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Micro-credentials and credit transfer: Giving credit where credit is due

  • 5 February 2021
  • By Mary Bishop

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Mary Bishop, MJB Consulting (Former Director of Learning ACCA Global, Visiting Chair Staffordshire University). You can find Mary on Twitter @mary2bishop . If you would like to reach out to Mary, you can find her on LinkedIn here.

2021 started with a whirlwhind of reports – long awaited and key to the sector moving forwards. The publications being compressed into a short time frame, within the disrupted context of a pandemic, is challenging, but the issues are fundamental and in many ways collective responses to different aspects of the same questions. One area still out for consultation is the Higher Education Credit Framework for England (HECF). As a former education leader of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), one of the biggest professional bodies globally, and currently working across higher education and professional education, much of my focus is on designing integrated ways of working, including programmes and qualifications. The consultation on the HECF offers a way to respond to many of the themes emerging across the professional and higher education landscapes by looking at how we build qualifications. The current HECF Qualifications and Credit Frameworks itself is not generally the limiting factor, rather it is the way it is used which, in the UK particularly, has often been driven largely by funding requirements.

The workplace continues to evolve at pace and a growing skills gap has been much debated and is the focus of the Government’s recent paper Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth. It is generally acknowledged that serial careers, a multi-generational workforce and the ‘gig economy’ are already – and continue to be – increasingly key features of the world of work. Digital innovation offers innovative ways of responding to this. The pandemic has shone a light on what is possible. We now need to reflect on how this is shaped into the best possible practice by evolving the principles we currently use to set standards and quality to be flexibly responsive to the embracing of innovation.

Much has been written about Gen Z wanting flexible learning – any time, any place, any device.  It is the case for assessment too, which offers a way of stepping off with certified achievement, contributing to lifelong learning and development. Professional bodies use short courses, certificates and diplomas which are CPD certified and in some contexts considered to be ‘micro-credentials’. Of course, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are often referenced in the same space as micro-credentials.

Over the past decade MOOCs have offered digital, flexible micro-courses with free learning and a step on/off approach to study. Initially the provision was considered a market threat to traditional higher education with free or low-cost certification and real flexibility. But without learner funding and no formal articulation to higher education, MOOC learners have tended to be those who are already educated. Continuation has been an issue, as it has in higher education. But there is no management of the ‘step on, step off’ MOOC environment – and of course free of charge can lead to an undervaluing of what is on offer (however unfair that might be!).

Learning from this, the European MOOC Consortium developed a useful Common Micro-credential Framework EMC_Common_Microcredential_Framework which offers a way of benchmarking micro-credentials. But it is not formally regulated and only pitched at the final year of undergraduate and postgraduate provision. Nevertheless, MOOCs continue to be important and there are a lot of learnings to be taken from their evolution. Increasingly highly accredited higher education institutions successfully partner with MOOCs and there has been greater articulation of those offerings into traditional higher education qualifications. But to resolve the growing skills gap, this articulation needs to reach across the sector and become seamless. And this brings us to the thorny issue of credit accumulation and transfer.

The accumulation of credit as a lifelong learner, and the articulation into formal, traditional recognised qualifications has been debated over many years. Innovative responses can be found within negotiated higher education journeys – for example the Open University open programme Open Qualifications – Open University, and many universities have developed work-based learning frameworks to accommodate negotiated journeys. But rather than looking at the learning journey from the perspective of the final award (for example, an undergraduate degree), a flexible lifelong approach would recognise that this is a journey. Built from the accumulation of separately assessed blocks of knowledge and skills – every one of which is an achievement.

To recognise this, the market could offer learners the choice of shorter qualifications, articulating/fitting into  larger, smaller steps encompassing experiential learning as part of the journey. Although not all students may need this, a managed approach to step off is another way of addressing non-continuation. So responding to the need to address the emerging skills gaps, leveraging the Prime Minister’s ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, the sector could develop a framework that recognises the need for academic, professional and vocational learning. Each dimension offering a necessary thread of learning. Each institution drawing together those threads in ways that responds to the needs of a subject discipline. Building a journey of lifelong (appropriately funded) learning in a partnering of academia and the workplace.

If we accept there is general recognition of the need for change, if the current Higher Education Credit Framework for England could be adapted to work more flexibly – and if funding arrangements were reviewed to support this approach – would this be a resolution?

I think the answer to that will rest on ‘mindset’ – of the sector and of the market more broadly. Currently a certificate in higher education is often recognised only as an exit qualification, accommodating non-continuation and, as such, is not widely understood. Retention is an issue across the education sector. Although flexibility is important in the support of learning, a shift in approach will need real care to manage step off to ensure it becomes step off with purpose, at an appropriate time for the learner and as an integral part of the lifelong learning journey. Currently a student who does not complete their first year at university – perhaps achieving 80 out of 120 credits – will generally leave with no certification.  And yet this represents 800 hours of successful learning and it is often those who need the educational opportunity most that, through force of circumstances, have to discontinue. In Australia, as part of the COVID response, the Department of Education introduced a new six month Undergraduate Certificate. It certifies partial completion of study and articulates with  existing frameworks. This flexible response demonstrates how straightforward it can be to shift the model when needed. This initiative could be considered by institutions in validating their own programmes. From the outset, the programmes could be set up to recognise step off with certification as a option.   

The current level of review in the education sector offers the possibility of a genuine step change which directly responds to the ever-growing skills gap; the possibility of a response which delivers to the 50 per cent who enter higher education – and the 50 per cent who do not – moving the conversation away from academic, professional and vocational labelling to outcome focussed, funded, lifelong learning opportunities for all.

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