Microcredentials: Opportunity or Fad?

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Monday, May 24, 2021
By Michael Powell
Photo by iStock/tolgart
Microcredentials are beginning to dominate discussions about the future of business education. But are they likely to stay?

Business schools around the world currently face a highly dynamic and uncertain environment. On top of addressing continual COVID-related challenges, schools also must contend with more competitive markets, new digital technologies, and growing demands from students. Governments expect business schools to demonstrate their industry connectedness, and the need for lifelong learning is driving organizations to create new learning opportunities. Further, COVID-19 has heightened job insecurity, as many companies have had to downsize rapidly and cut costs.

An Emerging Solution

It is in this highly fluid, inconstant landscape that microcredentials have emerged. Both employers and employees are looking for shorter, more flexible program options that enable learners to build requisite skills and competencies when and as needed. Governments, too, recognize the demand for skill-building in response to rapidly increasing levels of COVID-related unemployment.

In Australia, for example, the government offered educational providers funding to deliver competency-based short courses that would directly assist newly unemployed workers. However, most business schools struggled to take advantage of this opportunity because of the short development time frames and the schools’ commitment to rigid, lengthy program structures.

Nevertheless, the market for shorter, more flexible programs that address immediate skill and capability gaps will likely only grow. Microcredentials could well serve this market. The question is, do they present a real opportunity for sustainable growth in business schools, or are they just another fad?

What Are Microcredentials?

Australian educationalist Beverley Oliver defines a microcredential as “a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternate, complementary to, or a formal component of, a formal qualification.” Such a flexible definition allows microcredentials to take different forms and serve a variety of purposes. They can be additional or complementary to a formal qualification, such as a degree program, or a component thereof. They can also be an alternative to an existing degree program. The common requirement across these various forms is that the programs or courses are assessed in order to result in a business school credential.

This broad definition allows for either the development of new, complementary short programs targeted to specific skill or knowledge outcomes, or the unbundling of existing “macro-credentials,” such as degree programs, into smaller, “bite-sized” chunks. Both of these approaches can lead to stackable components of larger degree programs if students later decide to pursue that option.

Taking a Strategic Approach

Business schools need to consider strategically what type of microcredentials would fit their markets and industry environments. Program characteristics may well differ from school to school; one size will not fit all situations.

Schools must first ask themselves what form the microcredentials should take and which markets they should access. These questions require an in-depth understanding of potential student markets. With this information, schools can make informed decisions about the size or length of microcredentials, type of assessment most appropriate for the desired outcomes, and connection to the school’s larger portfolio of programs. In other words, microcredentials should be strategically developed in alignment with the school’s mission, markets, and overall program profile.

Postgraduate and executive education programs are a logical starting point for microcredentials. 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. In the executive education space, 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.

Some universities see opportunities to partner with industry groups and professional associations to develop microcredentials that provide their members with tailored short courses for continuing professional education. Often these groups even require members to continually pursue education in the industry, as a way of maintaining currency.

Consequently, business schools could initiate collaborations with professional associations to co-create microcredentials that serve this purpose. These could be customized, standalone programs that also serve as building blocks toward more formal qualifications, such as graduate certificates or diplomas, or even the MBA.

Undergraduate Program Relevance

So far, there has been less enthusiasm for microcredentials in undergraduate education markets, especially for high school graduates. However, with the growth in online education and the current push toward personalized learning programs, microcredentials have the potential to become the flexible, stackable blocks for longer, formal degree programs.

Such a composite degree program does not need to fit into the standard three- or four-year degree time frame but can be delivered in a flexible manner over either shorter or longer periods depending on the student requirements and wishes. This approach is likely to be more attractive to the older, nontraditional undergraduate market.

In the high school graduate market, where university experience is frequently sought after, microcredentials can still serve a useful purpose by providing complementary skill or competency development opportunities parallel to the degree program. For example, microcredentials could be offered in various digital technologies or business operating systems in much greater detail than is generally possible in the larger degree programs, thereby enhancing student employability.

Students who undertake such complementary microcredentials with appropriate assessment requirements could be recognized by earning digital badges, which affirm their competency in particular areas. Some universities are already awarding digital badges to students who have met defined criteria in critical areas such as leadership, digital competency, and international experience.

Assurance of Learning

Just like larger formal degree qualifications, microcredentials should always have clear learning outcomes or objectives, along with methods for assuring that learners are achieving those outcomes. Some schools may seek to develop microcredentials as a solution to unpopular degree programs. However, there is risk in the simple unbundling of existing formal qualifications into smaller chunks. While superficially easy to do, there is no guarantee that the unsuccessful degree programs will suddenly be attractive in a shorter form.

In all cases, whether creating new microcredential products or unbundling larger programs, business schools should carefully examine market demand, ensure flexible delivery mechanisms, and ensure that the expected learning outcomes are clear and achievable. It is also critical that schools develop appropriate assessment and clearly delineate progression pathways so that the microcredentials can contribute to the school’s overall program portfolio.

More Than a Trend

Microcredentials offer business schools opportunities to provide flexible, industry-related, standalone or stackable qualifications to diverse education markets. Not only do they demonstrate that business schools can be agile and flexible by responding to perceived skill and competency needs, but they also encourage greater engagement with industry and professional bodies.

AACSB’s 2020 business accreditation standards encourage innovative, industry-relevant developments, such as microcredentials, and numerous technological platforms are available to support flexible, personalized learning approaches. Carefully identifying future credit pathways for graduates of these programs will add value for business schools, enabling them to attract learners who seek to either build personal degree programs or upskill whenever they need to do so.

Microcredentials are an undeniable part of the new business education landscape, and they present exciting new opportunities for business schools to enhance their reputation for relevance, expertise, and quality.

Michael Powell
Professor Emeritus, Griffith University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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