Dr. Don Olcott, Jr., FRSA, is President of HJ Associates, specialising in global open and distance learning based in Romania and a Consultant Associate with Universal Learning Systems (ULS) in Barcelona, Spain. He holds the academic rank of Professor Extraordinarius of Leadership and ODL at the University of South Africa and adjunct instructor with Oldenburg University, Germany. Don is a Senior Fellow of the European Distance and eLearning Network (EDEN) and in 2021 was honoured as a global Leader and Legend of Online Learning https://onlinelearninglegends.com/ He is former President and Chairman of the Board of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA).
ETHE Blog Team: Welcome Don. It’s a pleasure to have you join us today
DJO: Indeed, thank you ETHE Team members. I am delighted to see you again. As you know I have had a long association with the IJETHE having serve on your Editorial Board for many years. It’s great to see UOC and the Journal continue to be front and centre leading innovation and exploring new opportunities for online, open and distance learning.
ETHE Team: Thank you Don, we all appreciate your kind words about our leadership role in the field. Today, we would like to discuss some broader issues of micro-credentials and then zero in on the implications of micro-credentials for higher education. However, to get us started perhaps a macro view would be helpful for the reader. From your global vantage point, what is driving the micro-credentials trend?
DJO: In the broadest context, the answer is economics and competition. Employers are competing for talent and students are competing for jobs. Both want to expand their value-added capacity to compete and micro-credentials may provide entry-points as well as advancement opportunities for current employees. Employer financial health is also linked to having skilled employees that allow a company to compete and thrive.
ETHE Team: And students Don, what is driving this emerging trend for them?
DJO: The elephant in the online classroom is obviously the cost of higher education. Student debt has created this impetus for students to seek alternative paths to work. Many of our graduates with degrees are not finding the jobs they want; or the jobs are simply not there. Students are not abandoning pursuit of degrees and certificates; it means alternative credentials provide value-added capacity for employers, students and by extension providers to open employment doors and expand competitive capacity of companies and employees.
I don’t have precise data, but I would suspect this is a bigger issue in the U.S., Canada, Australia and other nations where students must pay a significant portion of their costs for university. We might find this less relevant in Europe but as you know institutions such as the Open University and other British universities were eventually forced to charge fees to off-set government cuts to HEIs.
ETHE Team: Beyond North America, will micro-credentials be a game changer in the developing world?
DJO: Indeed, this would seem to hold promise on many levels for developing nations and institutions. Of course, the Commonwealth includes many developing countries besides the larger nations such as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa and many of the smaller countries and island nations fall under the developing umbrella. Their challenges are many but micro-credentials may be a viable opportunity for any country where resources are a continual challenge.
ETHE Team: Of course, resource barriers may prevent many HE institutions from engaging in this new micro-credential market.
DJO Yes, it will certainly take developing countries longer to leverage new resources to invest in micro-credentials and if will likely be difficult for universities in these countries to divert current resources to gearing up microcredentials. Moreover, the challenges in the developing world are exponentially exacerbated because resources are already limited. What does this mean in the practical context? It means micro-credentials may, in fact, be critical for long-term survival but basic human needs must be equally addressed for many lower socio-economic groups. The socio-economic deprivations in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and other rural regions in Africa, Asia, Latin and South America and even pockets in Europe and North America make it nearly impossible for education to be the sole game changer.
ETHE Team: These barriers will take nothing short than a massive partnership between government, higher education, business and social services at all levels across the developing world. It seems almost insurmountable at times and digital education cannot solve this dilemma alone. Do you agree Don?
DJO: Yes, these communities not only lack economic resources. they also lack the minimum resources to meet basic human needs – food, clothing, shelter, clean water, medical care, and even conflict zones make education less important. Micro-credentials are not a panacea for resolving the multitude of challenges across the developing world. They may, however, provide a door to faster acquisition of skills, employment and meeting basic needs.
ETHE Team: Do you think in the future there will be a credentials continuum that looks very different than the 20th century model?
