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Webinars discussed micro-credentials and alternative digital credentials.

Looking at micro-credentials and alternative digital credentials

The discussion continues

June 28, 2021 — 

Micro-credentials are a hot topic in post-secondary education.  The last two sessions of Extended Education’s inaugural University Continuing Education Webinars, “Lifelong learning: Putting ideas into practice” discussed the meaning of micro-credentials and the recognition of alternative digital credentials.

“Micro-credentials are not as elusive and complex as we like to think they are,” said Rod Lastra, Associate Dean (Academic), Extended Education at the June 11 session. “A micro-credential provides in-demand skills that are industry-alignedand is based on research or consultation with academic units or industry.”

Of course, Extended Education has already been offering this sort of professional development for many years with certificate and other credential programs and courses. But can a micro-credential simply be described as a shorter program of study? No. There is more.

Digital documenting
According to Julia Denholm, Dean of Lifelong Learning at Simon Fraser University, who spoke at the second session on June 18, “It’s the documenting (of competencies) that’s new.”

Daniel Piedra, assistant director of McMaster University Continuing Education agreed. “The difference is the digital element. It makes the end result more valuable,” he said. “Employers don’t speak the language of post-secondary education… Competency is the new currency for being hired. Unless an employer could go through a course syllabus, they won’t know what was learned. Digital badges go through the skills and can be shared. They allow them to see.”

Denholm said micro-credentials arose from “a suspicion around what post-secondary education is providing for learners”, a suspicion coming out of the United States, around undergraduate degrees.

“You need to be very savvy when talking about this kind of thing. There is a tension between what’s being delivered and what’s being displayed,” said Denholm. “The average faculty members are not terribly concerned with making learning explicit but that may be changing. The old-school approach was that a bachelor’s degree demonstrated job readiness… Do general degrees have career outcomes? The government said they should.”

Piedra noted, “The use of alternative digital credentials can provide a rich recognition of relevant skills and competencies that can render the traditional university transcript irrelevant and obsolete. Today’s grads don’t have a tool to share what they have learned. The information can be shared readily with specifics and details. It’s a great empowering force for the learner.”

Lastra suggested micro-credentials need a skills and competency framework. “There has been a proliferation of interest due to the disruptions of the pandemic including lockdown, unemployment and unease. Program development is outpacing the development of the national framework,” he said.

Denholm disagreed. “We want to make learning explicit. The framework is secondary,” said Denholm.

Piedra noted the potential of the metadata. “Without that framework, if we stick to creating micro-credentials that are relevant, verifiable, safe, and owned… The data itself is property of the learner (unlike a transcript),” he said. “I’m not that hot on the name digital credential. It could be attributed to a degree or a diploma, providing metadata.”

It’s about the learner
The nearly two-year-old PowerEd by Athabasca University offers online micro courses and credentials, said Jessica Butts Scott, director. “People are flying the pandemic coop. Now is the time for a strategy.”

She quoted a recent Angus Reid study exploring the feelings of Canadians around post-secondary education. It found more than half of Canadians are unhappy with their work. Almost 75 per cent said they have ongoing learning goals and 60 per cent want to pursue micro-credentials.

“Micro-credentials are primed to meet the learning needs of Canadians. Canadians from this study are ready to do whatever it takes to get there,” she said, adding that micro-credentials must be “purpose-built” and schools should treat students like online consumers.

She’s found that learners want more control of their learning experience. It should fit into their professional schedule. “Learners demand more now than ever before. The future is bright for micro-credentials.”

Lastra said, “This dialogue has forced us to strategically think about the 21st century, rethinking authentic learning, considering changes of modality. The big idea is the democratization of learning, something we haven’t done… The degree is not dead. Degrees are valid. Maybe skills are not being properly validated. Traditional courses are not designed to validate learning outcomes.”

At the end of the day, it is all about the learners, said Butts Scott.

PowerEd has six power credentials and four in development. “We’re hearing people want more control over their learning journey. Most of our courses are on-demand. Students purchase them and begin learning.”

“Any kind of credential needs to be led by an instructor,” said Lastra.

The discussion continues.

Watch the series. Let us know if you are interested in future webinars. 

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