Micro-credentials are catching on at universities and colleges. For students, these quick skills boosters can have a big impact
Earning a micro-credential from Alacrity Canada helped Samantha Kolb land a position with the Victoria-based nonprofit, which promotes tech entrepreneurship
Samantha Kolb travelled to Sri Lanka three years ago to work for the United Nations, helping the country with its reconciliation process after its 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009. The Victoria native had taken the internship during her master’s degree from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Kolb graduated in 2019, returning to B.C.
She planned to start her humanitarian career in earnest, continuing to work abroad in post-conflict reconstruction. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, grounding global travel along with her ambitions. International nongovernmental organizations stopped hiring, with no way to predict when they’d start again.
Kolb realized she needed to make her CV more appealing to a broader range of employers. “I wanted a little bit more resilience to the changes that were happening,” she says. But Kolb had already earned two degrees—she started her BA in political science and international development at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in 2011, completing it in 2016 before heading to grad school. She didn’t want to spend more years and money earning a third.
So the 27-year-old enrolled in an eight-week digital marketing bootcamp run by Alacrity Canada, a Victoria-based nonprofit that promotes technology entrepreneurship. Instead of a degree, diploma or certificate, she earned a micro-credential—a certification that she had acquired a targeted set of skills in areas like branding, analytics and content distribution.
Micro-credentials barely existed as recently as two years ago, but now they’re drawing surging attention from educators, students, government and industry. Nobody has settled on exactly how to define them, and so far, only a few institutions in Canada offer or recognize them. That’s changing quickly. In February, the B.C. and federal governments announced $4 million to fund short-duration education programs at 15 postsecondary schools throughout the province. Those classes will add to the scattering of micro-credentials that started in the past year or two at public universities and colleges, including Royal Roads University, Thompson Rivers University, SFU, UBC, and Vancouver Community College. Each institution approaches these programs in their own way.
Some micro-credentials are designed for advanced learners like Kolb, who already have education and skills and want to upgrade with cheaper and less time-consuming packages. Others are for students still in university, college or below, to deliver and recognize smaller chunks of knowledge or competencies they’ve acquired. A learner might earn a digital badge for HTML skills, for example, and be able to combine it with other micro-credentials for course credit.
Economic necessity—especially among adult learners—is driving students and educators toward micro-credentialling. The pandemic is accelerating that push, as workers find themselves in need of upgraded skills to maintain their careers or transition to a new one.
Emilie de Rosenroll is founding CEO of the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP), an alliance of governments and businesses that fosters economic development in the Greater Victoria area. Her organization convened a task force among its stakeholders last April to find ways to reboot a local economy smothered by COVID-19.
Making micro-credential programs available emerged as a top priority. “When you’re experiencing an economic crisis—like the one that we’re in—there is a tremendous amount of layoffs in some sectors. Yet other sectors are needing more people,” de Rosenroll explains. “So we need to get the workforce rapidly skilled in a short amount of time—in a matter of months, as opposed to a matter of years.”
So in August, SIPP partnered with Alacrity Canada and the B.C. government to launch the online digital marketing bootcamp that Kolb joined. “I felt it was one of the micro-credentials where I could really use the skills and transfer them to multiple contexts,” she recalls. “For me, versatility was a big draw.”
Kolb did transfer her skills, to a new field surprisingly close to home. She’s become a digital marketing assistant for the Alacrity Canada Foundation.
For years, universities and colleges across the continent have offered short, non-credit courses via continuing studies departments, which teach everything from creative writing to code writing and bookkeeping to beekeeping. Although students often take such courses out of sheer interest, many want to add job-related skills. However, these programs traditionally don’t offer credentials recognized by employers or universities.
Changes are just beginning to happen. As most continuing-studies departments shift toward professional development and away from classes taken for personal interest, they’re starting to include micro-credentials.
Last September, the continuing studies divisions of Vancouver Community College and UBC joined the Canada Skills Program, a collaboration with Microsoft Canada that delivers training and certification for Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform. VCC also offers testing for the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification exam.
Claire Sauvé, VCC continuing studies’ senior programming coordinator, explains her school’s aims for its micro-credentials: “The key is that they are industry-relevant, they’re short in duration, and they have some kind of assessment built in.”
