I am in favour of them, because if you want education to be inclusive and diverse then it needs to come in various formats to meet those needs. Whether micro-credentials are the means to realise that, or another attempt to bend higher ed to mythical needs of employers which turn out to be ill-defined and unwanted, remains to be seen.


  • Gavin Moodie

    I observe micro credentials to be driven by those who would speak on behalf of employers, to atomise education to reflect and reinforce the atomisation of work.

    • mweller

      Hi Gavin, yes I have some sympathy with that view. Although I’m trying to remain open-minded about them as I think people need a variety of solutions for many different learners

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