Bill Heinrich is the Director of Mindset at Orbis. Mindset leads research efforts in collaboration with education partners across Canada to identify, test, and scale innovations in the delivery of experiential learning. With 20 years of experience in post-secondary education, Heinrich’s focus at Mindset includes the development and issuing of microcredentials in post-secondary settings.
Orbis’s major microcredential related project is a collaboration with the University of Guelph to issue microcredentials to students to represent their experiential learning through the university’s partnership with RBC. For students, Heinrich says the biggest value of the microcredential at the moment is an ability to signal what they’ve learned to potential employers.
“Employers say students aren’t ready for the job market, but post-secondary institutions say they’ve trained their students well,” Heinrich says. “We looked at microcredentials focused on soft skills and communication within their degree as a way to remind students they developed these skills and could highlight them to employers. We think microcredentials are valuable in exposing students to their own learning.”
Heinrich acknowledges that the future is uncertain when it comes to microcredentials, especially in post-secondary settings, making it difficult to predict if they’ll be widely adopted as part of curricula. Heinrich does note, however, that the next five years will be crucial in microcredentials gaining traction and will rest on trust, verification, and shareability.
To define microcredentials, Heinrich, borrowing from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, says, “their purpose is a representation of learning awarded for a short program based on a discrete set of competencies.” Heinrich adds, “If we recognize a microcredential, we are recognizing a much shorter commitment than a typical semestered program or one that’s bound to a degree.”
Under this definition, post-secondary institutions are not the only ones delivering microcredential focused learning. Large employers and industry groups have begun to lean on microcredentials more and more as a means of advancing career paths internally, but also as a token of learning that workers could take beyond the organization.
“Amazon and Microsoft offer lots of microcredentials to employees in order to be certified and climb the ladder. In a ten hour course, you can become an Amazon Web Services Administrator,” Heinrich explains. “The digital badge or certificate is useful for a career. It shows that the worker is progressing along a particular path. The extent to which it can remind someone of their own career path and help articulate what they’ve learned and are capable of also contributes to that usefulness.”
Heinrich insists that while microcredentials have become something of a hot commodity, they are not a new way of learning or signifying competencies. “Most scouting or Girl Guides programs have badges,” Heinrich says. “Those are notes of competency, so the concept isn’t new, but the digital concept has certainly emerged fast in the last decade and we’re seeing an incredible proliferation, which is why there might be confusion in terms of what’s really happening.”
“The current microcredential market is a bit of a wild west,” Heinrich says. “There is no regulation and no one wants it regulated.”
The question becomes, according to Heinrich, how stakeholders across the labour market will perceive particular microcredentials and choose to employ them. Heinrich says, “Would I feel comfortable as a tech professional right now to put something on my CV and would an employer actually care and welcome that particular credential? There’s definitely a trust verification layer we need to get to, and that’s where microcredentials will succeed and fail within five years.”
Heinrich outlines the key factors that might influence the uptake and credibility of a microcredential:
Ultimately, the value of microcredentials rests in trustworthiness and transparency, and their ability to be shared and searchable.
“For example, Walmart is issuing a series of microcredentials to retail staff that are time stamped to indicate when retraining might be necessary and which belong to the worker, so they’re able to take it with them,” says Heinrich. “Employers are going to have to believe that an issuer is credible enough that they might hire someone who completed a credential elsewhere because the skillsets are similar enough.” These are cases in which microcredentials can be adopted on a more industry-wide level rather than just within an organization.
The other major challenge Heinrich sees relates to transparency and trust. “Is it issued by a post-secondary institution or a random shack down the street?” Heinrich says. “You’re going to need to know what the skill is that comes out of a microcredential, what kind of content was used, who issued it and their credibility.” To this end, Henrich says, “I think we need to make the framework easy to engage with. The digital badge is therefore very useful because it has a visual layer and a data layer that describes the curriculum and information about who issued it.”
Based on those conditions of trust and transparency, combined with their function of demonstrating discrete skills rather than general knowledge, Heinrich expects that microcredentials will have their greatest potential beyond post-secondary settings. “It’s not a silver bullet, but microcredentials visualize and emphasize ongoing learning, so one of their big markers of success will be whether or not they’re searchable and shareable by the learner,” Heinrich says.
Heinrich points to platforms like LinkedIn, which have a growing presence in supporting the delivery of microcredentials from multiple providers, and where workers with specific credentials can be discovered by employers. Employers can also assess the value of a microcredential on such a platform, determine who the issuer was, and have some background on the content and method of delivery, including what kind of evaluations took place and what competencies were demonstrated by the learner.
For courses with a shortened delivery and meant to demonstrate ongoing learning, digital searchability and visualization is critical to job seekers being able to continually demonstrate evolution in competencies in real-time. Those platforms can also provide the flexibility and self-directed learning perhaps best suited to mid-career learning.
Heinrich concludes that colleges may also be at a disadvantage because they aren’t culturally ready to offer new products beyond the degree. “I’ve seen curriculum move slowly, which to be fair, is by design, but I do think microcredentials less likely to accelerate in university settings than among industry.”
Mindset connects big ideas to repeatable educational practices. A division of Orbis, Mindset is born out of two decades of campus partnership and technological innovation supporting higher educators in the facilitation of experiential learning and student career readiness. Contact Bill Heinrich, Director of Mindset, Orbis, at email@example.com.
If you’re interested in hiring a student for a WIL experience, you can create a free account on the RBC Youth Employer Portal. In partnership with Magnet, the portal provides access to a nationwide network of campus job boards to help you discover new talent. Through the portal, employers can post jobs and apply for wage subsidy support via the same platform.If you have any questions or want to learn more about work-integrated learning or the Student Work Placement Program, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.