DJO: Indeed, I think that a similar continuum has existed for decades; what I think has changed is the priority we are ascribing to different credentials along the continuum. Competency-based training and skill domain certification are not new. Performance-based competencies with minimal levels of performance have been pervasive in the military as well as in technical and higher education for decades. Continuing education units across the world have offered non- credit training courses since after WWII.
The difference this time is that the assessment element will be much more rigorous because micro-credentials may have a direct link to certification and subsequent employment. The historic non-credit training offerings lacked a strong evaluation component – attend a seminar on Saturday and receive a certificate of completion – these types of trainings did not validate actual skills the participant could do.
ETHE Team: Don, can you give an example of this in global higher education?
DJO: Yes. U.S. and Canadian community colleges train electricians, welders, plumbers and other vocational-technical oriented career disciplines and their certifications are all based on meeting minimum performance standards. These often include additional (or concurrent) industry board, apprenticeship and/or professional agency certification. A critical point here is community college degree requirements are designed with these external agency certification requirements in mind – which generally is the competency-based demonstration of minimum performance standards towards certification. I should add that technical institutes and vocational education schools in Europe, Australia, and many other countries do the same thing and have for decades.
ETHE Team: So, this is similar to what we do in the professions at universities?
DJO: Yes, that is a good comparison. Universities train medical doctors, engineers, industrial designers, lawyers, corporate accountants, nurses, etc. yet the formal certification is not solely validated by the university –external agencies and bodies also must certify practitioners in most of the professions. For example, you cannot practice law with only a law degree, you must pass the American Bar Association or equivalent in one’s country. Similarly, engineers and CPAs also require formal certification to practice their profession. Doctors must do residency and nurses must complete clinicals or practicals.
These are hands-on, experiential competency-based performance assessments of their skill domain (s). Their ultimate certifications are competency and performance-based. The core of these credentials is knowledge but the value of these degrees is what graduates can actually do or apply in practical contexts. Ironically, the one profession that does not require external certification beyond university preparation is college and university professors.
University teaching is the only profession that you can get three degrees – BA, M.A., Ph.D. and be anointed professorial rank in a university – a master teacher with no training in teaching. Most university professors who do have teacher training were public school teachers who joined Schools or Colleges of Education in universities. C’est la vie.
ETHE Team: Interesting, you are suggesting this credentials revolution is placing a higher premium on highly rigorous short-term training and education activities than in the past.
DJO: Yes, this is my view with a couple caveats and there are variations to this. First, many believe formal-nonformal or credit-noncredit credentials will be easily combined and stacked in to higher formal credentials. This may be true in some countries, particularly those with national qualification frameworks and possibly in some developing contexts. Australia https://www.iteca.edu.au/microcredentials-framework#:~: is doing some work in this stacking of credit and non-credit credentials and I believe the European MOOCS Consortium https://emc.eadtu.eu/news is also delving in to this and aligning it with the tenants of the Bologna Process for European higher education. The European MOOC Consortium has alsodeveloped the European Micro-Credentials Framework (EMF).
It may be premature to suggest this will necessarily be the case for the Canada and the U.S. where there are no national qualifications frameworks. The world of work is changing so rapidly there are professions and skill domains we don’t even know exist yet. I think the Canadian and American workforce will be very attracted to short-term micro-credentials that are very focused and specialised and it will be irrelevant whether they stack on top of formal credentials.
Many employers don’t place a high premium on whether micro-credentials have academic credit – and many specialized workers won’t care either particularly if they already have formal degree credentials. A related factor is that conversion to credit is still driven by notional seat time and contact hours – competency-based micro-credentials may be highly rigorous and high quality yet be under the time and contact hour elements we ascribe to academic credit. My observation is this is not going to change, at least not in the near future.
Secondly, I wonder if in the larger markets whether micro-credentials will be more attractive to employees that have degrees and are already employed whose employers need specific new skills that give their company competitive capacity and help current employees advance and strengthen their own personal portfolio of skills and experience.
