David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

We’re sleepwalking into a microcredentialised world.

For those who are not fans of neologisms, a microcredential is like a regular credential (an honours degree, a kitchen hygiene grade, a “Safety in Water” certificate…) but – well – smol.

Microcredentials are not the same as a short course – which may well be the same size as a microcredential – because a short course doesn’t always work in isolation and lead to a specific and useful qualification.

Massive Open Online Courses are another example of something that is nearly but not quite a microcredential – despite the name these are generally pretty short, and you can sometimes pay a MOOC provider some money to let you print out a certificate to put on your wall. However, very few reputable employers or educational institutions would care if you used a MOOC certificate to claim you had some kind of knowledge or skills.

Quality and standards

I first got into this stuff following the release of an excellent QAA report about the quality assurance issues with microcredentials. With the oncoming Lifelong Loan Entitlement plans, universities and colleges are moving into the credentialed short course space – something confusingly called “modules” in legislation – and there are huge questions about how we can tell if these courses are any good: both in the traditional way of actually looking at what is taught and how, and the modern way at looking at what people who took the course are doing a few years on.

Such issues are multiplied when you consider the question of credential stacking – analogous to the dream of credit transfer, where a collection of microcredentials can add up to something, well, macro. Who is responsible for saying whether a lifetime’s collection of disparate documented learning adds up to anything larger – and how would they do this?

Miniaturised higher education, anyone?

A new report from ResPublica’s Lifelong Learning Commission – The Role of Microcredentials in Modular Learning – highlights another important issue. Most of the action on microcredentials has been on the supply side, but there is little (away from those damned MOOCs) to suggest any real demand for these innovations from learners and almost nothing at all from employers.

The report’s recommendations call for interventions like tax incentives and local grants to employers in order to get them interested, and concerted promotional work from providers (with careers advisors and “national dialogue”) to get learners excited.

It is providers that are probably most interested in this agenda – ResPublica’s work is in partnership with the University of Staffordshire, who is one of many universities to have developed a coherent micro-credential offer. Here, the recommendation is that providers should work together to standardise definitions, ensure learning “coherence” and streamline data requirements.

The dark side of the MOOC

We’re a decade on from the year of the MOOC (2012) and all of the extreme silliness that emerged during that dark period in education technology. A special collection published by the Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME) marks the moment, and I’d urge you all to read Katy Jordan and Fereshte Goshtasbpour’s superb introduction to get a sense of what it was all like and where the field went after the term disappeared from the headlines.

As they note:

while MOOCs have arguably failed to live up to the initial hype and fundamentally ‘disrupt’ higher education, they have certainly added some diversity to it.

Many turned to these online courses (no longer “massive” in the hundreds of thousands of simulations participants sense, or “open” in the you-don’t-have-to-pay sense) during the Covid-19 lockdown. As ResPublica notes, these MOOC learners almost all had traditional qualifications (85 per cent had an undergraduate degree) and were not learning new skills or domains from a low skill base (80 per cent already had intermediate or advanced knowledge of the topic they were studying). The course fees are generally met by learners themselves – suggesting some degree of disposable income – and the presentation of MOOC courses make them less accessible to those studying without a background level of digital and literacy, access to support networks, and access to devices and connectivity.

In other words MOOC participants are not those that the government is aiming a “levelling up” skills agenda at. As the  ResPublica report puts it:

Rather than widening participation and providing greater access and inclusivity, there is a risk that microcredentials could create a Matthew effect of accumulated advantage to those that already possess greater levels of human capital by providing a further differentiating factor in an escalating qualifications race.

(Back in the day we called this the “roaming autodidact” effect).

What employers need

Here in the UK we have an issue with employee training – that issue being best characterised as employers not wanting to pay for it. Forty percent of employers look for degrees, whether the job requires it or not – it’s fair to say that this is testament to graduate “soft skills”, but it also goes against the reluctance of employers to fund full qualifications as a part of their training offer.

