As micro-credentials begin to roll out across Canada some real challenges are emerging and opportunities to achieve meaningful outcomes and help people secure skills-based employment are being missed. Micro-credentials are a key component of many government’s strategies for upskilling and reskilling, focused on closing the skills gap and getting those laid-off or unemployed due to the pandemic back to work. They also reflect a trend towards on-demand, short-form learning focused on skills, competencies and specific capabilities – a shift away from long-form learning, such as degrees and diplomas.
They are popular. Some 650,000 Canadians took a MOOC in 2020, many of which were part of a micro-credential (there are over 1,170 MOOC based micro-credentials) with the most popular subjects being technology skills, business and entrepreneurship, social science and the humanities, engineering and health.
Key to the popularity of MOOC-based micro-credentials is that they are available on demand rather than on a few fixed start dates, they are short (hours or days not weeks and months) and affordable. Many Canadian college and university offerings are also short, focused and skills based but are generally semester based. Moving more of these credentials to be available on demand will increase their utility and spur growth.
What needs to happen to ensure that micro-credentials fulfill their promise and deliver to learners and employers the skills and competency based learning they hold the promise to do. Ten key actions needed to ensure that the credentials meet the needs which learners and employers have. The needed developments are:
- Making a strong connection between learning modules and credentials being offered and skills frameworks or qualifications frameworks. Not all jurisdictions have a qualifications framework (Ontario is an exception), but many professions or specialist organizations do. For example, a comprehensive competency framework has been developed for climate change adaptability by the Federal Government and a number of partner organizations; a number of modular courses have been developed which are based on these competencies. The intention is that students can stack these courses and eventually obtain a micro-credential. Microcredentials in mechatronics offered in Canada are generally based on a competency framework developed by Siemens and others are emerging which have their roots in similar frameworks from professional bodies, such as the Canadian Professional Sales Association.
- Linking emerging micro-credentials to known in-demand or soon to be in-demand skills and competencies employers are actually seeking. While not all micro-credentials relate to the job market – for example, there is strong demand for microcredentials in mindfulness and wellbeing and self-improvement, for example – a policy driver for their development is to help those impacted by the pandemic return to work or to upskill to retain their existing employment. Key to this work is the development of focused labour market intelligence about both the current skills gap and the emerging skills needed to aid productivity gains and competitiveness. A specific example is the emerging need to rethink and refocus the skills and competencies needed for eldercare and childcare. Sector Councils, both Federal and Provincial, are engaged in this work and often provide valuable evidence of both what is needed and how sizeable the market may be. A good example is the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council which provides outstanding insight into demand and needed skills.
- Employer organizations or professional bodies need to be engaged in the design of micro-credentials at the earliest possible stage. In particular, they need to be engaged in determining which skills and competencies will be assessed and how this assessment will occur. For example, Microsoft Certification, offered by a number of colleges across Canada, involves students completing a Microsoft designed certification assessment. Competency banks exist based on known and verified employer needs and can be leveraged to speed up the design process, but the key is that employers agree that a specific micro-credential and its assessment provides a sufficient basis for employability.
- Strengthen the focus on demonstrable competencies in a micro-credential and reduce the over-reliance on “soft” assessments or marginal assessment of what the learner can actually do. We have this challenge with apprenticeship. The Canada Red Seal plumbing apprenticeship has a total of 2,987 competencies specified, but few of these are systematically or consistently assessed for every Red Seal candidate in Canada. Simple log books are used to record satisfactory completion, with some of the log books being just two to three pages. The quality of assessment is inconsistent between assessors and it is not possible to secure a third party validation of the assessment. When attempts have been made to require assessment of every competence specified as required, resistance to doing so has been significant. Yet that is what an employer needs to know – this plumber has demonstrated all of the competencies required for certification, not just some. Further, in effective assessment systems employers can view videos or other evidence of performance through a students e-portfolio.
- There is a need for a national conversation, perhaps facilitated by the Future Skills Centre in partnership with the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, on the portability of micro-credentials. If they are based on recognized competency frameworks and have had the involvement of major employers and make use of legally defensible competency assessment “designed in” from the get go, then portability is something that can be quickly navigated. While credentials are a Provincial matter, Canada should seize the opportunity of “building back better” to navigate this space. A micro-credential in AUTODESK REVIT micro-credential earned from Humber College in Ontario should be acceptable by employers in Vancouver or Halifax. If these are also to be stackable into undergraduate or graduate programs, as some already are, then the basis on which this occurs should be transparent and the Provincial credit transfer agencies should be quickly evaluating them and recognizing them.
