By Mitchell Peters (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)
In March 2023, the International Micro-Credential Summit was held in Barcelona, Spain, hosted and co-organized by the UOC, Knowledge Innovation Centre, and the DHBW. The event brought together over 250 key stakeholders of the international micro-credential community to discuss new horizons for education and employment in Europe. One of the outcomes of the event was the articulation of the International Micro-credentials Summit Declaration which urges European governments, educational institutions, accreditation authorities, learner representatives and employers to respond to the challenges of societal transformation and technological disruption with more flexible learning opportunities through the medium of micro-credentialing. The summit was an impetus for a range of cross-sector initiatives on a European and International level, building synergies and opportunities for further development and deep transnational co-operation through joint micro-credentialing exchange networks and programs.
The International MC Summit followed several significant policy initiatives which have been developed across Europe, North America and Australia in recent years. Research on micro-credentials has likewise exploded, with several recent systematic reviews published (Ahmat et al., 2021; Ahsan et al. 2023; Selvaratnam et al., 2021; Thi Ngoc Ha et al., 2022; Varadarajan et al., 2023) as well as special issues dedicated to the subject, such as JETHE’s special issue on micro-credentials and ‘the next new normal’ for higher education ecosystems. A notable policy initiative was the Council Recommendation on a European Approach to Micro-credentials for Lifelong Learning and Employability, which was formally approved in June 2022 following an extensive two year consultation process (European Commission, 2022). The significance of this development is that all EU Member States agreed to work to adopt a common European approach to micro-credentials with a well-articulated definition. The definition states:
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 (European Commission, 2022, p.5a).
As digitally enhanced learning experiences, micro-credentials are naturally positioned for networked synergies between institutions and actors interacting in diverse and interconnected ecosystems and alliances. The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has recognized this factor and have pushed European University Initiatives which feature deep transnational co-operation through Erasmus + calls and other funding schemes. Joint programs in higher education are not new, however joint programs through University Alliances, such as E.C.I.U. or EU4DUAL which feature deep transnational co-operation through micro-credentialing as a central feature, are novel and require institutional change management and strategic leadership in order to prepare universities to offer flexible and responsive career development pathways across a range of institutions. The development of joint micro-credential programs, which will become increasingly common throughout the 2020’s, can offer new career pathways for lifelong learners, yet requires bold new ideas, experimentation and disruptive methodologies and technologies.
Although we know a great deal about effective educational leadership, the transformational and disruptive nature required for implementing impactful institutional micro-credentialing strategies requires leaders willing to experiment with bold new ideas and consider new horizons for higher education, lifelong learning and employability. Educational leaders might consider some of the following questions, as asked by Brown et al. (2023) in a recent article on strategic institutional responses to Micro-credentials:
• How should you strategically position micro-credentials at your institution?
• What type of institutional leadership is required for a successful implementation strategy?
• What type of internal structures are required?
• What type of business model(s) are required?
• What could possibly go wrong?
A clear message from the Summit was a call for institutional leaders to dramatically increase their rollout of micro-credentialing, contribute to closing knowledge and skills gaps in Europe through cross-sectoral collaboration, and widen access to Europe’s education systems and quality standards. Policymakers werecalled to accelerate the alignment of micro-credentials with qualification frameworks and organize sector-wide and cross-sectoral knowledge building initiatives which facilitates understanding, uptake, validation and recognition.
Interoperable Digital Credentials Infrastructure
A further message from the summit was the notion there is significant room for advancing interoperable digital credentialing infrastructures across Europe to foster learner agency, recognition, portability and authenticity, exemplified through the European Learning Model and Europass initiatives. For instance, learners inside EHEA do not typically receive a digital credential in a secure, verifiable and open standard format, which compromises mobility and learner agency through the recognition of skills and qualifications. Further, Micro-credential platforms and portals should avoid succumbing to silos at the cost of interoperability, portability, and the ability to stack credentials from various providers. Learning providers should award digital credentials to learners by providing transparent information on micro-credentials in line with Council Recommendation whileusing open-source standards based on W3C Verifiable Credentials and European Digital Credentials for Learning. Policymakers were likewise called to incentivize the growth of European micro-credential portals and the accelerated adoption of trusted, open-source digital credential technologies.
There is a wide variety of understanding around quality assurance in the context of micro-credentials offered on the market. Learning providers should therefore design micro-credentials with learning outcomes described with skill and competency taxonomies, aligned with qualification frameworks, as well as appropriate learning design and valid assessment methods. Providers should share data on quality assurance, learner-evaluation procedures and criteria publicly, make micro-credential quality standards accessible for non-experts, and implement semi-automated, transparent, fit-for-purpose, fair, and fast recognition procedures in line with international standards and regional conventions.
