The value of micro-credentials and badging

Source: Politecnico di Milano – via YouTube

I recently attended a learning outcomes symposium organized by the Council of Ontario Universities, the organization that is responsible for the university sector affairs of the 21 major universities in our Ontario (Canada) system.

The keynote speaker, Ryan Craig, from University Ventures, surprised the audience with some challenging ideas taken from his recent book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.  I was somewhat confused by the sense of fright that many of my colleagues in the audience expressed. Comments such as “too business focused,” “too American,” and “unrealistic” were some of the comments I heard. A short video summary of Craig’s thesis can be found on YouTube (and is included below), if you want to get a flavor for the central themes of his presentation. He supported his remarks with lots of data and current examples of alternative ways of thinking about learning and work that would seem to have appeal to today’s learners and employers.

Ideas such a “last-mile training,” and “competency networks” did not get a wholly warm reception from the predominantly university audience at the symposium, despite the seemingly obvious idea that today’s learners are highly concerned with their transition to work from post-secondary education. One point that seemed to concern some members of the audience was Craig’s assertion that on-campus career centers might be best situated to counsel students about jobs in career centers, rather than for more contemporary jobs in the workforce.

He definitely pushed all the buttons, and I expect on further reflection, there were lively discussions on our campuses about the implications of the keynote. Mission accomplished by the symposium sponsors.

Pressure builds from employers

Craig’s thoughts about last-mile training and competency networks did resonate with me. This led me to contact a few colleagues who have been actively implementing micro-credentials and badging schemes on their campuses, primarily in college settings rather than in research university environments.

I started with a very free-thinker when it comes to practice change, Phil Ker, CEO of Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand. Our paths have crossed a number of times because of our mutual involvement as founding members of OERu.org.

Phil was clear in stating the need for micro-credentialing strategies to satisfy both learners’ and employers’ needs.

“About three years ago it was clear that two things were running in parallel. One is that learners were starting to get irritable about mainstream qualifications, degrees that didn’t go anywhere. At the same time, employers, particularly in the New Zealand context, were saying:

“You guys are irrelevant. Employers, given half a chance, would have us do all their training for them. We accept that, but what they were really saying was that there is so much change going on, and by the time you build new skills and content into your degree programs, four years have passed by.”

Phil went on to explain the need for micro-credentials as a solution that would also better prepare students for the workplace, along with a way for them to prove or demonstrate their skills.

“It was really putting those two things together, and I guess we smelled it coming. It was time, it was back to the future, because the short course has been around forever, but the key here is the micro-credential. What the employers were saying is we actually want the skills developed, we want to know they’ve been developed.”

Phil and Otago Polytechnic have launched EduBits as a response to the emergent skills challenge from learners and employers in New Zealand. EduBits is squarely aimed at learners and employers, using custom-tailored approaches to skill development with distinct value propositions for each audience. The messaging on the EduBits website is focused and invites further exploration.

Key experiments in badging micro-credentials are underway

A local institution moving along a similar path is Humber College in Ontario, Canada with a micro-credentialing and badging initiative launched in September 2018. Eileen De Courcy, former AVP Teaching and Learning at Humber, and now Senior VPA at St. Lawrence College, explained her thinking about the Humber approach. She noted that there had been lots of discussion over the years around helping students to articulate the types of skills that they possess when they leave the institution, and that most often these discussions had resulted in interventions such as e-portfolios or co-curricular records, and neither was a perfect solution.

Eileen supported an experiment at Humber College in 2018 by building a badging system for micro-credentials in two program areas where the benefit to students and employers could be realized almost immediately. Humber chose to design micro-credentials for skills associated with a social media program, and for the REVIT software system that was used in architectural design programs. Each skill-set was in high demand by employers, and students needed a way to demonstrate they had those high-currency skills. What Humber did by selecting “hard skills” as the focus of their badged micro-credentials was to explicitly demonstrate the validity and integrity in a badging model, according to De Courcy.

Theresa Steger, Director, Digital Curriculum at Humber College, noted that the selection of REVIT to be the candidate for a badged micro-credential cluster was to bring a focus to “industry specific skills that employers were looking for that sometimes get lost in a transcript or course description.”

She emphasized that students may not always think to highlight the details of what they know or can do, and consequently with their badged micro-credentials, as well as their CV and their transcript in hand, they are in a much better position to highlight to industry recruiters the “big-demand skills” that they can actually demonstrate. A benefit to the REVIT program at Humber was micro- credentials at the college could be achieved in three different courses, in each of three different programs. The bonus according to Steger was that “we’re now badging a component in each of the courses and programs that is worthwhile immediately to industry.”