ETHE Team: Is it possible the formal-nonformal or credit-noncredit stackability could become very attractive to workers?
DJO: Yes, but I would suggest this is a longer term issue. As I noted, the European and Australian models are two models to observe in this area. The history of credit transfer and applicability has a mixed history of success in Canadian and U.S. higher education. Moreover, programs such as credit for prior learning also have been problematic due to conflicts over what constitutes credit criteria.
The issue for transfer and credit for prior learning has never been about transferability of credits, it has been about the applicability after the credits are accepted by the receiving institution. Colleges and academic departments are very parochial and the locus of control for evaluating external credit is often embedded in a very strong resistance to credit earned externally. Of course, there are exceptions but these issues have been pervasive for the past sixty years.
ETHE Team: From our perspective, there still appears to be is a lot of confusion about what micro-credentials are and are not. Can you help us clarify with some examples?
DJO: Great question! My first suggestion to your readers is to take a look at the article UNESCO Open Education Chair Rory McGreal and myself wrote on micro-credentials for HE leaders. https://slejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40561-022-00190-1
The article has had over 20,000 accesses worldwide and gives the reader an array of resources, definitions and covers critical practical and leadership issues pertinent to micro-credentials. Generally, these types of credentials are shorter duration education and/or training activities; focused on a specific set of skills (skill domain). They are assessed and validated competency-based using transparent minimum performance standards. A micro-credential can be either credit or non-credit and the micro-credential and may or may not be stackable towards a higher formal credential.
As you may know, in Canadian and U.S. higher education non-credit training typically does not have academic credit associated with it for short-term training and educational activities. In many instances, participants would receive a certificate of attendance or participation – a badge type validation but only of attendance, not assessed learning that has had some level of validation and certification.
I’m not suggesting non-credit could not be offered for credit; only that our history with non-credit has been as a driver towards our formal credit programs. In Europe and Australia for example, national qualification frameworks are used to set standards for university credit and micro-credentials are being designed with these criteria as the base standards for academic credit. Informal and non-credit training activities will be designed with this in mind so these could be converted to formal academic credit.
ETHE Team: We seem to recall micro-credentials being referred to as Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs) in some quarters. Can you comment and also explain how micro-credentials are relevant for our readers in online and distance learning?
DJO: You are right, the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) both refer to micro-credentials as ADCs. Why? Primarily because ICDE and OECD see these types of credentials being maintained and stored in third party repositories outside the university systems. Micro-credentials must provide extensive data on the precise competencies, skills, validations and characteristics of the certification – typically this level of detail is not provided on university transcripts.
ETHE Team: Beyond ADCs, what are the connections of micro-credentials with online and distance learning which is of particular interest to our readers?
DJO: Perhaps the obvious is micro-credentials can be delivered in many types of modalities – online, face-to-face, blended, video-based, etc. However, what is equally obvious is that because micro-credentials emphasize competency-based minimum performance standards on the road to certification, this suggests that blended learning will be essential to ensuring there is a practical performance component required for the micro-credential.
As for the specific types of micro-credentials, we often here about micro-masters www.edx.org which link micro-courses transferable in to a formal masters; MOOCs which can cover a range of credentials in diverse areas European MOOC Consortium https://emc.eadtu.eu/
In Canada and the U.S., you can find a range of different short focused micro-credentials including the University of California-Irvine http://ce.uci.edu/ the Digital Credentials Consortium https://digitalcredentials.mit.edu/ Athabasca University https://www.athabascau.ca/ Coursera https://www.coursera.org/ and the University of Albany https://www.albany.edu/imcro-credentials and Western Governor’s University. www.wgu.edu
ETHE Team: Let’s shift gears now and focus what leaders should focus on in colleges and universities. What do leaders need to do first if they are considering entering the micro-credentials marketplace? What advice would you give a new president or vice chancellor?