Workers are increasingly becoming what she calls whole-career learners, she says. People might shuttle between jobs and schooling multiple times as they add skills toward promotions or pivots. “This kind of cyclical nature of work and training has driven the need for more flexible, bite-sized, just-in-time training for professional development,” Sauvé points out.
UVic‘s dean of continuing studies, Jo-Anne Clarke, sees technology and automation disrupting the workforce at a rapid pace that’s grown faster since the pandemic struck. “COVID did not crush the future. It merely brought it forward,” she says, quoting a recent article by RBC senior vice-president John Stackhouse.
Her department is racing to add shorter professional development certificates—likely two to three courses long—to help midcareer learners acquire new, necessary digital skills. Rather than teach basic technical components like coding, these programs will help leaders and administrators gain competencies in several areas, such as using technology to communicate with their teams or incorporate data analytics into their decision-making. “We’re just developing them right now as quick as we can, to get them out the door,” Clarke says.
Because schools like to play to their strengths, micro-credential programs take on similar characteristics. Royal Roads University is mainly a graduate-level institution, best known for its MBA and other leadership programs. “The average age of our learners is around 40,” explains Zoë MacLeod, associate vice-president, professional and continuing studies. “So, you know, coding kind of isn’t our market demographic.”
MacLeod’s department offers a variety of business leadership classes on topics like project leadership for the digital future and effective workplace communication. These are designed with an increasingly popular feature: stackability. Learners can bundle several courses with an assessment process to earn a micro-credential—a non-degree professional certificate. In turn, they can use those as credit toward a Royal Roads graduate certificate.
The stackability of some micro-credentials allows learners to keep building on the skills they’ve acquired. Some stackable credentials are also portable: students can earn certification at one institution and take it to another for credit toward a bigger goal, like a degree.
That’s the case with MicroMasters credentials from MITx, one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s massive open online course (MOOC) programs. Royal Roads is one of 22 MIT pathway universities worldwide, so it considers letting MicroMasters graduates apply those credits toward its own MBA.
Students can start their MBAs at MIT at an affordable rate—it’s about $2,000 for the six-course supply-chain management MicroMasters, for example. And they can study remotely wherever they like before enrolling with Royal Roads or other pathway schools. MIT also offers courses in areas that Royal Roads can’t, such as principles of manufacturing. “That allows us to expand for people who want the more technical specializations,” explains Charles Krusekopf, the head of Royal Roads’ MBA program.
So far, the portability and recognition of MicroMasters credentials is going one way–Royal Roads isn’t creating courses that can easily transfer to MIT.
MITx is part of edX, a nonprofit educational platform founded by Harvard University and MIT, with some 150 partnering schools and 20 million learners worldwide. UBCx delivers more than 40 courses through this MOOC. Students can take courses from edX institutions for free and choose to earn a verified certificate for less than $300. But while there is some standardization of credential recognition across the edX platform, UBCx courses operate in a distinct, separate world from their home university. Students can’t apply UBCx credentials toward UBC degrees.
The university proper is nibbling at different types of micro-credentials or certificates, for both non-credit learners and undergraduates. Like other institutions, it’s ramping up professional development programs at its extended learning department (formerly continuing studies). It recently created a certificate in biomedical visualization and communication, for example. These certificates leverage the infrastructure, expertise and academic rigour that can only be found at universities of UBC‘s calibre.
Larry Bouthillier, executive director of UBC Extended Learning, says learners have been asking about climbing these non-credit programs as a ladder into degree programs, but discussions are still ongoing. “We would love the answer to be yes,” Bouthillier admits. “It’s not yet, but we’re working on it.”
Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops started recognizing micro-credential transfers into its degree programs last summer, through its membership in the international Open Education Resource universitas (OERu) network. Students can take low-cost, full- or micro-courses delivered online by institutions around the world, and take assessments to receive academic credit at TRU for their learning.
This flexible approach is a natural fit for TRU‘s open learning department, says Don Poirier, its associate vice-president. “Historically, we have been a supplier of electives for other postsecondary institutions. So most of the students we observed are individual course takers that are a full-time student within another institution, and are looking to augment their home program. And so they would come to open learning and take one or two courses.”
