April 28th, 2021 - Alex Usher
The word “micro-credential”, precisely because remains relatively undefined, is absolute catnip to politicians. It’s tabula rasa: you can tell politicians the word means damn near anything and not only will they believe you, but no one can contradict you because no one can contradict you. Here is a list of things at least one provincial education minister/ministry appears to believe about micro-credentials.
In other words, nearly everything about micro-credentials is down to design details rather than being automatic properties. But this is really true when it comes to the issues of portability, stackability and transparency. These three are tightly linked. Nothing is stackable towards a degree until you know the learning contained in a unit or micro-credential is a specific level (e.g. diploma) so it can be combined with other learning at a specific level. And nothing is portable unless the length and level of the learning contained in the credential is clearly understood by other education providers. So, the transparency piece is vital.

Not surprisingly, in Europe, where portability is basically the raison-d’etre of continental educational policy, transparency is a major focus of current micro-credential policy work. For them, that means not just clarity about length (credits) and level (on the European Qualification Framework) but also about the quality control regimen in place that approved it (see the most recent policy document from the European Commission on the subject here). In New Zealand, the first country to develop a real, functioning micro-credential framework, specification of length and levels are key to the whole affair.
Now in Canada, this approach is difficult because we don’t have a national qualifications framework and indeed most provinces haven’t really elaborated a framework below the level of a degree, which basically means that anything at the diploma or certificate level is the wild west. Maybe micro-credentials will eventually spur a development of more credential frameworks below the degree level. But Ministers, who tend to be interested in quick announceables, tend not to have the patience to deal with the long process of developing these kinds of frameworks - they want action and disbursements of cash right now! 

If you want a real example of this, check out the Ontario Micro-credential Framework. Unlike the rest of the country, Ontario actually has a good, detailed qualifications framework which covers learning well below the degree level. This could have been used as the basis of a really good micro-credentials policy; instead, Ontario chose to ignore the qualifications framework completely when developing its micro-credential policy. Instead of requiring institutions to be transparent about the length and level of credentials, there is some wooly stuff about adhering to “harmonized skills and competency language” which will be “aligned with a common competency framework such as ESCO (European Skills, Competences and Occupations)”. This is frankly bananas because no one in Ontario really has any idea what ESCO is, nor is there any alternative “harmonized competency language”, and nor as far as I can tell is there any actual intention to develop one. 

(Why did Ontario ignore its own qualifications framework? I have no idea, to be honest, but one theory I heard is that whoever in the Ministry had the money to hand out to institutions [I get the impression it was the folks concerned with digital transformation] simply didn’t speak to the group in the Ministry concerned with frameworks. Students of bureaucracy, take note.) 

In plain language what this means is that whatever micro-credentials are going to be about in Ontario, it is not going to be about transparency or portability. Conceivably, they could still be about stackability provided that all the stacking occurs inside a single institution (which is probably to institutions liking – it turns micro-credentials into a method of keeping learners locked into a single credential eco-system). Now that’s not the end of the world: a micro-credential can still be valuable without those things. But it suggests that in fact the gist of micro-credential policy is less about getting individuals short credentials that they can build upon than it is about creating very specific partnerships between institutions and employers which lead to specific jobs. Short-term training, in other words. Of course, this is something colleges do already, and many of them are good at it, so it’s not entirely clear to me what the policy innovation is here other than suddenly the province is throwing money at it.

The Ontario policy isn’t so much a waste of money – there are presumably going to be some positive outcomes of the $15 million or so that the province is spending. But it is further evidence that the Ontario government is ignoring the evolving international definitions of micro-credentials. In the short-term that’s no big deal, but in the long run it means we’re going to be a long way off global standards. And that’s unfortunate.