Micro-credentials may soon gain recognition under the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). Can tertiary education providers adapt using digital credentials, and if so, how can a student management system help make the whole process simple?
Micro-credentials have been discussed by the tertiary education and training industry for many years. With their potential to package learning in ways that fit busy modern lifestyles and meet the continual need for upskilling, they were always seen as coming ‘someday’.
In 2020 however it appears that micro-credentials are no longer the future. With new regulatory backing on the way and a confluence of factors steamrolling their emergence, micro-credentials are now coming to the fore for a new decade. Their time has come.
The growing shift towards micro-credentials
A Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework Final Report was released in 2019. Covering the role, status and future of the AQF, it recommended evolving the regulatory framework to catch up with a growth in micro-credentials that was already happening.
The report found micro-credentials were ‘a major issue’ for stakeholders in the sector. In vocational education and training (VET) for example, total program enrolments in non-AQF award courses have already risen by 31.2 per cent between 2015 and 2018, while there has been corresponding interest in the likes of MOOCs across the higher education sector.
“We do know the market is growing – education and training providers and qualification developers are responding to the call for shorter, more responsive credentials,” it said.
The result? The report recommended credit recognition be applied to the universe of micro-credentials. This way, they will be granted a form of regulatory currency and oversight under the AQF without being included as qualification types under the existing bands.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) followed the review by fast-tracking some foundational work looking how micro-credentials can be used to ‘better respond to student and job need while preserving the importance of nationally-recognised full qualifications’.
With micro-credentials now all-but-certain to be awarded credit under the AQF, there is no doubt the number of micro-credentials will continue to grow. If anything, their growth is likely to accelerate once the new regulatory stamp of approval becomes a reality.
The complementary role of digital credentials
Digital credentials have begun to help education providers meet the upswing in micro-credentials head-on. Giving providers the ability to recognise more granular skills and assessed knowledge with digital badges, they are a 21st Century form of certification that incorporates a lot of thinking that goes into a successful micro-credentials strategy.
In fact, digital credentials are likely to facilitate faster micro-credentials growth. Their ability to be shared readily by earners on professional and social networks and their secure verification possibilities using blockchain technology (among many other advantages for education providers) will only serve to catalyse the creation of more micro-credentials.
How can digital credentials help the micro-credential strategies of individual education and training providers? This article aims to help providers understand how they can use digital credentials to establish or boost their micro-credentials strategy in 2020 and beyond. We’ll also look at how this process can be managed by a student management system.
The difference between micro-credentials and digital credentials
While micro-credentials and digital credentials are closely related they are obviously not the same thing. To understand how one (a digital credential) can support the other (micro-credentials) it’s important to understand what each is and how they can work together.
In Making Micro-Credentials Work for Learners, Employers and Providers, Emeritus Professor Beverly Oliver from Deakin University defined micro-credentials as “a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternate, complementary to or a formal component of a formal qualification.” In doing so, Oliver sought to eliminate confusion around various competing terms like micro-credentials and alternative credentials so there was an agreed definition all parties could understand. She also emphasises the ‘assessed’ nature of these credentials, to ensure they are differentiated from the likes of digital badges for something like participation. Essentially, a micro-credential is a more ‘bite-sized’ piece of learning than the Certificates, Diplomas – or Degrees – that are recognised as full qualifications.
Digital credentials recognise a learner’s achieved skills and knowledge in the form of a digital badge. Issued by an education provider – usually with the assistance of a digital credentials partner or credentialing engine – they incorporate a visual representation of a skill or achievement that can be easily recognised and acted on by employers. They also include added advantages like qualification verification via blockchain technology, the ability for earners to share their badge online using professional and social networks and the ability to add deeper descriptions and evidence (metadata) of what a learner has accomplished. They can be used to certify new learning or recognise prior learning or competencies.
How micro-credentials and digital credentials work together
Using these definitions, a micro-credential is the delivery and assessment of skills and knowledge by a provider to a learner, while a digital credential is a technology to certify that skill or achievement in a digital form and communicate capabilities to an employer.
In the case of a micro-credential, a learner would have completed a current or past micro-credential and then a digital credential would be issued to that learner if they have been assessed as having the required skill or competency to warrant the award of that credential.
There’s an inherent flexibility both have in common. Given they can sit inside or outside the formal AQF framework, both micro-credentials and digital credentials can be aligned in a more agile way to the underlying skills and knowledge employers are demanding.