So far, the course selection available through OERu remains sparse compared to the vast menus that big MOOCs like edX and Coursera offer. And most are introductory classes on topics such as planning a project or the moons of our solar system. But it’s a start.
Micro-credential programs can help learners move ahead in their careers or get into more advanced schooling, but some institutions are starting to use them to enhance their students’ degree studies. UBC ran a pilot project in 2015 for a type of micro-credential called open badges, digital symbols that recognize specific accomplishments or the mastering of certain learning outcomes. They’re like virtual versions of the badges that Scouts and Girl Guides earn. Students can gamify learning—collecting badges to level up, for example—looking back to map out what skills they’ve learned.
David Vogt, a master of educational technology adjunct professor, piloted open badges in one of his courses. Those courses are entirely online, so he wanted to reward students for contributing ideas and conversation. When they commented on the discussion board, for example, Vogt tallied how many times their posts generated responses.
“It was kind of like a social media metric that enabled people to understand that their work was having impact,” he explains. The pilot died, he says, because the university had no will to manage it. Students loved the badges and the feedback they provided, but Vogt gives an empirical take on how well they might have worked long-term. “We only were running it for about two years, and it may never have gone beyond the novelty factor, meaning it was popular just because it was different and new,” he says. “So I can’t give you data to prove that it did this better or that better.”
SFU third-year communications student Audrey Heath had a more subjective view on the micro-credentials she earned late last spring, through her school’s new FASS Forward pilot project. The faculty of social sciences (FASS) offered nine one-month, one-credit courses on practical topics like writing, public speaking and conflict negotiation. Those were the three micro-courses Heath took, and she was glad she could immediately apply what she picked up.
“I’ve been writing papers and using the skills learned from that, which is great,” she says, taking a break from preparing for fall finals.
Typical academic courses are worth three credits, so these micro-credentials are worth one-third and actually apply toward her degree. Heath says she enrolled half because she wanted the credits and half because she was interested in learning those skills. “It’s things for everyday life that I think are important to know,” she explains.
That fits with what FASS Forward’s pilot coordinator, Jennifer Chutter, envisioned when she designed the menu of courses. “The aim was really to make them relevant and practical, so that students felt that after a month, they did have something they could tangibly apply to other aspects of their life,” she says.
That aligns with what most micro-credentials are trying to deliver, each in their own way, to their respective audiences. Relevant, lifelong learning is proving invaluable before, during and after students’ academic careers.
STACKABLE TOWARD A DEGREE?
Alacrity Canada digital marketing bootcamp
Quick up-skilling or re-skilling for early or midcareer workers
Vancouver Community College/UBC/Microsoft Canada Skills Program
Industry-recognized technical skills working with Microsoft Azure
MITx MicroMasters/Royal Roads University MBA
Royal Roads MBA
Affordable, flexible entry to Royal Roads MBA programs
Royal Roads professional studies toward a Royal Roads MBA
Some courses can earn credit
Up-skilling for midcareer managers
UVic professional development micro-credentials
Up-skilling for midcareer workers and managers
Thompson Rivers University/ Open Education Resource universitas (OERu)
TRU bachelor’s degree credits
Affordable, flexible entry to TRU diplomas and degrees
SFU FASS Forward
SFU bachelor’s degree credits
Practical skills for SFU students
BCIT/VIU Essentials of Natural Resource and Environmental Protection (MENREP)
VIU bachelor’s degree credits
Entry to resource management; up-skilling for pros in engineering or policy
BCIT Digital Transformation
Essential business and computing skills for job seekers or job changers
BCIT Introductory Studies in Mass Timber Construction
Up-skilling to improve industry knowledge
Camosun College Advanced Skills for Clean Energy and Efficient Buildings
Stackable toward Camosun certificate
Up-skilling in cleantech for building professionals
Langara College Advanced Administrative Assistant (AAA) certificate
Government-funded up-skilling for immigrant and racialized women
University Canada West Learning4Success workshop badges
Practical skills for new UCW students