Everything you need to know about microcredentials

If education is the foundation for career success, microcredentials are quickly becoming the bricks you use to build upon it.

While they’re still a relatively recent phenomenon, microcredentials might be best defined as verified and validated proof of competency or certification in a specific skill, based on completion of a learning program. 

The skills we’re talking about here might not be the first ones that come to mind when you initially think about an area of expertise. When someone asks what you studied in school, for example, the usual answers might be subjects like law, medicine or engineering. We recognize them as vast areas that require considerable time and effort to learn.

That’s why graduates tend to hang their degrees, diplomas or certificates on the wall with pride afterwards, even though they only reflect the start of a career. The actual journey tends to require other, additional skills that may not have come up earlier.

Just think for a minute about how the rise of information technology over the past 25 years has lead to digital transformation in multiple industries, creating huge changes in jobs of almost every kind:

CEOs have had to explore the way artificial intelligence could help identify future trends and patterns in their business.

Marketers and salespeople have had to become more data-driven to build relationships with customers.

Everyone from finance leaders to admin assistants has turned their smartphone into their most valuable work tool.

Other social and macroeconomic forces are shaping the future of work too. The shift to remote work requires new levels of communication and collaboration. The customer-centric focus in fields like retail and financial services demands employees learn methodologies like Agile to get projects done more quickly or drive greater impact.

Microcredentials may not have reputation or prestige that traditional programs carry today, but they are quickly having an outsized effect across multiple fields.

If you want to enter a new field in 2020, it’s best to look for, and ask about, what skill shortages exist that microcredentials could address.

If you want to switch careers, it’s worth looking at what microcredentials you may have picked up as part of your professional development already, and what more you may need to seek out.

If you want to get promoted within your current job, the answer might not be to put your career on hold to study for multiple years, but to earn an on-demand microcredential as a stepping stone instead.

Keep reading to get a better understanding of:

  • The different kinds of microcredentials and why people are earning them
  • Canadian pilot projects and institutions that are offering microcredentials
  • How to “stack” microcredentials and their future within businesses

What Are Microcredentials?

An article published by the BBC suggested that as employers compete for the best possible talent, those with non-traditional backgrounds may have a better chance of getting the job they want, thanks to microcredentials that position them as lifelong learners.

“It’s no longer enough to obtain a degree; having a career now requires people to upskill continuously,” the BBC said.

 

Microcredentials tend to fall into two categories. Some are “credit-bearing,” or contribute to a formal qualification based on an assessment. A non-credit-bearing microcredential may be offered directly by an employer or through a massive open online course (MOOC), though they might be known and recognized throughout a particular industry.

In some fields, microcredentials have been a standard element of career progression, even if they were called certifications or some other name. Those who work in the IT industry, for instance, might have gotten a degree in computer science.

As TechRepublic pointed out, however, “IT professionals who are mid-career definitely need to seek out certification if they’re going to significantly develop their skills, because with the acceleration of change comes the acceleration of obsolescence.”

Microcredentials are available to IT professionals who want to master a particular operating system such as Linux, for instance, or an area such as cybersecurity to help their employer comply with industry regulations.

Earning a microcredential might involve taking a course in the evening or on weekends, in person or online. It could be done in a matter of weeks or in some cases, months.

Canadian Universities Offering Microcredentials

At eCampusOntario, meanwhile, which the Province of Ontario lunched in 2015, an initiative is under way to run 14 microcredential pilot projects that will bring post-secondary institutions and industry partners together. The idea is to target in-demand skills employers want and to prepare as many qualified job applicants as possible.

Already, schools ranging from Western University, Ryerson’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, OCAD and and McMaster all offer some form of microcredentials in addition to their traditional programs.

Of course, weaving in this kind of focused, modular approach to learning is a significant undertaking. An article in Maclean’s summed up the opportunities and challenges ahead:

“Advocates are keen for a way to paint a more complete picture of student achievement, recognizing skills and expertise demanded by employers but usually missing from a conventional academic transcript. But big questions remain about how to define, authenticate and evaluate microcredentials in a standardized fashion understood by students, institutions and employers.”

This may help explain why, beyond what’s happening in the established post-secondary system, third-party startups have emerged which are essentially uncoupling credentials from a single institution.

Credly, for example, has been on a mission since 2012 to upskill people without traditional four-year degrees. Employers can work with its Credential Dashboard system to create a unique program that recognizes and verifies the skills of someone who demonstrates they’ve earned them. Others include Accredible and Discendum.

Stackable Microcredentials

Of course, being a lifelong learner doesn’t mean learning at random, or as a desperate move to stay employed.

Instead, the rise of microcredentials offers a way for individuals to empower themselves through a strategic approach to assembling a diverse mix of skills. This is sometimes referred to working with “stackable microcredentials.”

Back in 2016, an article on Inside Higher Education suggested microcredentials could be vertical (where you add more depth to an area of specialization), horizontal (learning a broad but related set of skills to have more job opportunities) or value-added. This last area might be where someone who works in HR, for instance, earns a microcredential to help them with an area such as coaching or mentoring employees.

“At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible,” the Inside Higher Education article said. “Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.”

This is not unlike what companies often refer to as their “tech stack.” In the early days, a business might simply need some basic computers and software to share and manage information. Over time they add other layers of applications that automate manual tasks in specific areas, or which allow them to measure and optimize activities.

As tech stacks become more sophisticated, complexity is an issue, which is why “full stack” developers who can work with many different programming languages or technologies are in such high demand.

Think about your own career and areas of interest. What would a “full stack” version of that role look like — and how might microcredentials help prove you’ve become one?

Microcredentials In Business

Although they were gaining momentum well before the outbreak of COVID-19, the economic upheaval triggered by the pandemic could have a long-term impact on the need for microcredentials in business.

Some jobs that have been lost in 2020 may never come back. Others might be located far from a traditional office, creating a vastly more distributed — and therefore more competitive — talent pool.

Writing in Forbes, Souther New Hampshire University president Paul Leblanc said research his team conducted makes it clear job requirements have changed — and the education that helps meet them needs to change too.

“Whether we call them microcredentials or badges, we need to offer smaller packages of skills focused learning that carry some form of recognition and that stack along a pathway that eventually leads to a degree,” Leblanc writes. “While two and four year degrees will remain important milestones, we need more granularity in program offerings and credentials for those who need to urgently re-skill in order to rejoin the workforce.”

How To Find And Pursue The Best Microcredentials

As demand for continuous, more flexible, learning heats up, the choices for microcredentials are bound to proliferate. That could mean, in some cases, that identifying the right ones will become difficult, if not overwhelming.

Here are some basic tips to think through the process:

  • What might my employer or alma matter already offer? Companies have a natural interest in ensuring their team has relevant skills, which is why they’re working to ensure certification programs are aligned with their sector. Similarly, many traditional schools are trying to stay connected to industry and may have introduced microcredential program into their course offerings.
  • What are the key objectives a microcredential could help me achieve? As you read earlier, learning becomes most fulfilling when it’s tied to a particular goal. Talk to your manager, your peers in another company, the keynote speaker at an industry conference or the author of a book you’ve read for work. What do they see as the key skills of the future? Is there a microcredential that reflects them?
  • What might you gain besides the skill? Whether you look at a university course, a workshop or a bootcamp, learning often becomes the gateway to valuable relationships. This can include new friends, mentors and connections that can help you make the most of a microcredential after you’ve earned it. Get a sense of the environment and opportunities by talking to course providers and alumni.

The old adage, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is true in education. We are more than the courses we take or the credentials we earn. The point is that microcredentials are offering far more parts to consider — potentially making the whole even greater.

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