The mechanics of making the badges and micro-credentials work within the Humber curricular ecosystem required additional thinking on the part of designers and instructors. Theresa noted that her team spent time examining the REVIT learning outcomes and competencies and wordsmithing the REVIT-related course learning outcomes to make sure they were consistent across the three programs and that they were truly aligned with what would need to be assessed. It was a pragmatic approach to ensure they could map the badge criteria to competencies or skills frameworks and assess them.

The Humber team has used its two initial badged micro-credential programs to begin to set a pattern for programs that will follow.

Clarifying the distinction between micro-credentials and badges is a necessity

Don Presant, CEO of CanCred.ca an open badging infrastructure provider, found it interesting that badges and micro-credentials are beginning to occupy a common thought space among academic planners and developers. The thinking on open badges did not start out that way, according to Don.

“In a sense, open badges were invented to deliver what formal education wasn’t delivering and it’s interesting that formal education has paid such increasing attention to them over the past three to four years. One of the consequences of formal education getting involved in open badges is the conflation of open badges with the notion of a micro-credential, a stackable credential that’s generally part of a larger credential… All of which tends to make what was an initially simple idea much more complex, and is viewed by some as the kind of containment strategy that a self-healing organism might use.”

With those pointed comments, Don highlighted the kind of skills pressure Phil Ker spoke about, where micro-credentials, short courses and badged evidence are forming a response pattern from institutions when employers point to the need for high-currency skills.

In fact, the combined approach of using badges and micro-credentials together might also be considered a clearer strategy for institutions to employ when they are looking to increase the employability of their graduates. By helping learners to show the high-value skills they possess using badged micro-credentials, institutions are also demonstrating that they understand the demand for high-currency skills in workplace settings, and are shifting their thinking to meet that demand.

Where do soft skills fit in the world of micro-credentials and badges?

When I asked Don about “soft skills,” or what UNESCO and the European Commission call “transversal skills,” he pointed out that soft skills were much more difficult to assess, and agreed that the move to badged hard skills associated with micro-credentials was definitely a more straightforward approach for institutions.

An image showcasing open badge concepts. The explanation reads: Knowledge isn't concrete; it can be gained in a wide variety of ways. Each day, valuable skills and expereince are attained by learners who get involved with activities outside of their formal classroom education. Sports teams and other extracurriculars can positively benefit a student's psyche. Unfortunately, traditional resumes and portfolio programs aren't typically formatted to shed light on the soft skills that are gained through this kind of involvement..

When asked about examples of programs that were trying to deal with the badging of transversal skills, Don pointed to the Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR) program at Oklahoma State University, along with the 21st Century Skills Badging Challenge. He further noted that post-secondary environments that are skills-focused are usually the locations where micro-credentials and badged hard skills find their place more easily. It is somewhat more difficult within research university environments to bring badged skills into focus.

Dealing systematically with the emerging demand at an institution level

Laurel Schollen, VP Academic at Seneca College, recognizes the pent-up demand for micro-credentials and badging across her institution. She sees the importance of micro-credentials in satisfying students’ demand to express, and employers’ need to identify explicit skills, and is taking the strategic view that when her college does expand its approach, it would do so using a solid framework that includes consultation with students, faculty, staff and employers, to ensure common understanding of the goals and pathways.

That process is ramping up at Seneca, and Schollen emphasized that the biggest challenge for her team right now is to understand the nuances of micro-credentialing systems sufficiently in order to start off on the right foot, to adopt a thoughtful approach so as to avoid unintended consequences downstream.

One area of concern that Schollen highlighted was the potential for over emphasis on micro-credentials, to the extent that sets of skills badged as micro-credentials were represented in a manner not meaningful to other institutions or employers. She emphasized that when we use badging or micro-credentials, that we do so in a manner that does not disadvantage students or cause confusion with transcripted programs that already have high value to both students and employers. She recommended careful consideration of the programs selected for badging or micro-credential treatment, and solid consultation with industry and employers to validate the selections.

Where do we go from here?

I think it is safe to say that there continues to be limited experience with badges and micro-credentials across the post-secondary sector generally, and that is why we need more experiments at various kinds of institutions.

At eCampusOntario, we have funded a series of badging experiments in our universities and colleges, each of which is currently being documented in a short summary report which will be publicly available on our website.

We’ve also installed a badging infrastructure for the province of Ontario to test, using the CanCred.ca badge passport as the repository for open badges awarded by our institutions.

