Alternative credentials – micro-credentials, stackable credentials, and digital badges

Screenshot from illustrated using hexagons to show the pathway from higher ed awarding digital certificates that are they portable by the awardee to social media and LinkedIn

I’ve had varying levels of interest in micro-credentials and its cousin – digital badges- over the years, ranging from “not interested” to “there’s great potential”. Part of the reason is that any innovation that resembles a twist on something that higher ed has been doing for decades, especially if technology is the twist, evokes an eye roll in me.

This summer’s personal and consulting project had me diving in a bit more into the world of micro-credentials, stackable credentials, and digital credentials. And no, these aren’t all the same thing, but they occupy the same house called alternative credentials. Here’s what I learned:

There are no common definitions

Alternative credentials cover a range of credentialling options that are positioned as an alternative or an enhancement to traditional credentials such as certificates degrees and diplomas.  It is a landscape of confusing terminology that varies between institutions, organisations and jurisdictions. For example, the OECD (Kato et al, 2020) define alternative credentials as including micro-credentials, digital badges and industry-recognised certificates. For others, badges refer to a technical standard applied to alternative credentials.  In Canada, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) defines alternative credentials simply as offerings beyond traditional degrees, diplomas, and certificates (Johnson, 2019, p.21). For the ICDE (2020) credentials are competency based or learning accomplishment based.

Layered into this problem is an overlapping set of characteristics:  MOOCs may or may not be open and may or may not result in a micro-credential.  A micro-credential may or may not be micro and may or may not result in a badge.  Stackable credentials may or may not stack to a higher credential and may or may not result in a badge and may or may not be distinguishable from post-graduate certificates.  Badges are sometimes referred to as technical standard, or represent a technical platform, but are also sometimes bundled with micro-credentials. 

(There’s a whole post to be written about the similarities and differences and examples of micros, stackables, MOOCs, and badges, for another time).

What problem do alternative credentials solve?

The expansion of alternative credentials is a result of a growth in demand for upskilling and reskilling, and the technical affordances made possible by digitalisation which makes it easier to provision and scale. Alternative credentials have emerged in a context of lifelong learning, higher education affordability, a desire to satisfy employer and industry needs for specific skills, and – in the case of badges – an efficient and improved means of demonstrating skills and competencies not readily visible on HEI transcripts.  However, in some cases it is difficult to understand the nuances between existing systems and their rebranded cousins.   For example, universities have always stacked credentials in a vertical pathway in the form of diplomas, degrees, graduate degrees, and have had the means to accept students from community college to universities.  Canadian community colleges and institutes have had governance mechanisms for bridging employer needs with HEI offerings.  

More evidence is needed

There is no shortage of reports on alternative credentials and many of them approach the topic with considerable enthusiasm and urgency (c.f. ICDE, 2020). Therefore, it is important to examine more closely the evidence base for some of the claims and aspirations of alternative credentials, while accepting that it is still early days for research on alternative credentials and evidence of impact to emerge.  

Do alternative credentials actually have market value?  Does this approach result in higher earnings for students?

There is considerable appeal of alternative credentials for students who may not have the time or the means to commit to a full program but could be permitted to gain credentials in short bursts and over time, achieve their desired credential.  As Leibert (2017, p. 13) notes, earning multiple post-secondary credentials helps only if employment opportunities exist at the different points of educational attainment. She argues that higher earnings from stackable credentials depended on the type of program/discipline.  Her recommendation is that HEI needs to design alternative credential programs and pathways in consideration of labour market conditions.  And as Chris Gallagher indicates in his Inside Higher Ed op ed (2018) “despite breathless but perhaps overstated reporting of the “skills gap,” the fact remains that employers require degrees for virtually all well-paying jobs” noting that the majority of post 2008 jobs in the US have gone to degree holders.  

Giani and Fox (2017), in looking at the labour market outcomes of a consortium of health professional pathways across approximately 5000 students in the US (using data from 2014) found that when looking at earnings gained across short and long certificates, students of colour less were likely to attain a longer credential, with longer credentials resulting in the largest earnings gain.  Therefore, in the HEI enthusiasm for alternative credentials it may be important to remember that “alternative credentialing, when pitched as a social progress program that replaces degrees, has the profoundly undemocratic potential of creating a second-class educational tier reserved mainly for the poor and people of color.” (Gallagher, 2018). There is some echo here of early MOOC research and as MOOCs have evolved towards MicroMasters and Coursera Specializations, Holland and Kazi’s research (2019) surfaces that these offerings are “are providing relatively low-cost and flexible professional development to mostly well-educated participants” (p.9). They also note the opportunity costs of MOOCs – childcare, paid time, etc., mirroring decades of feminist distance education research. 

Ultimately, peer-reviewed empirical research is an area in particular where more evidence, especially from a Canadian perspective, would be helpful. 

Alternative credentials have enormous potential for HEI

While some proponents may characterize alternative credentials as a higher education disruption where employer/industry, HEI and third-party tech players such as EdX and Coursera and badging platforms intersect, the evidence for the value of alternative credentials to employers and to students isn’t clear. Additionally, as an ICDE (2020) report makes visible, there is lack of clarity around whether alternative credentials are competency-based or learning-accomplishment based, the latter represented more commonly in HEI systems that articulate around outcomes and credit hours.

Nonetheless, the argument for alternative credentials is compelling and promising and will appeal to HEI seeking to reach new student audiences and rethink programming. However, I think this can only happen if we start thinking about the following:

Design alternative credentials with equity in mind

For alternative credentials to be accessible to underserved students they need to be designed with equity in mind.  There is an ongoing need to evaluate whether women, BIPOC and disabled individuals are adequately served by alternative credentials. Therefore, there is a need to consider social justice and equity principles in both the design of the credentials and the technology and support infrastructure.

Breaking down an educational pathway into smaller chunks, however, is valuable only when each chunk leads either to further education or employment at family-supporting wages. Unfortunately some training programs do not perform well from either perspective.

Leibert, 2017

Engagement and Collaboration/Partnerships

Central to the work in developing alternative credentials is the opportunity for industry/employers and HEI to come together. For example, the ecampusOntario micro-certifications project created a large working group composed of many different types of stakeholders and concluded that some of the most successful pilots were those that collaborated with industry to design assessments.  

At the same time, it was noticeable in my research that there was little mention of faculty and student co-participation in the development and governance of alternative credentials.

PLAR is an important glue to be leveraged

I’m not a prior learning assessment and recognition expert by any means, but it became clear that PLAR would be an important mechanism to make this system work in HEI. The question of how alternative credentials can be portable between institutions and organisations requires digging into how PLAR is being leveraged to do this. But PLAR can be resource and time intensive, and there is some indication that there is both a need and willingness to evolve PLAR systems to meet a new reality of alternative credentials (Klein-Collins and Wertheim, 2013). Buban (2017) digs into “the use of alternative credentials and variances of practice at different institutions, how and if they are evaluated for credit, and whether or not they are being accepted for credit in the degree program” (p.3) at six adult learning focussed institutions in the US, and points to at least one case (Thomas Edison University) where credits for badges, micro-credentials and MOOCs are being assessed for recognition.   

In its most ambitious iteration, alternative credentials move horizontally between organisations and potentially expand (or simplify) the recognition process. It will be important to not only assess the capacity of PLAR to process alternative credentials as well as ways of streamlining the process.  

Part 2Alternative Credential Stacking


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