The Rise of Micro-Credentials and a Lifelong Learning Ledger

COVID-19 has put many of the freedoms and assumptions we held about life and society into rather sharp focus. It could be argued, however, that the circumstances have also created deep systemic reflections that would have never catalysed so quickly otherwise. Although a very slim silver lining to our ‘COVID cloud’, there has been an overnight transformation in education with regard to technology. Many schools, universities, companies and charities have taken the context and reflected on it against macro-trends, global learning patterns and growing market demand.

In fact, one of the key reflections recently is that learning within our behemoth three/four-year degrees is outdated. Take new degree areas, such as AI, Cyber Security or Blockchain - creating degrees in these areas could take 18 months to propose, approve, market and launch within a university. In this day and age, technology and knowledge is rapidly developing far faster; by the time the first students graduate, their knowledge will already be outdated. Cue micro-credentials; a more agile, flexible way to learn and record learning, able to grow into a lifelong learning ledger of stackable qualifications, demonstrating an insatiable curiosity and appetite for learning.

Many will have heard the phrase micro-credentials, but you can be forgiven for not having a clearly articulated description. A micro-credential is most easily described as a small, discrete body of learning whereby learning outcomes are achieved through a form of assessment following a learner’s engagement with set learning activities. Micro-credentials are growing exponentially and being developed ever more rapidly by an increasing number of institutions, aided by accelerating investment into platforms offering micro-credentials. For example, SEEK invested £50 million into FutureLearn and $30 million into Coursera last year. In fact, just last week Coursera raised another $130 million to build even more and Google agreed to fund 100,000 places on their courses in high-demand skills.

Holon IQ has shown a huge increase in demand for this area of online education and the accessibility of quality learning content and experiences. Internationally, institutions and organisations - mostly universities or large software companies - are engaging with and developing micro-credentials from the US, UK, EU and Australia, amongst others, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • to plug skills gaps;
  • to market learning experiences from institutions;
  • to re-train workforces where industries are being automated;
  • to enable broader educational interests to be catered for at a relatively small cost.

There does seem to be a global acknowledgement of the growth of this emerging global marketplace for micro-credentials, which is increasingly successful at engaging students and their lifelong learners in order to develop new skills, upskill or re-skill.

With large platforms offering different micro-credentials, naturally, learners will end up with their learning credentials held on a range of platforms. This leads to an innate need for a singular location for lifelong learners to collect and store their lifetime achievements…(did someone mention VerifyEd!). With this comes the next desire to stack up your micro-credentials into bigger meaningful units such as degrees or masters, and although small, the number offered via micro-credentials currently is growing.

Where platforms and institutions are focusing now is on shared development of frameworks to allow a certain stackability to grow across the global micro-credential market. One example of such a framework is the Common Micro-Credential Framework (CMF), which is developed by a number of leading European MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) providers, including FutureLearn in the UK. The CMF outlines a number of criteria micro-credentials must meet, including total study time and level of qualification amongst others. Similarly, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) has developed a set of guiding principles to help move towards a common understanding of micro-credentials. The guidelines focus on a common definition of micro-credentials, quality assurance, society engagement, technical platforms and systems and commitment from policymakers. The development of such frameworks works towards global standardisation of micro-credentials, regardless of provider, therefore helping micro-credentials to achieve a shared global meaning.

So what will micro-credentials and learning look like in the future? Learning will become increasingly lifelong, that’s for sure. Re-training, upskilling and a thirst for new knowledge will be the driving force. This future will inevitably include a lifelong learning ledger that contains all your life’s learning. This lifelong learning ledger can start with school and college qualifications, as well as degrees, online courses, CPD, and other skills such as driving licenses or first aid training. As the future of learning takes a new pathway, it is vital that as a society we are able to store, share and celebrate our lifetime achievements in a way that’s accessible to all.

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