DJO: I think first and foremost institutional leadership must decide if they want to enter the market at all; or at least to what degree. If we look back at the scale-up of online learning and open education global institutions, it becomes pretty clear that well resourced colleges and universities can usually play in the sand box first and for longer. In other words, making this commitment by an institution has major implications for staffing, funding, digital and infrastructure capacity, and institutional vision and mission. It is an important decision for any institutional leader and must be weighed against the strengths of the institution and the competitive landscape.
If I were advising any president, I would likely suggest to explore this opportunity very carefully. Perhaps a good starting question would be how can micro-credentials support employment and training not only amongst students, but employees across the university’s region? Micro-credentials real value in my view will be as an alternative path to work and upgrading of existing skills in the workplace. Dialogue with employers and government agencies will be essential.
ETHE Team: You seem to be suggesting that not every institution should engage in the micro-credentials market?
DJO: No, not necessarily mean to convey this view but I would suggest some institutions will be in a much stronger position to mobilize for micro-credentials. Let’s look at the current pandemic response. It appears the celebrations have already begun that online teaching and learning has taken over the planet, we can’t go back, and it is now embedded in society and social institutions across the globe. A brave new world has finally arrived . . . except this is not true.
First, I would find it surprising if global K-12 remains 15% online – it’s not feasible from a funding standpoint or from an oversight agency standpoint. More importantly, K-12 in the public domain is essentially no cost to students or parents. Finally, kids need to go back to their schools – digitalization or not, we need to let kids be kids right through high school. I think we will see K-12 better prepared with digital online capacity for emergencies but as for mainstream programming probably an increase in senior high advanced placement and perhaps courses that may be accepted for elective credit by universities.
ETHE Team: What about Canadian and Commonwealth colleges and universities? Will most make significant investments in developing micro-credentials?
DJO: Colleges and universities are in direct competition; the stakes are high and money is a primary motivation for sustainable and emerging markets. I have stated publicly in articles that post pandemic we have three groups of institutions https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1290020 that will be faced with important decisions about their future.
The first are novice institutions with little experience; the second group are those who were doing a bit of online delivery before the pandemic and now will have to decide how much to do going forward. The third group is the experienced group that were doing significant online delivery. Will they return to the same or a higher level than before? These will be critical decisions for all three groups. Will we have a greater number of institutions delivering more online courses-programs following the pandemic. Perhaps, but this will be tempered by practical realities related to investment capital, accreditors, stakeholder priorities at home, student demands, and more. A brave new online world sounds good on paper and in keynotes but is a little more difficult to do in the real world.
ETHE Team: What is the first step in your view for institutional leadership if they choose to explore micro-credentials development and implementation?
DJO: A good first step would be to inventory your institutional arsenal for online, OERs and the emerging micro-credential market. In one sense, think digital because all three of these areas are increasingly using digital online delivery – online courses, OERs, and micro-credentials. I would also look closely at local, regional and national employment data – what jobs need skilled workers, what are employer surveys telling us about what they need in terms of skilled and training workers and what kinds of upgrade training are needed.
ETHE Team: Are you suggesting if an institution does not have a large online program or does not use extensive OERs in building content, they should stay out of the micro-credentials market?
DJO: Yes and No. I think there are other factors to consider such as institutional history, particularly in college and university outreach, online delivery, and innovative training design. These must be considered carefully in developing a strategic response that can work. Leaders have to consider the return on investment for micro-credentials because the design, storage and distribution will require fiscal resources and staff. For most institutions, this investment must also ask should we put our money somewhere else or even leave it in a current strategic area. There are many questions for leaders to grapple. For inexperienced institutions in these three areas, perhaps a tri-dimensional approach that builds upon the digital interconnections of online, OERs, and micro-credentials would be a low risk and lower cost approach to getting on the playing field.
I have been working with colleagues around the world have been doing some work in this tri-dimensional approach and whilst it may be less useful to experienced digital institutions, it certainly has potential for novice institutions in Canada and the U.S.; and beyond this for developing world institutions.
