Are micro-credentials the future direction of education systems?

The education world internationally is abuzz with the arrival of micro-credential courses and qualifications. With the EU’s seal of approval last June, MicroCreds have added momentum.
But what are they and will they change education for good? Niall Gormley has a look.

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Education systems have come in for criticism across the world for their focus on exams and rote learning, their lack of contact with the broader economy and the slow pace of reform. 

Educators are now operating in an online world where there is more information available than ever before and yet, paradoxically, it is difficult for learners to get the right information and to then prove they have it.

Big formal programmes, like the Leaving Cert, are easy to criticise. They are designed for mass education with some wriggle room and it’s obvious that we can’t have an individual Leaving Cert for each student.

We wouldn’t, for example, calculate the average weekly supermarket shop and then deliver the same basket of goods to each home. It makes more sense to let the shopper fill their own basket.

Learner centred

There is also the important reality that we’re never really finished education because the world is constantly changing. We thus have ideas like life-long learning and continuous professional development.

It is into this mix that Micro-Credentials have arrived. MicroCreds, for short, are small qualifications based on short, specific courses that individuals can use to extend their skills, to take on new roles. What makes these courses so useful is that they have formal accredited course contents, with formal learner goals and that they are recognised and will earn the learners ECTS (See side panel on ECTS). They are like mini degrees with the quality assurance to give them kudos.

Definition of Micro-Credentials

“A micro-credential is the record of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a small volume of learning. These learning outcomes have been assessed against transparent and clearly defined standards.

“Courses leading to micro-credentials are designed to provide the learner with specific knowledge, skills and competencies that respond to societal, personal, cultural or labour market needs.

“Micro-credentials are owned by the learner, can be shared and are portable. They may be standalone or combined into larger credentials. They are underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standards in the relevant sector or area of activity.”

(EU Council Recommendation on a European Approach to Micro-credentials, June 2022)

MicroCreds in Ireland

Ireland is aiming to be the first country in Europe to develop a National Framework for quality assured and accredited micro-credentials. The MicroCreds Project in Ireland is led by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and involves a €12.3m spend from 2020 to 2025. 

Seven universities have been developing MicroCred courses over the past couple of years: UCD, UCC, UL, DCU, TCD, University of Galway, and Maynooth University. Other colleges and organisations are also developing micro-credential courses.

“There are many benefits for learners in terms of micro-credentials. It allows the learner to take control of their own professional journey, to learn at their own pace, to learn the things that they want to learn in their own time in their own way,” said Dr Lynn Ramsey, Program Lead for MicroCreds at the IUA.

“It could be entirely online experience, it could be a blended experience or it could be an in-person experience, depending on the nature of the skill or the type of industry we’re talking about.”

Changes at work

Micro-credential qualifications are also aimed at helping people at work build out their expertise and qualifications, particularly as new trends emerge. For example, many managers might want to improve their knowledge of the issues around climate change and the impact it has on their business activities.

Tony Donoghoe, Chair, Expert Group on Future Skills Needs says that MicroCreds will be an invaluable asset to the world of work.

“Employees are developing in a constantly changing workplace. The requirements of business change frequently, and for the employee, that means constant reskilling, either adaption of existing roles or new jobs which haven’t been thought of before.

“So the world of work changes at a very fast rate and micro credentials enables employees to upskill to meet those challenges.”

The IUA has listed the main projected benefits for enterprise:

Close skills gaps and improve enterprise productivity

Meet emerging enterprise needs and trends

Aid career development and progression for employees

Expand existing training/professional development programmes

Enhance staff retention and improve recruitment

Address pandemic related job impacts or other socio-economic shifts

Does it stack up?

MicroCreds will earn their learners ECTS credits and thus will be portable and provable. They may also be stacked up to make a bigger, broader qualification. 

In order that there will be widespread recognition of these MicroCred qualifications, in June 2022, the Council of the European Union adopted a Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability. The Recommendation seeks to support the development, implementation and recognition of micro-credentials across institutions, businesses, sectors and borders.

This broader idea is similar to the QQI’s development of minor awards in the National Framework of Qualifications which can be combined to make a major award. Indeed, many of these minor award modules may be regarded as micro-credentials. The QQI made submissions to the European process.

A micro or macro future

So far mainstream education is relatively unaffected by the move towards MicroCreds. 

Is it possible that micro could replace macro, that instead of attending university for a number of years, a learner might go into a kind of apprenticeship and build up micro-credentials over the years?

In this scenario there are fears that education will be further warped by the pull of commerce where learners  will only get the bare minimum needed to do the job instead of a rounded education.

Concerns too that providers will stop offering broad courses and the finances of third level institutions will be undermined.

There’s no doubt that there’s a ferment in approaches to education. Apprenticeships and traineeships have re-emerged as education options, the latter akin to MicroCreds in their short course, focused content.

Online education is now a reality with blended learning a preference in many courses, so physical location is not as important as it once was.

What is clear is that competencies can be broken down into their component parts and that qualifications can and must be added as careers progress. Micro-credentials have the potential to fill this role in the education system and beyond. 

What is the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System? 

The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is a tool of the European Higher Education Area for making studies and courses more transparent. It helps students to move between countries and to have their academic qualifications and study periods abroad recognised. 

ECTS allows credits taken at one higher education institution to be counted towards a qualification studied for at another. ECTS credits represent learning based on defined learning outcomes and their associated workload. 

ECTS enhances the flexibility of study programmes for students. It also supports the planning, delivery and evaluation of higher education programmes. It is a central tool in the Bologna Process, which aims to make national education systems more comparable internationally. ECTS also helps make other documents, such as the Diploma Supplement, clearer and easier to use in different countries. 

ECTS has been adopted by most of the countries in the European Higher Education Area as the national credit system and is increasingly used elsewhere. 

Why is ECTS needed?

Differences between national higher education systems can lead to problems concerning the recognition of qualifications and mobility periods abroad. This issue is addressed in part by enhancing the comprehension of the learning outcomes and workload of programmes of study. 

ECTS also makes it possible to blend different learning styles, such as university and work-based learning, within the same programme of study or through lifelong learning.

How does it work?

60 ECTS credits are the equivalent of a full year of study or work. In a standard academic year, these credits are usually broken down into several smaller modules. A typical ‘short cycle qualification’ typically includes 90-120 ECTS credits. A ‘first cycle’ (or bachelor’s) degree consists of either 180 or 240 ECTS credits.  

Usually a ‘second cycle’ (or master’s) degree equates to 90 or 120 ECTS credits. The use of the ECTS at the ‘third cycle’, or Ph.D. level, varies. 

ECTS is applied to support student mobility between higher education institutions. The course catalogues, Learning Agreements and Transcripts of Records help the recognition and transfer of credits earned by students during a mobility period abroad. The ECTS Users’ Guide describes the system and how it is used in greater detail.