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28 March 2022

Micro-credentials: Stackability and portability


Dr Demelza Curnow

Lead Quality Manager, QAA

As an important part of our Membership activity, we have been exploring the opportunities and challenges presented by micro-credentials. A key piece of work for us has been the development of a Characteristics Statement for Micro-credentials, which we expect to publish in May, and which has been supported by an Advisory Network with membership drawn from a range of providers across all four nations of the UK.

Through the development process, we have also been drawing on the thoughts of our membership more broadly through a series of monthly webinars that have focused on particular aspects of micro-credentials.


The series began by considering different models that are in use; we then looked at the role of Recognition of Prior Learning for micro-credentials; and, in the third event, their role in supporting employability and entrepreneurship. The final event, earlier this month, brought together a diverse panel of experts, with a range of experience, to consider some of the themes that have emerged. So where are the tensions?


A lot of what is distinctive about micro-credentials is not unique in itself. For example, engaging learners on short courses is not new - many colleges, universities and independent providers already have well-established short course programmes or offer opportunities for bite-sized learning, with or without academic credit attached and frequently with a strong employability focus. Managing sporadic engagement is, arguably, relatively low risk and fairly straightforward when each event is taken in isolation for the learner. The challenges come in other ways, and credit transfer - portability and, particularly, stackability - has proved to be one of the thorniest.


One of the interesting admissions to come out of the webinar series is that, despite the UK higher education sector working to a number of common reference points, including the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications and Subject Benchmark Statements, providers are sometimes more comfortable with accrediting learning themselves - including experiential learning - than they are accepting academic credit awarded by another degree-awarding body.


Compounding the effects of this reticence is that, to date, there has been an expectation in UK higher education that any qualification - whether an exit or an entry qualification - will have a set of clearly-articulated learning outcomes that are embedded within an approved suite of modules. We also assume that a defined programme of study will have been through some form of design process to ensure coherence and value. The concept of ‘stackability’ challenges this as the simple act of credit-counting has never been an acceptable proxy for acquiring a macro-credential.


If we go back to the idea that a primary role of micro-credentials is in upskilling and re-skilling - so delivering skills or knowledge rapidly to meet an industry demand - they need to have credibility in themselves. But we would like there also to be the means of building them into a macro-credential, and there is perhaps a tension around this dual nature or function of micro-credentials: the design to meet the two needs feels different. But that does not mean it is impossible. In our work, we have looked at a number of different ways in which micro-credentials could build into a larger qualification.


The European Commission project consulted extensively to develop the template for a standardised transcript for a micro-credential. Whilst acknowledging the autonomy of higher education providers in the UK, it would clearly be helpful if providers adopted a standard transcript format. If the certification from a course included information related to subject codes, that might also support transferability.


A potential model would be for providers to develop complementary suites of micro-credentials. With guidance, a learner could pick from a coherent grouping of courses either what interests them or where they want or need to focus. This is effectively pathway-building and could be done within a provider, or by a consortium approach which would expand the overall offering whilst also easing credit transfer arrangements.


It is really important that, as well as enabling learners to identify opportunities for development, they are not being forced to take courses that simply repeat skills and knowledge they have already achieved, for example through the workplace. As one presenter during the webinar series commented, the interaction of micro-credentials with an individual’s employment and ambitions is a core premise: this is a learner-led, not provider-directed, approach to professional development.


As outlined in our March event, another model might be for a learner to collect micro-credentials and ask an awarding body to accept them all through Recognition of Prior Learning, achieving a final award by way of something like a final capstone module in which they make the case for the coherence of what they have studied to date. In some respects, this is a liberal arts degree taken to the next step, and the underpinning credit and qualifications frameworks in place across the UK protect the academic standards.


This will challenge conventional thinking and there is a danger that some higher education providers might be tempted to try to force micro-credentials into the frameworks that they operate for traditional degrees. For some providers, what I have outlined here will require a re-think of Recognition of Prior Learning and also how academic credit and experiential or work-based learning interact and complement each other. In addition, the journey for a learner studying through micro-credentials could be very different to the one being taken by a student enrolled on a traditional degree programme. In particular, the idea of completing one level successfully before progressing to the next may have to be set aside.


During our March event, a very interesting analogy was offered of a micro-credentials experience being akin to a climbing frame, rather than the traditional ladder that we might use more commonly for degree programmes. A learner might roam up, down, sideways, and devise their own route: the one which is best for them while, ultimately, covering the same area as others who are also finding their own way through. With the sector steeped in a linear tradition, imagining this and, moreover, feeling comfortable with it, is challenging but also presents some genuine and exciting opportunities.