ETHE Team: It appears that our institution leaders may be faced with some critical decisions in response to the changing nature of markets, credentials, and the competitive higher education landscape in general. Drawing upon your extensive and proven leadership background, what final leadership strategies would you offer to university leaders and European leaders specifically?
DJO: The first is to remind leaders urgency is not the same as panic. Micro-credentials are trending yet leaders still need to engage their leadership teams and staff in an open dialogue and analysis about the future. I see this as a period of ‘strategic reset’ and as an opportunity to shift directions and navigate the institutional ship away from old ports – so called institutional initiatives that are not beneficial for the institution in 2024. In other words, leaders can redirect their institutions because of this reset period and phase out areas and initiatives that are no longer viable. Secondly, if micro-credentials are part of your digital future, then analyse your resource base. Do your digital budgets cover online delivery, OER content, and scaling-up micro-credentials? Faculties are unlikely going to create micro-credentials for free. They will want to be compensated. Our experience with the continued resistance by faculty to OER development is a case in point where the benefits continuum was lacking for stakeholders.
Thirdly, consider your service region. Most colleges and universities may have global and national delivery capacity but the fact is even in the digital era we stay pretty close to home. Micro-credentials visa-via online delivery in locally and nationall second would be an example for most institutions new to major outreach activities. Your primary partners are key stakeholders and more often than not, they are close to your campus. You must define your digital footprint and going global must reap a benefits continuum that results in benefits to the institution, its faculty and students, and its broader stakeholders.
Fourthly, focus on quality. A good start is run a comparative analysis of your digital content and delivery with Quality Matters https://www.qualitymatters.org/ criteria. This will not cover micro-credentials but make no mistake, quality will be a gamechanger for differentiating highly reputable micro-credential providers. Finally, develop a plan for change and re-assess how your key stakeholders will help you re-direct your institutional ship in to exciting new and unchartered waters.
ETHE Team: Don, your last comment was about leading change. Many leaders talk a good change game, can even write a good plan, but when it comes to implementation they fail. Do you have any suggestions that might help leaders be more effective change agents?
DJO: I believe that the capacity to lead effective organizational change is the single most important talent needed for leaders in the 21st century. The paradox, of course, is that leading change may be the single most difficult endeavor to do effectively in the 21st century organization. The lesson here is leadership and change are hard for even the best and most committed leaders.
The first issue is vision blurring or capitulation or premature celebration. Leaders lose sight of their long term vision, then they get distracted, and some will throw in the towel; others will find a few short-term wins and declare victory and start celebrating. OERs and post-pandemic online adoption are two examples where the celebrations were premature and the data supports this worldwide. The jury is still out on both of these, despite what the respective evangelists tell us. The problem is things really don’t change and the status quo is back before you know it. A vision takes time to implement and embed those changes into a cultural shift across the organization. We are talking 3-5 years minimally and the fact is this seems like a lifetime to many Western leaders. In sum, many leaders fail to stay the course and go the distance. 😊
A second major oversight many leaders make is they do not know the expectations and needs of all their stakeholder groups – faculty, funders, accreditors, students, government, staff, and the public. They organize change plans inside the institution with their 12-15 member leadership teams and then two years down the road everything looks pretty much the same. Leaders must develop a benefits continuum for their followers and stakeholder groups. All of these groups have unique expectations that basically ask what is in this change strategy for me/us? Why would anyone get aboard the change train if there are no potential benefits for supporting that change? Answer: They won’t at least not for the long-term.
ETHE Team: And micro-credentials, will they run in to these same leadership landmines?
DJO: Perhaps. Leaders will need to convince their stakeholder groups how micro-credentials fit into the long-term vision and mission of the institution, where they align with current systems, and how they will benefit the institution’s key stakeholder groups.
Perhaps just as important as these change processes will be the framework for institutions to make cultural shifts. This is inherently difficult because it infers that everything across the system will likely have to shift – infrastructures, support systems, rewards structures, funding formulas, costing, assessment, credential requirements. The real problem however is the intrinsic resistance by nearly all senior institutional leaders to put this in motion. Why? Because once you start changing the system in one major area you necessarily will need to make changes in numerous other areas. This highlights the interconnected ness of institutional systems but also the mass resistance that usually stops change and cultural shift in its tracks. This interconnectness was described in Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline – systems theory is the fifth discipline for learning organisations.
