The government in England continues to push ahead with its vision of a highly modularised, micro-credential led learning landscape.
From 2025 we are promised a choose your own adventure, fund-as-you-learn lifelong learning approach enabled by a new lifelong loan entitlement (LLE).
This is designed to drive access to a far greater diversity of higher education by providing funding for learners to access small, self-contained, credit-bearing units of learning throughout their lifetime, as and when they need to upskill. It isn’t going to sound the death knell for traditional degrees, but we can expect it to drive considerable innovation in the way that higher education is conceived and offered to professional learners. We can also expect it to create opportunities for new providers.
Pick and mix
The government’s consultation of how the LLE should operate is not yet concluded. But it would seem reasonable to anticipate significant friction and heat when the demand for greater choice, flexibility and transferability of learning rubs up against regulatory expectations of robust quality assurance and student experience.
Traditional providers can expect to find themselves facing the difficult job of rethinking existing assurance processes that are designed for coherent, longitudinal programmes of study, so that they can accommodate a new pick-and-mix landscape of highly portable and stackable micro-credential learning. And 2025 is only three years away (a mere heartbeat in QA terms), yet there is little direction on how these providers should be preparing for this fundamental shift.
The clock is ticking
The last year has seen a flurry of funding for trials of short courses and micro-credential learning from across the nations of the UK. A quality assurance focus has been built in to these trials, and the insights that eventually emerge are scheduled to be fed into the roll out of the LLE from 2024. However, this leaves two years where providers must prepare for a major expansion of micro-credential learning without the benefit of a consistent framework for its quality assurance. It is not surprising that there we are seeing providers taking unilateral action which is generating considerable divergence in the approaches that are being taken.
For many, the pragmatic solution has been to spin out component modules of larger academic programmes for stand-alone study. This low-friction route to the creation of micro-credentials can then be scaffolded by existing quality assurance processes. However, this generates its own issues. It limits the scope of the micro-credential offer to modules from existing programmes which may not be suited to stand-alone study by lifelong learners. It also assumes processes developed to assure whole programmes can be meaningfully and usefully translated to discrete blocks of learning.
The difference in the scale, scope and complexity of programmes versus micro-credentials means there is a significant risk of adopting quality assurance sledge hammers to crack nuts.
Perhaps more worryingly, the approach is counter to the founding logic of the LLE, which requires micro-credentials to be self-contained, discrete products with an academic identity, integrity, set of outcomes and currency all of their own. This matters. It is this logic that frames the government’s ambition to deliver the truly personalised and flexible learning needed to underpin its Skills for Jobs agenda. It is the logic that will determine whether or not established higher education providers are able to position themselves to benefit from the new streams of revenue that the LLE promises.
So what is the alternative? To my mind, the trick is to recognise that micro-credentials are a new kind of learning product, requiring a different quality assurance mindset that challenges the processes by which higher education learning is currently assured and “equivalated”.
The self-supporting nature of micro-credentials means they are more than modules and require higher standards of quality assurance than the module-level processes operated by most providers. Yet they are much less than programmes. So, the top-down processes that assure the complex architectures and progression pathways of programmes are overkill. Rather, micro-credentials would seem to lend themselves to a bottom-up approach that assures quality through the rigour and consistency of the learning designs upon which they are built.
Assurance through design
Bottom-up assurance recognises detailed and rigorous learning design blueprints as baseline assurance assets. They are much more than the module specifications or curriculum mappings that are often provided as evidence of learning design. To be valid quality assurance assets, they must demonstrate how the configuration and sequencing of learning activities and assessment tasks supports the learner experience and leads to attainment at a given level. They must also show how they integrate to reinforce a learner’s development and must be testable and verifiable.
With rigorous and consistent designs in place, assurance processes can centre on the testing, verification and continuous updating of their implementation as concrete products – with the blueprints providing a fundamental point of reference to all stakeholders. There is a danger of re-inventing the wheel here. The higher education sector would do well to look towards the sophisticated approaches used in user experience and product design and manufacture for inspiration, where frameworks for design-based quality assurance are already highly developed.
To support the flexible, stackable and transferrable micro-credential model underpinning the LLE, the bottom-up approach will need to go a step further. It will need a common basis for equivalating micro-credentials to be hard-wired into every learning design, irrespective of the institution that generated it.
A transition towards competency-based learning and assessment may provide a way forward here – and one that aligns well with the Government’s skills-based agenda. It centres on concrete products that learners generate to evidence and demonstrate what they can do, and the standard at which they do it, rather than the qualitative interpretation of learning outcome descriptors.
As such, a competency-based approach offers greater transparency and a stronger evidence base for equivalating learner attainment across different micro-credentials and different providers. It is also something that many higher education providers already embrace as the evidencing of competence underpins the accreditation frameworks used by many professional, statutory and regulatory bodies.
Who dares wins?
Whether the sector organises in time to develop a robust quality assurance framework that can address the unique challenges presented by the skills agenda and the LLE remains to be seen. Fundamental, sector-wide change is needed that goes beyond ad hoc amendments to the quality assurance processes and rules and regulations of individual providers.
The urgency of the situation appears ripe for providers with a strategic interest in micro-credential learning to come together and pioneer the sort of quality assurance rethink that I have promoted here. If they do, it will be fascinating to see whether the UK’s regulatory and assurance agencies support it.