Is small beautiful? An exploration of micro-credentials

At the EFMD Annual Conference in Prague in June 2022, a panel of experts considered the question: “Is small beautiful?” hoping to shed some light on the subject of micro-credentials, a topic that both excites and exercises policymakers, employers, educators, and learners. 

So, why micro-credentials?

Micro-credentials have gained the attention of the online community in recent times but have a long history according to panel member Professor Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University. A St. John’s Ambulance First Aid Certificate from 1833 is a very early example of a skills-based short course where a micro-qualification signals a specific proficiency.

Since those pioneering days of credentialing, micro-credentials have become synonymous with short, flexible, stackable, affordable, inclusive qualifications focused on skills development. Most recently, they have proliferated through the medium of online instruction.

Contrast those characteristics with the more traditional university offerings of bachelor or master degree programmes – typically longer, more rigid, costlier, and more selective, and often subsidised by the state, and you begin to understand why micro-credentials give opportunities to upskill workforces and engage lifelong learners in ways that more conventional qualifications do not. Although it is often intended that micro-credentials complement traditional academic courses, rather than replace them. Courses offering micro-credentials have relevance for other key stakeholders as well:

  • Employers who need up-to-date skills in their recent recruits and established workforce.
  • Universities and business schools offering
  • “taster” courses to attract students and to offer flexibility in the executive education area.
  • Commercial providers, seeking to extend their markets.
  • Learners seeking low cost, low impact ways to boost their studies and update their skills.
  • Faculty members keen to maintain and enhance their credentials in teaching and facilitation.

Andy Poole, Partnerships Director at Coursera, contributed to the discussion, emphasising the focus on skills demanded by employers – typically, IT, project management, cyber-security and data analysis skills. Often these are skills that update continuously and so do not fit comfortably in a settled curriculum. He also notes the rapid expansion of micro-credential offerings and the awakening of higher education to this innovation.

credential ecology

Figure 1. The credential ecology

…and how are micro-credentials defined and regulated?

Maria Kelo, Director of the Institutional Development Unit of the European Universities Association (EUA), our final discussant, commented that whilst micro-credentials were well established, there is no single definition of them. Working with others in the European MOOC Consortium, Maria has recently contributed to work that promises a common framework and language that aligns with current qualifications. To date, there is no agreement on the size (in terms of credits), duration, level(s), or regulation of micro-credentials.

Mark Brown, and fellow authors, provide a very useful “credential ecology” in their 2020 paper :

The “ecology” indicates that unbundled micro-credentials have the capacity to be credit-bearing – although many are not. This raises the issue of acceptance and quality. Without an agreed global definition of micro-credentials, it may be many years before an accepted quality benchmark is developed. In the EU, a definition was agreed in June 2022:

“ ‘Micro-credential’ means the record of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a small volume of learning. These learning outcomes will have been assessed against transparent and clearly defined criteria. Learning experiences leading to micro-credentials are designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills and competences that respond to societal, personal, cultural, or labour market needs. Micro-credentials are owned by the learner, can be shared and are portable. They may be stand-alone or combined into larger credentials. They are underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standards in the relevant sector or area of activity.”

HEIsIt is inevitable that further regulation of micro-credentials will emerge. The simplest assumption is that regulators will use the same sort of quality framework as existing programmes offered by HEIs. But this is limiting as it excludes alternative providers.

Alternative providers (i.e. non-HEI providers, which could be private companies, public bodies, non-profit organisations, or others) are a real complication. “Micro-credential” is not a trademarked or regulated term. Unlike the term “degree”, anyone can use it, without meeting a set of standards or regulations. However, good practice can be promoted so that learners are clear about what Dil Sidhu from edX calls “the 7 Cs”:

This leaves the field open for business schools wishing to promote themselves using “tasters”, or hoping to reach larger audiences, widen access to learning and engage alumni and employers. For example, through a Coursera partnership with Highered, industry micro-credentials are available to, and being used by EFMD member schools around the world to help students build skills for high-demand job roles using content from leading organisations including Google, IBM, and Meta.

…but how can learners use micro-credentials?

the 7 Cs of micro-credentials

Figure 2. The 7 Cs of Micro-Credentials

The short answer is that it really depends, suggests Maria Kelo. Clearly, they can develop new skills or update their practice with technology-based applications noted earlier. However, for the moment, not all micro-credentials have defined credits attached to them, nor are there any systematic methods or approaches to recognise such credits. The most likely scenario is that acceptance will be on a case-by-case basis. Institutions with rigorous quality assurance processes, such as HEIs, may have an advantage in the short term.

In practice, credential evaluation is cumbersome, slow, and expensive. For systems that consider the institution as a whole (where institutions are self-accrediting and self-awarding) the evaluation of single micro-credentials is left to the internal quality assurance mechanisms of the institution. External quality assurance bodies, such as EFMD, can then review the internal mechanisms explicitly related to micro-credentials. As this is still something quite new, many institutions probably do not have focused mechanisms and policies in place, but the expectation is that they should create and develop them – and swiftly!

The vision of many HEI and commercial providers is to achieve a quality benchmark through currency, efficacy, and branding. This will enable micro-credentials to be applied to social media profiles, such as LinkedIn, to CVs and to university applications. Micro-credentials that conform to the benchmark should also be stackable, in a true modular sense – another key benefit for the part-time and non-traditional learner. There is clear opportunity here for external bodies to offer their own benchmark standards and potentially an “exchange” facility to reassure potential learners of the quality of the credential.

So, is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

There is much benefit that so many can gain from micro-credentials. Institutions, employers, governments, and learners will all find them helpful towards their separate and different objectives.

In the longer term, national authorities will wish to regulate, hopefully, for quality assurance purposes. This should work well, provided national governments and their agencies are guided by global good practice and the needs of all stakeholders.

If micro-credentials can open higher education to less well-represented parts of global society and empower them to make a difference to their own lives, then, yes, there’s beauty in that.

Is small beautiful An exploration in microcredentials

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