For anyone working in the digital credential space, you will be familiar with the debates to define the meaning and purpose of digital credentials. Confusion reigns and there seems to be little hope of that changing if we continue the behaviours and discussions of the recent past.
As I mentioned in a recent post, we need to stop conflating different types of credentials in the hope that one definition will become a catch all for all uses. Among the many sources of definitions, I will refer primarily to two reports that have each been based on broad research into how these new digital credentials should be defined. The first report is the just released by Deakin University, “Making micro-credentials work for learners, employers and providers” by Professor Emerita Beverley Oliver, and the second, the ICDE working group report “The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs)” which was led by Professor Gary Matkin (UC Irvine). These two reports are useful in understanding the two different models relating to more granular credentialing than qualifications.
Much of the confusion related to Digital Credentials arises from their application by different types of entities for different reasons, but then not acknowledging those differences and expecting that a single model will suffice. On the one hand, education providers are drawn towards using micro-credentials to signify that students/learners have satisfied the requirements of a short-form course (as opposed to a qualification), and on the other, alternative providers of credentials are focusing on assessment-only Recognition of Professional Practice (RPP) as the method for earning credentials. These two models are clearly different, so we should not expect a single definition will suffice.
Education Providers and Micro-Credentials
In her report, Oliver proposes the following definition for credit bearing micro-credentials.
credit-bearing micro-credentials include assessment aligned to a formal qualification level. Achievement of the learning outcomes leads to an offer of admission to or credit towards at least one formal qualification, regardless of whether or not the offer is taken up by the learner. Credit-bearing micro-credentials mirror and contribute to the academic standards required in the target qualification(s). The duration and effort required by the learner are in keeping with amount of credit earned in the target qualification(s).
This is clearly a model where short-form learning (modules; units; parts of units; etc.) forms a pathway that has the specific purpose of earning credit for a larger program or qualification. Oliver proposes that this definition be adopted to define the sorts of short-courses that are awarded a micro-credential and contribute to a qualification. This would be a great step forward in clarity in this regard. Education providers are comfortable living in this space because it forms a useful part of their views regarding the value of qualifications.
Normally, the next problem that is encountered when considering shorter forms of credentialled learning, is about “size” or the granularity at which courses and their accompanying credentials should be offered. There are no hard and fast rules for this, and it will vary according to domain and the level at which the learning is offered more than how much of a larger credential it represents. In short, for the micro-credential earned, it must represent something that is recognised and valued by an employer to satisfy competence requirements that are useful to them in a relevant field.
Alternative Providers and Alternative Credentials
The ICDE report in the section “Definitions: What are ADCs?” it emphasises two key differences between the education provider micro-credentials defined above and Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs). First, they are Alternative and so do not form part of what education providers would normally do. Second, they are earned based on measures of competence. Both of these factors are vital to the implementation of an ADC model, and by definition, neither of them sits comfortably in the ‘normal’ domain of an education provider. Note that University Extension programs, University subsidiary entities etc are regarded as outside of the normal university function and they normally do not directly issue university qualifications, however, I am sure that variations exist in some institutions.
The ADC requirement to be a mark of someone’s competence (or capability – which is different) makes these credentials a poor fit for the current university models. By definition, both competence and capability are agnostic to where or how learning has taken place. The evidence that the criteria can be satisfied shows that the individual has the knowledge required, but more importantly, has put that knowledge into practice in an authentic setting (ie work-based rather than simulated). Universities care about where and how learning has occurred. They prefer, often for economic reasons, that the learning has taken place in their own courses. ADCs are very different in this respect.
Bringing it together
While we need these two models to exist independently (or interdependently), at least for the short- to medium-term, they are not mutually exclusive. ADCs, if designed to be ‘interoperable’ with qualifications, can be consumed by universities and used towards their qualifications. The model for doing so is not the same as for credit-bearing micro-credentials because they tend to be constructed differently and measure different things. Good design can ensure that the right anchor points exist between externally assessed ADCs and graduate outcomes required for qualifications. In the case of ADCs, rather than thinking of them has having credit-bearing capacity upfront, it is more useful for an institution to consider “transfer value” by reviewing what ADCs represent and the relationship with their own qualifications. This rarely operates on the same model as credit-bearing micro-credentials.
The last two points I make here deserve separate attention, but for now, they will simply be stated for completeness. Firstly, capability (employability and life skills) and competence (domain-specific skills) are different and are used to measure different things. Both are needed in a complete ADC model and they will most likely draw on multiple existing frameworks to provide a complete picture of what any one person is able to do. (A separate post will propose a useful model for understanding abilities, capabilities and competencies.)
Secondly, ADCs are intended to be independent from qualifications. They have independent value and do not exist to provide qualification pathways. Universities may choose to create transfer value, but that is a separate and independent choice.