Micro-credentials: Opportunities for learners and higher ed

Digital transformation and acceleration are impacting how industries approach skills and employability, making skills viability increasingly critical. Individuals must keep atop of new technologies, practices and skills to become, or remain, competitive in the workforce.

However, learners are struggling to gain the skills they need quickly enough via traditional higher education degrees. The longer duration and learning focus of multi-year degrees means that some technical competencies gained by learners have shorter tenures.

Emeritus Professor Martin Bean CBE recently spoke to the declining shelf life of skills at a recent CourseLoop webinar, stating how technical skills will only have “one or two years before they’re obsolete”. 

Micro-credentials present an opportunity for learners and higher education institutions. Not only can they support individual lifelong learning, but they enable colleges and universities to innovate and expand their offerings and remain relevant to the changing world of work.


An introduction to micro-credentials

Micro-credentials are short, skill-specific and offer a new approach to learning. Designed to be recognised by industry, they allow students, new graduates, job seekers, and workers to be competitive in the workforce, without commiting to a full degree.

Although the definitions of micro-credentials can vary based on geography, the principle of it remains the same. They exist to help learners hone their proficiency in a particular skill or technical knowledge within a certain industry. 

Almost equally as important as the learning delivery component, micro-credentials should provide learners with objective, trustworthy proof of their aptitude at a specific skill to employers. But whether they do is dependent on the institution itself. 

The current micro-credential market is flooded with non-traditional education providers and varying levels of micro-credential quality. Therefore, colleges and universities need to take active steps to assure the quality of their own micro-credentials, using appropriate governance workflows and systems, and standards frameworks from accrediting bodies where possible.


How do micro-credentials benefit learners

While learners want to keep up with the changes in the workforce, there are several barriers that may prevent them from doing so. These include:

  • Traditional degrees not providing the skills they need or taking too long to complete
  • The inability to meet traditional degree entry criteria
  • Unaffordable education fees
  • Work and life commitments 

Micro-credentials provide more convenient, accessible and affordable options to learners of all walks of life – whether they’re a post-secondary student, vocational education learner, higher education graduate, job seeker or employed worker. They are:

  • More accessible
    Most micro-credential courses are delivered online and shorter in duration than traditional degrees making them more appealing to those who don’t have the time to commit to a full degree – typically full-time workers or part-time workers. Additionally, they open learning opportunities and pathways to individuals who don’t meet the entry requirements for a traditional degree.

  • More affordable
    Micro-credentials are often lower-cost because of their shorter teaching duration and lower cost overheads for education providers. This is attractive to individuals who either don’t have or don’t want to commit huge finances towards their study.

  • Stackable
    Micro-credentials are highly stackable, meaning that they are designed to be combined with other skills training or courses, or to stack individual mico-credentials towards a micro-program. Learners can ‘stack’ on multiple micro-credentials to gradually increase their proficiency in a sector or skill.

  • High in ROI
    Micro-credentials are low in cost but high in return – for both institutions and learners. They have the potential to provide significant revenue generation for the institution through increased diversification of learner-types and student attraction. For learners,  they help remove equity barriers and support lifelong learning. Learners receive in-depth, specialized training at a much lower cost, that can then be applied immediately for improved employability or career advancement.


How can institutions prepare for the micro-credentials trend

Given the attractiveness of micro-credentials, more and more education providers – traditional and non-traditional – are entering the space everyday. 

Despite the appetite for micro-credential adoption, several major challenges face institutions. Some of the biggest being: no agreed definition of micro-credentials around the world and no frameworks or proven practice when it comes to governance and quality assurance. These present a challenge for traditional universities and colleges who may find themselves competing against non-traditional education providers. 

How can colleges and universities prepare to offer micro-credentials to learners? There are several places they can start: 

  • Form partnerships with employers and industry bodies.
    Micro-credentials are effective when they target skills that are in high demand in the workforce. Employers also need to be able to trust the rigor of the certifications they are relying on to evaluate candidates. A dialogue between institutions and employers in their community can ensure that micro-credential offerings are targeted specifically to what employers are looking for.

  • Form a framework where none exist.
    For a framework to be successful, institutions need to consider their strategic intent. Articulate the types of learners you want to target and the types of micro-credentials you want to offer that make sense for your institution. For example, micro-credentials that are developed with industry and are credit bearing; micro-credentials that are repurposed from existing coursework and are credit bearing; or micro-credentials that are co-curricular and extra-curricular focused and non-credit bearing. 

  • Consider the technology ecosystem you will need.
    Alongside defining the academic strategy, institutions need to consider the mix of technology required to support micro-credentials across the entire lifecycle – from proposal development, creation, governance and approval management, to publishing and promoting them to learners, learning delivery, digital badging, and review for continuous improvement. 

  • Ensure quality without preventing speed to market.
    Micro-credentials are beneficial to learners and employers in part because of their agility and shorter time to market. Institutions should apply the same principles of rigorous quality assurance and approval processes they do to their traditional degrees, but find a solution that supports speed to market in doing so. 


Learn more about micro-credential trends and challenges by downloading our micro-credential whitepaper. 

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