- There is a need to identify those micro-credentials that can be “laddered” into undergraduate and graduate programs and ensure that these are nationally portable. For example, Athabasca University’s LMD program from the Faculty of Business has a number of micro-credentials called Certificates (e.g. in Leadership, Manufacturing Management and Supply Chain Management). These Certificates can be recognized as an elective in the Athabasca MBA. They were intentionally designed with this in mind. Not all micro-credentials can or should be “ladder-able” in this way, but if this is a design intention – e.g. with the planned micro-credential in climate adaptation now under development – then these micro-credentials need to be “transcriptable” and meet the requirements for credit courses at the appropriate level of learning.
- Not all micro-credentials will or need to be online – there is a need to clearly identify the mode of delivery for each micro-credential. Lethbridge Community College’s Aquaponics Design micro-credential is intended as an in-person course, but other micro-credentials may be offered as hybrid – in part in a workshop or class environment and in part online. Yet others, such as the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification or Wellness Works Canada Health Performance Master certification are fully online. Students need to understand the delivery model associated with the micro-credential. Any portal created to ease access to these credentials should make explicit the delivery mode, time to complete and costs.
- There is also a need to encourage employers to partner with colleges and universities in the design of work-based learning micro-credentials. A great many companies, such as Shopify or Amazon Web Services, offer training and skills development for both their clients and their staff. In Europe, it is commonplace for colleges and universities to use work-based learning recognition agreements to accept this learning for both non-credit and for-credit certification. Middlesex University, for example, has a long history of partnering with employers to accredit training and development activities as equivalent to undergraduate or graduate work, up to and including doctoral work. Quality assurance agencies in Canada should accelerate the ability of our institutions to engage in this work, using micro-credentials as a way of ensuring quality through transparent and valid assessment.
- Canada needs to identify and develop assessment only micro-credentials. A variety of skills recognition systems are available at colleges and universities where the role of the institution is assessment, not teaching. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s Certificate programs in Health Care Informatics or Substance Use Disorder Counselling permit students to accelerate through them by using assessment of their competencies as the basis of credit recognition – assessment without tuition. They complete the courses they need based on a “gap” between what they already know and what they need to know to complete, based on the assessment. The Kentucky College System “on demand” (start any Monday) uses pre-tests and post-tests – if a student admitted to a course passes the online pre-test they are immediately given the online post-test which, if they also pass, they are awarded the credit for that course. The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand is also moving towards an competency-based assessment centre separate from instruction to recognize skills and capabilities individuals have developed through experience and their own learning.
- There is a need for more collaboration both within and between Provincial boundaries aimed at strengthening the skills, competencies and capabilities of Canadians seeking work or seeking to upskill to improve their employment prospects. New collaborative micro-credentials, with modular learning from different institutions across the country, could truly leverage the different skills and capabilities that exist within different institutions. This is what is attractive about the Climate Adaptability work being led from the Resilience By Design Lab at Royal Roads for the Government of Canada Natural Resources Canada and the BC Climate Action Secretariat. Already courses have been developed at a variety of institutions across Canada and more are being commissioned. Creating a national set of micro-credentials through aggregation of these courses is the intention, all driven by the competency framework. This could well be a prototype for similar developments in other fields, especially those that are quickly emerging – cybersecurity, AI ethics, AI enabled health diagnostics and others.
- In their development of micro-credentials, New Zealand very deliberately set out a framework linked to qualifications framework and required industry partners for their micro-credentials. Australia did something similar. The initial developments in Canada reflect the lack of a national skills strategy, the lack of a national qualifications framework and the absence of the capabilities in many of our institutions around competency based assessment. It is time to quickly move to rectify this situation and enable these credentials to achieve their full potential.At the heart of the challenge for micro-credentials is assessment: how do employers know that a person with a specific micro-credential has the skills and capabilities the credential says they have? Using certain platforms for assessment would enable employers to be directly involved in assessment both of general capabilities (e.g. RIIPEN) and specific competencies (Valid-8) and the use of MyCreds to capture these abilities in transcriptable ways would all be key to the future for these credentials.The moment is ripe for a focused and systematic approach to micro-credentials that is Canada wide and stakeholder driven. These ten actions would help establish Canada as a leader in the delivery of short-form learning.