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Microcredentials: what are they, and will they really revolutionise education and improve job prospects?

In June 2020, then education minister Dan Tehan together with employment minister Michaelia Cash, announced A$4.3 million for a microcredential “marketplace”. This would, they said, provide a nationally consistent platform to compare course outcomes, duration, mode of delivery and credit value.

The announcement came when universities were losing money from COVID border closures that locked out international students. It showed the importance the federal government placed on funding microcredentials over offering other forms of financial assistance to the higher education sector, such as ensuring staff were eligible for JobSeeker.

When announcing the marketplace, Tehan said:

Microcredentials address the most common barriers cited by adult workers who are not intending to undertake further formal training or study: time and cost.

More recently, Universities Australia released a new guidance document for making microcredentials portable across Australia. This was done to help “universities and other educational institutions develop short-duration qualifications that are easily recognised and built upon between institutions”.

So, what are microcredentials, and why are they seen to be so important by governments and the higher education sector?

What are microcredentials?

In Australia, the term microcredential describes different types of smaller bites of learning offered by universities, TAFEs and private education providers.

The term is often used interchangeably with “short courses” and can contribute to “microdegrees”, which are bundles of learning drawn from full degree programs.

When microcredentials contain an assessment task marked by a qualified professional, they can be “stacked” together to provide credit towards macro-qualifications (or degrees).

In Australia, business, management and leadership microcredentials are popular. But one can also study topics as diverse as generating social media, space technology, Yolnu language and culture, and sports coaching and leadership.

A student who successfully completes a microcredential usually earns a digital badge they can display on social media platforms such as LinkedIn. Badges are a digital verification of learning and contain metadata that outlines what learning the course has covered and what a badge recipient should have gained through the learning process.

Microcredentials are offered in lots of areas – from social media to sports coaching. Shutterstock

While the volume of learning varies from course to course, with a microcredential, it is usually more than one hour of study and less than the time required to complete a formal qualification.

For this reason, there isn’t one agreed definition of what a microcredential is. Earlier this month, UNESCO released a discussion paper that describes microcredentials as “a promising way of upskilling workers” and as “a force for good” that can “supplement and complement formal educations systems”.

There is a common definition from the European Union, the recently released Universities Australia guidance document, and an in-development Australian National Microcredentials Framework.

These documents move towards a shared understanding of microcredentials by establishing three requisites:

  • microcredentials should be assessed

  • they should be quality assured

  • they should offer a transparent, understandable unit of exchange for credit.

What are the benefits of microcredentials?

Higher education’s microcredential reform movement comes from the need for people to have high employment prospects and opportunities to learn throughout life.

The vision is students will be able to access smaller bites of learning that suit either their immediate work needs or future career pathways.

Global interest and investment in microcredentialing is often premised on its ability to provide a more equitable, socially just, and thriving learning society for everyone.

Microcredentials allow people to dip in and out of education, at an affordable cost, to meet their imminent learning and employment needs. Often, microcredentials focus on skills development and closing skills gaps.

Read more: The three things universities must do to survive disruption

There is also a life-wide aspect to microcredentials. It is possible to access short, lower-barrier courses to improve numeracy or literacy, better understand of health and well-being, to fulfil creative aspirations such as writing a novel or producing an album, or more effectively engage in activism and democratic processes.

Often microcredentials are available online. But they may also be offered face to face. Learning online is usually self-paced, while face-to-face learning may take place over a specified time period.

The Australian government’s forthcoming microcredentials marketplace is an online platform that will allow users to compare short courses and understand how they can be used for credit towards a qualification.

In 2020, 36 out of 42 Australian universities were either developing or already offering microcredentials.

What are the issues with microcredentials?

While the microcredential space is expanding, it is not without criticism. Internationally, there is a hotch-potch of credentials, providers and platforms. The type of organisation or institution producing the microcredential has a profound impact on the educational objectives and aims. Some microcredentials offer competency-based skills recognised by industry. Others may not have strong industry connection or higher education backing.

Some academics are concerned universities are offering microcredentials to increase revenue. There are also arguments such small courses don’t improve workers’ conditions and focus on “learning to earn” rather than “learning to learn”.

Read more: Massive online open courses see exponential growth during COVID-19 pandemic

Other emerging concerns relate to microcredentials being gig credentials for the gig economy. This way they contribute to the privatisation of education and potentially transfer the cost of training from the employer to the employee.

Some education researchers do not see microcredentials as a new innovation in education but instead point out that smaller-than-qualification training bundles have existed for a long time, particularly in vocational education and training.

There is also growing concern microcredentials will fail to revolutionise education as students already have flexible study options like studying part time, online or in intensive blocks of time – and most popular microcredentials are at the introductory level only.

A shift in education

The massive national and international investment in this mode of education signals a shift in how institutions and students perceive the future of lifelong learning.

Whether microcredentials can achieve lofty aims, like advancing education for all, remains to be seen. However, it seems clear microcredentials will be a prominent fixture of the higher education landscape in the near future.

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