Skills-based practices for Learning and Employment
Embracing recognition practices that enable learners to share credentials from their digital wallets is also encouraged, part of a wider skills-based learning and hiring movement which allows individual learners to own their verifiable digital credentials. A skills-based job marketplace, such as one advocated for by Jobs for the Future (JFF), an American organization present at the International Summit, argues that skills based practices for learning and employment “make pathways to good careers more accessible to a wider segment of the workforce by focusing on what workers can do, not on the degrees or certifications they’ve earned”. Verifiable digital micro-credentials, they argue “give learners and workers the tools they need to communicate the totality of their skills and abilities and translate their achievements into future opportunities” (JFF).
National Symposium in Spain
The final track of the International Summit on Micro-credentials was a National Symposium hosted by the UOC which saw over 30 Spanish and European institutions meet and build synergies across a multi-faceted national ecosystem. The symposium accelerated a national dialogue on micro-credentials in order to build cross-sector understanding and consensus for future action. The goal of the symposium was also to consider ‘what’s next’. In this regard, UOC’s systematic strategy for micro-credentialing was presented with a focus on continuous education and lifelong learning for employability at scale. UOC’s vision for micro-credentialing focuses on providing a relevant and responsive training portfolio linked with labour market intelligence and professional career guidance at scale for lifelong learners. The ultimate goal is to empower citizens through lifelong learning for career growth and development. UOC’s vision, presented by newly appointed president Angels Fito, focuses on the contribution of micro-credentials for employability in the context of significant socio-economic changes. Fito argues that universities must strategically respond to society’s increasing expectation about the contribution of higher education for both employability and national competitiveness. In the face of such systemic challenges, Angels Fito argues we need ecosystemic actions which include cross-sector national proposals, in line with European approaches, that facilitates the resources and mechanisms for collaboration and recognition necessary to make micro-credentials part of a broader national employment and competitiveness strategy.
The symposium likewise focused on the role of leadership as institutions envision, plan and implement their micro-credentialing strategies. Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University, highlighted this need in a talk on the leadership imperative. One of Mark’s final provocations is an appropriate way to conclude this post:
Micro-credentials are not the big idea.
They need to be in the service of the big idea.
The challenge is: What’s the big idea?
The BIG IDEA is something that institutions across Europe and the world will have to think deeply about and intentionally experiment with as we move toward new horizons in Higher Education for lifelong learning and employability. Bold and disruptive ideas are welcome!
International Micro-credential Summit Website: https://microcredentials.eu/micro-credentials-summit/
UOC Website: https://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/index.html
Knowledge Innovation Centre Website: https://knowledgeinnovation.eu/
DHBW Website: https://www.dhbw.de/english/home
International Micro-credential Summit Declaration link: https://microcredentials.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2023/03/March-2023-International-Micro-credentials-Summit_Declaration.pdf
ETHE Special Issue on Micro-credentials: https://www.springeropen.com/collections/mche
European Approach to Micro-credentialing Website: https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/micro-credentials
European Universities Initiative Website: https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/european-universities-initiative
European Consortium for Innovative Universities Website: https://www.eciu.eu/
EU4Dual University Alliance website: https://eu4dual.education/
EADTU Models and Guidelines for Building Joint Micro-credential Programs in Higher Education: https://zenodo.org/record/6483288#.ZD5upOxBy-p
European Learning Model Website: https://europa.eu/europass/en/european-learning-model
Jobs for the Future website: https://www.jff.org/
Jobs for the Future Report on Building a Skills-Based Talent Marketplace through Verifiable Credential Wallets for Learning and Employment: https://info.jff.org/hubfs/Digital%20Wallet%20Market%20Scan/Market-Scan-Digital-Wallet-040122-vF.pdf
Angels Fito news release on new appointment as UOC president: https://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/news/actualitat/2023/024_angels-fito-proposed-president-uoc.html
Micro-credential Observatory Website: https://www.dcu.ie/nidl/micro-credential-observatory
Ahmat, N. H. C., Bashir, M. A. A., Razali, A. R., & Kasolang, S. (2021). Micro-credentials in higher education institutions: Challenges and opportunities. Asian Journal of University Education, 17(3), 281-290.https://doi.org/10.24191/ajue.v17i3.14505
Ahsan, K., Akbar, S., Kam, B. et al. (2023). Implementation of micro-credentials in higher education: A systematic literature review. Educ Inf Technol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-023-11739-z
Brown, M. McGreal, R., & Peters, M. (2023 in press) A Strategic Institutional Response to Micro-credentials: Key Questions for Educational Leaders. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2023(2).
Selvaratnam, R. M., & Sankey, M. D. (2021). An integrative literature review of the implementation of micro-credentials in higher education: Implications for practice in Australasia. Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability, 12(1), 1-17. https://search.informit.org/doi/epdf/10.3316/informit.961591765882718
Thi Ngoc Ha, N., Spittle, M., Watt, A., & Van Dyke, N. (2022). A systematic literature review of micro-credentials in higher education: a non-zero-sum game. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-22.https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2022.2146061Varadarajan, S., Koh, J. H. L., & Daniel, B. K. (2023). A systematic review of the opportunities and challenges of micro-credentials for multiple stakeholders: learners, employers, higher education institutions and government. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 20(1), 1-24.https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-023-00393-7