How microcredentials are revolutionising education and empowering students for the future of work

In Australia, various forces – including rapid digitisation, globalisation, and an expanding gig economy – continue to challenge the viability of traditional education systems. Successful careers education, especially, requires an awareness of future workers’ needs, a way to help students develop the skills for agile, self-led careers, and a digital system for documenting knowledge and skill acquisition.

Now, it seems the pandemic may have forced traditional models to tipping point. According to a new report by EY, just as renewable energy brought the globe to ‘peak oil’, they posit Oceania has reached ‘peak higher education’.

Right now, access to knowledge is more ubiquitous than ever, forcing a rethink of educators’ roles. Workplaces must be more flexible to attract and retain talent. Only those who can reinvent will flourish. Importantly, EY note education institutions seeking to adapt and thrive in this new environment must ‘explore how converging technologies and new business models will reinvent the sector’.

One key area singled out for reinvention is accreditation. They postulate a future where learners choose programs best aligned to their career goals – from options including degrees, on-the-job training and microcredentials – utilising platforms that track their growing skill portfolios and return on learning investment. Significantly, EY discovered that early adopters of digital platforms, such as those offering stackable microcredentials, will gain access to a new $10 billion marketplace.


What are microcredentials?

Although universal agreement is yet to be reached, UNESCO released a discussion paper in September 2021 offering a proposed definition.

They note a ‘micro-credential:

  1. is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do;
  2. includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider;
  3. has stand-alone value and may also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning; and
  4. meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance.’

In an article in The Conversation, Renee Desmarchelier (Director of the Microcredential Unit at the University of Southern Queensland) notes several documents, including an in-development Australian National Microcredentials Framework, establish three microcredential requirements.

Microcredentials should:

  • be assessed
  • be quality assured, and
  • offer a transparent, understandable unit of exchange for credit.


Microcredentials – creating a pathway with purpose

It’s important to note microcredentials are not simply something a student obtains, like sports trophies that adorn a mantelpiece but serve no further end. They are more like stepping stones on a student’s pathway through school to higher education and/or a career.

In a podcast with HaileyburyX, Allyn Radford, VP of Strategy and Credentialing at Outcome.Life, notes that purpose needs to precede definition. He says microcredentials are “about your learning journey and applying a credential to that.”

As Desmarchelier points out, microcredentials containing an assessment requirement that is marked by a qualified professional can be “stacked” together, thereby offering credit towards larger qualifications (such as degrees).


Other benefits of microcredentials

In addition to providing a pathway towards higher learning and/or a career, Desmarchelier highlights the role of microcredentialing in helping people achieve better employment prospects through lifelong learning opportunities. Through microcredentials, students can “access smaller bites of learning that suit either their immediate work needs or future career pathways”, she writes.

As Emeritus Professor Beverley Oliver from Deakin University explains in the Making micro-credential work for learners, employers and providers report, workforce disruption is well documented. She notes that, burdened with ever rising costs, the formal qualification system is unlikely to cope. Micro-credentials and other non-formal learning options are emerging as potential solutions to the need for rapid upskilling.

Furthermore, Desmarchelier notes microcredentials provide a cost-effective way for learners to “dip in and out of education” to suit their needs, with the potential to create more fair and equitable learning opportunities.


Essential components: What to look for when thinking about microcredentials

During a recent presentation at SparkFest, Dr Rick van der Zwan (neuroscientist and co-founder of the Human Capability Intelligence Centre), noted microcredentials formally recognise that a student has met a specific standard of skill, experience and/or knowledge.

He describes several key components for turning microcredentials into a pathway. They should:

  • Focus on applied outcomes – what can a learner do?
  • Be flexibly packaged (the EY report postulated a future where investing in knowledge is easy, with individuals relying on independent career platforms for expert advice about programs that best align with employability and career goals)
  • Be personalised (the report suggested a shift towards learner-centric education, where governments fund individual learners rather than institutions)
  • Be cost-effective (the EY report also proposed a situation where the cost of learning is driven towards zero)
  • Be digitally badged and globally portable
  • Contribute to other qualifications.


How are they validated?

Furthermore, van der Zwan notes microcredentials must be aligned to a recognised framework of skills and/or capabilities. He explains suitable infrastructure is necessary to provide “certainty around the pathways that can be created by achievement, with scope and flexibility to be adaptive to situations and circumstances.”

He advises that creditable, high acuity frameworks:

  • are well researched and backed by evidence
  • provide acuity and clarity at each level
  • provide clear guidelines for different levels of proficiency, and what constitutes evidence for those levels
  • can be mapped to other frameworks.

Examples include the Human Capability Standards and the NESA Framework.

With regards to validation, Desmarchelier notes in her article that students successfully completing a microcredential typically earn a digital badge. Such badges provide digital proof of learning, with embedded metadata outlining the learning covered in the course and what recipients should have achieved from it. They can display earned badges on a digital resume and social media accounts such as LinkedIn.

Dr van der Zwan advises a “pathway” credential should include the following:

  • Credential name
  • Issued by
  • Issued to
  • Issued on
  • Valid to
  • Delivered by
  • Criteria used to warrant skills/capabilities
  • Description of evidence.


How My Careers can help

My Careers exists to guide students towards rewarding, agile and self-driven futures. We have been working with several innovative and creative education leaders, along with a diverse range of students, to understand how best to measure and capture the skills and knowledge developed throughout an individual’s unique learning journey.

As a result, we are proud to have developed a skills recognition feature within our digital workflow. This tool credibly connects skills data with subject selections, further education and industry.

Designed to be customised for each school we work with, our platform supports high engagement by allowing students to lead themselves through it. It also provides ready access to data that hasn’t been visible before – in ways that haven’t been possible before.

We’re in the business of guiding students towards rewarding futures together with schools. We invite anyone interested in understanding more about My Careers to connect with us in this discussion.