More flexible forms of learning, and thus more flexible forms of delivery, are clearly on their way.
In every nation of the UK the trend is toward smoothing out the differences between higher education, further education, and adult education – and towards offering skills (it does nearly always seem to be skills…) provision in smaller, discrete packages that can build up to a larger qualification. This passage from the Skills White Paper is a good example (the Scottish “upskilling” funding would be another):
[We] will support the creation of a truly flexible skills system, together with offering more modular provision so people can build up learning over time and promoting flexibility through online and blended learning.
Historically, higher education in particular has been wedded to the idea of a qualification (an honours degree, a masters degree…) driving the size and shape of provision. If you want to do an honours degree, you pretty much need the equivalent of three years of study at a “full time” intensity. Funding models, and quality assurance processes, have been built around these assumptions – to the point that it can be difficult to imagine doing anything else.
Recently, QAA members will have received an update from the organisations’ micro-credentials project. This highlights the policy trend toward shorter, discrete units of learning – and poses important questions about how such an approach fits with what universities have traditionally done.
But before we dive into that, let’s get our terminology together. You might be thinking that your provider has been offering short, industry-focused, learning for ever – and much of it is credit bearing. If a student that takes a couple of these then enters a degree course, you are able to count this credit as contributing towards the final award, through a process called the assessment of prior learning (APL). Is this not micro-credentials?
Not quite. I’ve been chucking the word “discrete” around to imply that such learning needs to be meaningful in its own right. It’s not just a possible component of something bigger, it is a thing in itself that – although small – comprises a complete learning experience. If students can sign up to a single module that you offer on a degree course that may not be a micro-credential unless it both bears credit and has an identifiable and useful learning outcome.
I said “module” there which is another important concept in this area. Most (though not all) higher education courses are delivered as a series of modules which stack up to build however many credits (usually 360 for an honours degree). Each module has a topic, a course leader (or team), a series of learning activities, an assessment, a reading list, and all the rest. Most providers have a quality assurance process that works at both a course and module level – each module will be defined in whatever the quality language your provider speaks is, and it will even have HeCOS codes assigned to describe what it is about. To fit in with university courses a micro-credential would need this kind of scaffold too.
The modular ideal was that you could stack up any collection of modules to get to 360 credits and a degree. Most joint honours and combined honours programmes work in this way – though in some cases course regulations require a few “compulsory” modules, usually some foundational concepts in year one and a project or dissertation in year three.
The dream is that not all of these modules would need to be taken in the same provider – systems like the “Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme” (CATS – there’s also an articulated European framework (EQF) with a micro-credentials add in developed by a consortium of MOOC providers) are meant to make this straightforward, but in practice human intervention in the form of the accreditation of prior learning (APL) is needed to figure out what a student has learned and whether it is relevant to the award they are aiming at. The material covered in a ten-year old course in web design, for example, may not offer much of value in the context of an up-to-date course on the topic – but conversely if you’d spent the intervening decade as a professional web designer the fact you had studied in the past and were up-to-date from your own practice this becomes less of an issue.
But being able to demonstrate what, and how you studied (rather than just your provider and grades) is not always easy. Sometimes APL merges with the assessment of prior experiential learning (APEL) – it can be easier to prove what you know in an essay or exam than to dig out a yellowing prospectus or course handbook. Which kind of defeats the point. So documentation, transcripts – and in a positive sense, bureaucracy – become very important.
Brown paper bag
But can a person who has collected the requisite credits over a decade or so be said to have experienced the same “higher education” as someone who did a traditional three year course. It’s a complicated question. Courses are not just a string of modules, there is a thread that connects them to a wider narrative arc of learning. Sometimes this is made explicit via the requirements of a professional, statutory, or regulatory body (PSRB) – otherwise this can be much more implicit. An Oxford history graduate may see the subject in a very different way to a history graduate from Bath Spa, and the way the course threads together to exemplify a methodological or ideological approach is a big part of this.
We’re talking here about coherence – traditionally assured at an award level, or (in Scotland particularly) as part of an articulation agreement between a course taught in FE and one in HE. The QAA’s report gives the example of the PhD by publication as a commonly understood way of managing this via a “capstone module” (usually focused on methodology or conclusions) that lends coherence to what would otherwise be just a list of publications. But it is fair to say that there is no settled solution at other levels.
A learner with a collection of micro-credentials could use them in any number of ways within or around traditional higher education. They could just keep collecting smaller units of learning without any interest in a larger qualification of course – again our professional web designer may not need a degree but might want to keep up to date with new technology and ideas as they emerge. Level three micro-credentials – perhaps a formalisation of work-based training – could support entry to a degree course rather than A levels or T levels. We have the APL approach as described above, but it is also possible to imagine a qualification that explicitly articulates with external and internal micro-credentials (say a course that includes a short course and qualification from Google) either as a credit bearing part of the course or as real-world experience that adds value to the main qualification.
Each of these adds complexity to provider quality assurance processes – we know (it can be imagined) how to ensure that all of our modules have the required coverage and rigour, but can we easily do the same with other people’s qualifications, or our own professionally-focused qualifications that are more generally assured against employer or industry needs. At the end of it all, a degree awarded by a university is an institutional expression of confidence in what a graduate now knows and can do – can this be done in the same way if several chunks of course credit are assigned to external courses?
What would we do, for instance, when a student has taken an external course but not completed the assessment? Some online providers charge extra for assessment or credit – should a student that couldn’t afford this be penalised?
How would we support students that may have an unusual range of aptitudes and gaps having entered a course in the second year with a range of micro-credential from multiple providers? Do we need catch-up provision? Is there a mechanism to exempt students from module or course requirements that they’ve achieved elsewhere?
I’d wager the current state of the art on these questions is to adapt on a case-by-case basis. And while this is, nominally, flexibility it puts a lot of pressure on a student (who may already feel isolated from peers) to continually ask for special treatment. And it is not scalable – such reactive systems put a cognitive load on institutional systems.
The QAA is absolutely right to be raising these issues at this point – shorter, stackable, credentials from all kinds of providers are either already here or on their way, and recent policy positions suggest that what is now a trickle will become a deluge in short order. It stops short of recommending work on a new quality framework for micro-credentials but I feel like this is on the way.
But the other questions – how are such qualifications funded or supported by government, how are the use of micro-credentials within or alongside traditional courses funded or supported by government? – are becoming urgent, and though Scotland is a little ahead of the curve, I’ve seen little movement on this in England.