A photo of a woman typing next to eCampusOntario login site for "open badge passport" webpage.

And we’ve experimented with a badged professional learning program called Ontario Extend that awards badges to educators based on the outcomes of their participation in the self-directed, online program.

Logo for the Ontario Open Badges Forum. We also hosted a Badging Forum in 2017 for institutions, employers and government representatives to attend, present, and discuss issues related to micro-credentials and badges.

We expect to host a similar event in 2019, and invite WCET colleagues with an interest in micro-credentialing and badging to attend and bring their ideas and examples to the forum. Keep an eye on our eCampusOntario website.

Getting a running start for 2018-19

T Shaped Student

As I look ahead to the 2018-19 academic year, I see an exciting trajectory emerging for Ontario college and university students. On top of exemplary programs already on offer from our institutions, we are seeing growing interest from prospective students about flexible online pathways to skills and credentials that will provide them with a range of academic and career opportunities to pursue. And, our institutions are responding with vigour. In fact, we already have a running start.

We are seeing increasing activity across our member institutions as they continue to  implement programs and courses in online and hybrid learning formats to better meet the needs of their students. We’re seeing growth across the spectrum of activity with more courses and programs adding technology-enabled features and affordances, with four clear themes standing out.

Technology-enabled learning is growing. It is available in formats ranging from fully-online courses, to blended online programs where in-classroom activities are paired with online or tech-enabled components for supplementary self-study, to hybrid models that intentionally seek to teach major portions of courses online and require fewer in-class sessions. All of these options are offered by Ontario post-secondary institutions and most can be found using the eCampusOntario search portal. As we look at the analytics from the eCampusOntario program and course search portal, all key indicators are up in 2017-18 and we expect to see further growth during the 2018-19 academic year.

Referrals

Course and program searchesUsers

Experiential learning continues be a focus across post-secondary institutions. Co-op programs, work-integrated learning (WIL) and student practicums are just three of the ways in which meaningful learning experiences in the world of work can be provided for students while they’re still in school. Our focus at eCampusOntario has been on how we enable the concept of the T-Shaped Student for all post-secondary learners, supplementing the already rich experiences and skills they obtain in their programs, with cross-domain skills of the type many feel they need to differentiate themselves in hiring situations beyond college or university.

One of the questions still needing an answer is how to scale experiential learning in programs or courses where there is no existing formal connection to co-op programs or WIL. We believe that a technological solution is needed to scale access to experiences, while continuing to preserve the critical bond between faculty and students engaged in employer-sponsored work-related projects that dovetail with curricular outcomes. The eCampusOntario Tech Sandbox has been used by institutions to test their ideas with tools that might support scalable approaches to experiences and recognition of learning beyond classrooms. Our work with Riipen.com and CanCred.ca to prototype and test approaches to experiential learning services and recognition will be evaluated through institution reports that are being prepared for August 31, 2018.

Shared and collaborative services is another key focus for eCampusOntario and its member institutions. One of the tech  programs we’ve helped install across all Ontario public post-secondary institutions is Lynda.com, a video-based skills training environment for self-study to supplement courses that students take and skills they will need. We’re already detecting patterns of interest from students. Through a partnership with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), to conduct preliminary research to better understand patterns of use, we are collecting direct feedback from students to help inform implementation and curricular integration opportunities across Ontario colleges and universities.

Other shared services are being planned. Informed by focus groups and a survey of all public post-secondary institutions, we have identified the top five candidate technologies for expanded shared service support across our post-secondary institutions. The report will be published in September 2018, but a preview of the Top-5 candidate technologies is already evident from the early focus group and survey results. They include:

  • Captioning and transcription services
  • Learning analytics
  • Virtual labs
  • Academic integrity software
  • Virtual simulations (Virtual and Augmented Reality)

We’ll be exploring next steps with institutions in fall 2018. We’ll start by designing a lifecycle strategy for educational technology services that will include exploration (Sandbox), evaluation, operations planning, pricing structures, procurement, and service models . Our lifecycle approach will also be considering a sunsetting process for shared educational technologies that need replacement.

Open by design is hallmark of eCampusOntario’s  initiatives. We have been proactive in supporting an affordability strategy for students by making available a growing library of open textbooks and open educational resources (OER) created or adapted by faculty. Our new open textbook library, created in partnership with Ryerson University, is undergoing an upgrade and facelift in fall 2018 to integrate it more closely with our other web properties including the learnonline.ecampusontario.ca search portal, so that open textbooks can be featured alongside courses in which they are used.