While micro-credentials and digital credentials are quite different, they work together: digital credentials essentially support micro-credentials. For educators, digital credentials can give extra power and capabilities to a new or existing micro-credentials strategy.
Six ways digital credentials can boost a micro-credentials strategy
There are many ways digital credentials align with the goal of enhancing new, expanded or existing micro-credentials offerings. Whether it’s working with employers to design digital-credentials, better communicating the value of credentials to employers, or putting your brand in front of potential students, digital credentials provide a boost. But how?
There are six ways digital credentials can deliver providers immediate results.
1: By supercharging ongoing employer collaboration initiatives
Most educators have close relationships with employers in their industry niche. Digital credentials open the doorway to new discussions about the skills and knowledge being delivered in micro-credentials. From the co-design or endorsement of micro-credentials sealed by a digital credential, to the more ‘relatable’ communication of ‘resume-worthy’ skills, educators can enhance relationships to foster employability and job outcomes.
2: Through reaping digital networking effects on social networks
Micro-credentials will receive more enrolments if your target market knows about them. As they are ready-made for amplification on professional and social networks, digital credentials continually work to market education providers to the learners they want to attract from the moment of issue. Each digital credential can be viewed on the digital networks of former and current students as well as the employers looking to hire them.
3: By creating new growth opportunities and higher speed-to-market
Going digital with credentials can help educators broaden the scope of their micro-credentials offering within and alongside the AQF – and do it at a faster pace to foster business growth. By designing bite-sized micro-credentials that meet the skills needs of employers or even growing new certification-only models with digital credentials, providers can realise the new opportunities that exist in accredited and non-accredited markets.
4: By unlocking the value of existing milestones (and past students)
Education providers can digitise existing learning milestones that exist within full qualifications by issuing digital credentials, rather than starting micro-credentials from scratch. Even better, providers can issue badges to past students who have already completed qualifications or units of competency. ‘Retro’ digital badges are a tried and tested way to get started with micro-credentials because providers can get instant traction on social media thanks to their digital credentials being shared and promoted.
5: By encouraging student completion rates for full qualifications
Particularly relevant for micro-credentials that are part of longer qualification track, digital credentials allow VET providers to break recognition down into smaller parcels that are delivered to students earlier in the learning journey. This means students are able to realise value from those skills and that knowledge right away and are more likely to be motivated to continue with their course. This can lead to higher overall course completion rates.
6: By making issued credentials immediately verifiable by employers
Micro-credentials may not be fully understood by employers and they also need to be trusted. Digital credentials ensure micro-credentials can be verified online with the click of a button – with the option for additional blockchain security – rather than by calling the education provider. Digital credentials also provide easily accessible metadata describing the micro-credential to enhance understanding of the learning outcomes in more detail.
The role of a student management system
A student management system can bring the management of achieved digital credentials throughout the student’s journey together with the management of the rest of a student’s record. Because the student management system provides a centralised location from which to manage a student’s experience and achievement with an education provider, it makes sense to be able to use that same system to issue the applicable digital credentials as students reach milestones throughout their learning journey. Even though issued from the system, they will still be portable for students who can take them wherever they go.
For example, existing users of ReadyTech student management system JR Plus are able to issue digital credentials to either individual students or entire student cohorts directly from within their system. They can do this for new students who complete milestones as they go, or even for entire cohorts of students who have already completed a qualification but have not been issued with a digital credential. Although the system communicates with an external digital credentialing partner (in our case, US-based Credly and its Acclaim platform), the student management system makes this simple.
Digital credentials are aligned with the future of micro-credentials
The recognition coming to micro-credentials in Australia through credit under the AQF will offer opportunities for educators to create new short-form learning opportunities of value to learners and employers who are both on the hunt for current skills. By using digital credentials, educators will be able to propel these efforts further while taking advantages of a new technology designed specifically for today’s learners, employers and educators.
The vocational education and training sector in particular is in a prime position to capture the momentum delivered by this micro-credentials shift and channel it into new opportunities for growth. Traditionally the home of practical work-oriented skilling closely linked with the needs of employers in niche industry sectors Australia-wide, VET providers will be able to package up compelling micro-credentials and pair them digital credentials in a way that delivers true value for learners and employers right through the 2020s.