Is the future micro?

Micro-what? On the rise in Canada and around the world, Fanshawe College jumps into the flourishing microcredential learning market

LOOKING TO BUILD on your education, but don’t have the time (or money) to add a full diploma or degree?

Well, you may be in luck: Fanshawe College announced on Monday that it was launching a new microcredentials program, billed as “a new way for mature learners to enhance their skills and build on their education.”

According to the college, the microcredentials are short courses focused on “enhancing a person’s skillset,” and are geared towards those who are looking for college credentials that can be completed in a few months as opposed to a few years.

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Those who complete the microcredential courses will be rewarded with “a digital badge” that the college points out can be displayed on their social media page.

“These new microcredentials allow students shorter, targeted upskilling options and an opportunity to earn badges to share with employers and prospective employers,” says Mary Pierce, Fanshawe’s dean of the Faculty of Business, Information Technology and Part-time Studies.

The school says they will be developing microcredentials in response to “industry demand,” and are launching with courses in six areas of focus — business, IT, media, technology and trades, education and military-connected campus.

Innovative new approach — or expensive LinkedIn profile upgrade?

Fanshawe is far from the first school to flirt with microcredentials, which have been a growing area of interest for higher education institutions in recent years. In 2019, 76 per cent of Canadian universities and colleges offered some form of online microcredentials; it is assumed that this number is in reality much higher, given the impact of the pandemic.

Provincial governments, including in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, have all invested and expanded the use of microcredentials in recent years.

Is the future micro? Fanshawe Education

“Now more than ever there is a need and opportunity to build a national microcredential framework that is digital by design, and meets the skills and educational needs of learners, industry and the post-secondary sector,” says Robert Luke, CEO of eCampusOntario, in a recent report on Ontario’s use of microcredentials. “Microcredentials can be used to support our economic recovery and offers rapid reskilling designed to lower barriers and increase access to post-secondary education.”

Fans of the new trend suggest that microcredentials can be advantageous for those in professional and business degrees, particularly among postgrads and those in executive education programs.

“It is in this market segment that potential students are time poor, seek flexibility in delivery and frequently have the need to upskill or reskill,” writes Michael Powell, a professor emeritus at Griffith University in Australia (a country that has been a leader in adopting the microcredential approach).

“Microcredentials can be readily developed to respond rapidly to new skill or knowledge requirements, in such areas as blockchain and green supply chains, social media marketing and online retail, digitalization and sustainability ― areas where both employers and employees confront urgent skill shortages and gaps.”

He also points out that ― like in Fanshawe’s program ― it enables a degree of communication between industry groups and post-secondary schools that allow the schools to tailor their programming more closely toward industry demand.

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Microcredentials have their critics, though, who worry about the effect of a fast-moving education space that, for the most part, eschew years-long accreditation processes. What level of expertise is actually signalled by a badge on one’s LinkedIn page could vary widely in Fanshawe’s case, for instance: some will be bestowed for completing a series of courses around a single topic, while others will be handed out for one-off course completion.

“Lacking program accreditation, microcredentials are not comparable in the same way that degrees and certificates are,” writes scholar, Shane Ralson. “Without accreditation, efforts to ensure that microcredentials meet minimum standards of education quality are fruitless. Quality assurance amounts to knee-jerk impressions of institutional reputation, not rigorous assessments of program structure, faculty strength, and curriculum quality.”

New program, old debates

It comes back in many ways to the age-old question: is a post-secondary education primarily useful for the career options it opens, or is it a good unto itself?

“For microcredentialing’s critics,” writes Ralston, “the craze represents a betrayal of higher education’s higher purpose and a loss for students and faculty who continue to see university learning as more than vocational training.”

But in an age of soaring student debt rates, and in an environment where Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are feeling the squeeze from government and employers to produce more employable graduates (which will soon dictate their public funding, to a degree), it’s unlikely that the microcredentialing trend will die down anytime soon.

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A recent study led by eCampusOntario (a non-profit that works with schools to expand online learning) found that the gulf between schools and employers is continuing to grow, with more employers “losing confidence that higher education graduates always possess the skills associated with their credentials upon graduation.” Microcredentials, they suggested, “represent one solution to this perceived problem.”

In order to be a viable path forward, they recommended that schools and employers work to develop a coherent framework in which microcredentialing programs can operate. “All stakeholders in the ecosystem have to be able to trust that a microcredential represents a level of skills acquisition commensurate with its name,” the report’s authors recommended. “There are thousands of courses offering badges online, but if employers and educators do not recognize their value, the learner’s skills acquisition will go unrecognized.” Is the future micro? Fanshawe Education Kieran Delamont

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