The new open library will be coupled to the Pressbook.education site that is dedicated to Ontario faculty and instructors. We have the capability for a complete OER workflow, including book cloning functions, embedded scientific notation, and a set of interactive activities for students that can be embedded within open textbooks using the open source H5P software that we have worked with Pressbooks to implement for educators.

The Pressbooks authoring platform is available to all of our college and university members with the following benefits:

  • Easy to use authoring platform with embedded features like H5P
  • Consistent template formats and authoring standards across Ontario to ensure adaptability
  • Opportunities for capacity-building at the institution level through libraries and teaching and learning centres

All of these innovations point to a sustainable OER future in Ontario

We share
eCampusOntario is committed to bringing new programs and services to its member institutions. In addition, we will begin to share research reports, survey data and analytical data that together will contribute to an expanding knowledge base for Ontario educators and will provide additional opportunities for Ontario students to find and select flexible learning pathways that match their needs and their lives.

Possible shapes for the future of digital learning in Quebec

Numerique 2018

On May 29 and 29, I had the privilege to connect with colleagues in Quebec at Numerique 2018, a conference organized by the University of Montreal’s EDULib team, led by Professor Bruno Poellhuber – a very cool guy. My keynote opened the conference on the evening of May 28.

The conference looked closely at advances in thinking about OER, MOOCs, and distance education practices in general. Examples and discussions of a variety of possible futures were provided by invited speakers from France (Catherine Mongenet – FUN-MOOC), British Columbia (Tony Bates – Tony Bates and Associates) and the USA (Anant Agarwal – MIT + edX).

Numerique 2018 was also an opportunity for Quebec post-secondary educators to consider how they might see an eCampus in their province operate in the service of students and faculty. Theme-based discussions throughout the 1.5 days allowed lots of time for conversations about potential paths forward.

All in, it was a stimulating set of presentations and discussions.

On the day following Numerique 2018, the Quebec government made a huge funding announcement in support of digital education, which further buoyed the chances for the rapid ramp-up of eCampusQuebec.

Let’s Hammer Out a Strategy for OER in the Trades in Ontario

In May 2017 at the ONCAT Student Pathways Conference, Tracie Marsh-Fior (Executive Director OntarioLearn) and I presented some ideas about open educational resource (OER) development for trades training. What we were pitching was the collaborative development of openly licensed instructional resources that could be used in classrooms or in more flexible arrangements through online delivery. Specifically, we were suggesting open resources to support the theory portions of technical and vocational programs in a way that benefits learners, employers and institutions. There are already some instances of these ideas happening in Canada and a few in Ontario, but it is not yet a widespread practice. We’d like to support further development of OER for trades training through eCampusOntario, and our strategic plan for 2018-2021 highlights this goal.

In 2015 UNESCO adopted a recommendation concerning Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and a strategy to support member states’ efforts in enhancing their TVET systems. The recommendation encouraged members to “exploit the potential of information and communication technologies in TVET” through “distance and online delivery, including through blended models and the development and use of open educational resources.” UNESCO followed up in 2017 with a global study of OER in TVET. A report on the results of the study by Robert Schuwer and Ben Janssen (2017) noted some key factors that argue for the adoption of OER in vocational training.

  • Technical education is relatively more expensive than other sectors of education. OER are one option to extend more equal access to TVET. Videos, in particular, are an important means to realize this equity
  • OER increase efficiency by sharing short courses among institutions
  • OER contribute to quality improvement when used by teachers: improvement of their own
    technical knowledge and provision of updated learning resources to learners
  • OER enable a more agile response to market needs
  • OER contribute to inclusion and increasing equity

The Schuwer and Janssen report also underscored specific barriers to providing an OER solution in the TVET sector. Most of their observations dealt with capacity issues within the community, and the continued need for ICT training for instructors. And, while there was a relatively straightforward path to making the theory portions of technical trades open and reusable, the important skills focus of technical and vocational training would require more creative and innovative solutions.

At eCampusOntario we are committed to supporting and incenting innovative solutions for learning and teaching, including support for extending instructor skills with information and communications technologies (ICT). We believe that technical and vocational programs could benefit from collaborative initiatives to provide shared and customizable open resources, and one of our goals is to make this area a focal point for funding programs in 2018-19.

Reference:
Schuwer, R. & Janssen, B. OER in TVET, an overview of the state of affairs and harnessing the potentialities of OER for TVET: summary of findings and recommendations. UNESCO. Available from http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/up/Summary_OER-in-TVET-study.pdf

Image:
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash