While there is no agreed definition on what a micro-credential is, and they take many forms, it is clear their growth in recent years has been exponential. Leading the way in these new educational offerings are employer-driven platforms as well as general providers such as edX and Coursera.
In general, these qualifications are conferred for short course training, often known as "digital badges" across a wide range of subjects and skill areas, especially in technology related areas such as coding, cyber security, AI applications, software engineering applications, and other vocationally oriented areas. These qualifications are often tailored to meet job specific needs in particular industries.
Still other micro-credentials focus on more generic and readily transferable skills that help future-focused students in a range of careers and a rapidly changing, fluid workplace environment. Examples of such generic capabilities include: communication, problem solving, cultural EQ, innovation, leadership, project management, design thinking, creative thinking, etc.
Micro-credentials take less time, cost less money than a full degree program and are more tailored to the post-secondary training needs of industry. They offer more personalized learning.
They often provide more up-to-date knowledge and greater flexibility to students than traditional university courses. Their focus is on applied knowledge and students typically use their workplace as the context in which they develop and apply their new skill acquisitions.
Micro-credential courses are usually delivered online and are individually tailored to student and workplace needs. They can be undertaken as stand-alone courses. Or, various micro-courses may be stacked up. In many cases micro-courses can be credited towards more traditional formal education qualifications, such as an MBA, but with exit points at every stage.
Many universities are also developing micro credentials in response to industry demands for graduates with work-ready skills. America's Purdue University and University of California Davis as well as Deakin University and RMIT in Australia, for example, have developed formalized micro-credential programs and structures that also integrate with its traditional undergraduate and post-graduate degree programs.
Micro-credential courses are a way for large companies, such as IBM, Microsoft, to motivate and improve staff development. They also serve as a useful means to identify talent. As the world enters the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," micro-credentials offer the promise of helping industry and government meet society's educational needs for this new environment.
They also appear more suitable for urban environments where there is a greater need for specialization of the workforce. Students often enroll in such courses at the suggestion of and with incentives from their supervisor or employer.
While the growth in micro credentials has exploded, concerns remain that education that is too specialized will de-value the important values inherent in a traditional "general education" promoting good citizenship and other more generic life skills and values.
Presently, in contrast to the trust and common language and mutual recognition enjoyed by traditional university education, there is no uniform or agreed standard governing micro-credentials. Thus, they often lack the currency and trust found in traditional educational pathways.
The quality of micro courses can vary considerably. For this reason, it is unclear whether employers in particular industries will find micro-credentials to be suitable for the relevant employment setting. Indeed, many employers know little or nothing about them.
There is at this time no overarching regulatory framework provided by governments that will ensure quality, develop a common set of criteria, protect students, and satisfy the concerns of all the stakeholders involved.
There is a need for a more systems-wide approach to micro-credentialing that provides for quality assurance, stackability, flexibility, portability and trust. Evaluative research is also required to assess the impact, value and quality of micro-courses and credentials.
China made a good start when, in September 2020, nine Chinese government departments, including the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, released the Vocational Education Quality Improvement Action Plan (2020-2023), focusing on five broad goals and details of over 50 key tasks to be undertaken by vocational education in the next two to three years, so as to promote vocational education development.
For universities, the micro-credential movement may lead to a greater focus on what employers and stakeholders need. New forms of evidence of learning and using real workplace experiences as the context for learning may also help better integrate the academic world and work environments.
While models and standards are slowly emerging in the U.S., EU, Singapore, South Korea and China, there is a need for an international skills and qualifications framework and mutual recognition regime that will provide quality assurance, transferability and trust. Such a framework must also deal with issues such as fraud, privacy and other legal issues.
It will be interesting to see how much the micro-credential movement will disrupt and change the landscape of traditional tertiary education or be integrated with them and become part of a less linear, more flexible, cost effective and tailored form of lifelong learning better designed to meet the needs for constant re-skilling of the workforce for a Fourth Industrial Revolution and Information Age.
Eugene Clark is a columnist with China.org.cn.