The evidence from a decently sized survey suggests that 83 per cent of employers had never even heard of microcredentials, and even after a capsule explanation only six per cent felt very likely to use them themselves, and only around a quarter were likely to consider candidate microcredentials when recruiting.

It’s not just inertia and a lack of knowledge – endorsements by industry bodies and standardisation would help, but again these wouldn’t shift things for two thirds of employers.

Employer representative bodies are keen in principle, despite – again – being unfamiliar with the term. They see a role in narrowly defined technical competences, but are ambivalent about credit bearing or academic status here. There’s also some interest in very generic business or management skills.

The learner experience of microcredentials

For what is still very much a supply side intervention to work, it had to work for learners. The Staffordshire case study (a “microcredentials framework”) positions microcredentials almost as what we might once have called exit awards, but without the need to enrol on a named award (the students can have “associate status”, perhaps akin to a modular honours without the time limit).

As indicated above, quality and data collection requirements become a problem at this level of fidelity – as do the economies of scale on wrap around student support and facilities. But we turn again to the MOOC literature for a major issue. MOOCs famously have very low completion rates, despite their small size and low cost – figures in the region of 5 per cent of those who started a MOOC will complete it.

In that world, any level of participation is valorised with the assumption that watching half of that one video lecture has met some unexpressed learner need. When you bring payment into the equation – and when you attempt to use microcredentials to make material improvements in someone’s skills and employability, we need to do better than that.

Recommendations

With LLE supposedly less than two years away it is still crushingly obvious that we have a lot more to learn here. Many of ResPublica’s recommendations deal with the absolute basics – an audit of existing practice, pilots of new ideas, and a communication blitz. These happened late with T levels too, it will be fascinating to see the impact of these interventions there and analyse if there is any read across.

The “all-you-can-learn” netflix-style subscription model seems to appear from nowhere -another wizard wheeze in a field bedevilled by them. If this is really a once-in-a-generation chance to sort out skills we need more information and less speculation – exactly the opposite, in fact, to the year of the MOOC.

5 responses to “Less jargon and more evidence is needed on skills

  1. MOOCs’ low completion rates are driven by the low barrier to entry combined with the low cost of non-completion. Education for its own sake is not a new thing and many night classes have given people ‘just enough’ of a skill or language to achieve their own learning goal. If anything, it is this element of lifelong learning that is being most disrupted by everything from TikTok to OpenLearn.

  2. Certainly have nothing against the idea of learning for it’s own sake – but it is not something that can be central to a “levelling up” focused skills-based policy, especially as participation tends to skew towards already advantaged groups.

    1. Spot on. LLE is attractive from all kinds of policy perspectives but how does tapas-style learning can become a coherent education which individuals can articulate to employers?

      The focus is so much on an individual to manage their own learning – “we gave you the opportunity, you made the wrong choices”. This, as the article says, risks privileging the privileged in the absence of strong and honest advisory services.

  3. Some microcredentials require prior knowledge, and some do not require prior knowledge. There is an assumption being made here that there is only one model or way of looking at microcredentials. Look at the community college system in the US and you’ll see how “microcredentials” can work and have worked (for decades) within the US system of education. Courses can be taken, added and stacked to then be put towards a degree. Which is especially helpful for those who did not have the grades/marks and social or cultural capital to get into a university. I speak from personal experience on this one.

    Of course, people need to make informed decisions – in all choices related to both further and higher ed. This problem of privilege is one that starts earlier on – those who had access to good, sound advice in schools, whether they have access, or for adults, professional organizations who might approve of or buy-in to microcredentials in the UK context.

  4. Working on the LLE pilot over the past 6 months, I can say that the business case for scaled number up LLE short courses will be very hard to justify. A few level 4 taster courses and some level 6 research-informed CPD courses might make use of the SCL funding, but not the majority of undergraduate modules, which need students to be in a structured programme of support. The big issue is needing good pre-enrolment career advice on managing learning, on top of the usual graduate career advice. Poor career advice in schools, along with poor employer engagement, seems to be at the heart of all the level-up issues.

Leave a Reply