ETHE Team: We haven’t discussed the policy arena today. Do you see specific areas where institutional or even external policy issues will arise related to micro-credentials for universities?
DJO: It would be naive to ignore the policy spectrum as we move ahead with micro-credentials. It is interesting that many foreign professionals whom are engaged with micro-credentials policy and certification think that in Canada and America micro-credentials will be primarily a state or provincial oversight issue. Of course, this is a rather naive and simplistic assumption.
The certification and validation of credentials and training in Canada, the U.S. and other countries without national qualification frameworks, have been conducted by many agencies. Yes, some of these reside locally and the institution has some input into this but in the main, the certifying bodies of credentials are regional and national – professional associations, specialized accrediting agencies, national certifying agencies, regional accreditors, and industry boards and councils. The certification continuum is diverse and varied in Canada and the U.S. and highly complext.
ETHE Team: So, provinces and states will not get involved in the certification of micro-credentials?
DJO: A definitive answer to your question may not be clear for some time. Remember, non-credit training and education whether short-term or long-term has never been under the various certifying bodies precisely because they were not offered for academic credit. Of course, as I mentioned earlier competency -based training offered in the military and community colleges were designed purposely for rigorous assessment and certification.
However, most non-credit programs we offered via continuing education, community education, and extension services whether face-to-face or online were not and are not subject to external oversight. These are strictly under the institution.
At the same time, if micro-credentials target specific local industries within a state or province, it is certainly feasible that to ensure quality, rigor and competencies in any skill domains that critical to economic and workforce development that state and provincial agencies respectively may play expanded roles in micro-credential oversight. And, in any skill domain areas that are related to public safety and health this would likely occur. If I had to predict, yes states and provinces will play key roles in the micro-credentials game and we are already seeing signs of this in the U.S. and Canada.
ETHE Team: Do institutions need to reconsider current policy frameworks in light of micro-credentials.?
DJO: Institutions will need to look at policies from the vantage point of academic affairs. The implementation of institutional micro-credentials will likely require a significant investment by academic faculty and/or contracted expertise to ensure micro-credentials meet agreed upon standards. The training and education standards of micro-credentials will be much more rigorous and precise than the old non-credit training program criteria offered by outreach units – which were and still are often delivered by experts whom are not part of the full-time faculties. The new micro-credential market will not have to meet all credit requirements, but the new standards will be significantly higher than those institutions used in non-credit programs and that will become an academic affairs policy issue for maintain quality and faculty will seek control.
In sum, institutions need to engage academic affairs in this entire dialogue because there will also be policies regarding marketing, branding, housing and storing micro-credentials (blockchain security), access by students and employers to digital micro-credential records. The funding of micro-credentials may also require policies related to fees, learning design, specific data that must be included on micro-credentials and more. And, finally workload and pay, the hallmarks of most union negotiations cannot be ignored in these policy discussions. The University of California at Irvine has done some great work around the role of academic affairs and micro-credentials.
ETHE Team: Don, to close our conversation today, if a president asked you for a recommendation for go or no go on micro-credentials over the next two years, what would be your recommendation?
DJO: As you might expect based upon my earlier comments, I would accentuate that institutional history and context matter. I would encourage leadership teams to refrain from immediate long-term decisions and begin assessing the viability of micro-credentials within their current outreach and online arsenals, their key stakeholder groups, and their provincial opportunities.
The key question at the macro level is what are the benefits of micro-credentials to the key stakeholders? And, of course, students and employers are at the top of key stakeholders. Conversely, what are the downsides? I would encourage institutional leadership teams to roll out a few pilots with micro-credentials and take the necessary time to make good decisions about future institutional directions. This is not a make or break decision right now and testing the waters is not only prudent, it is low risk. Decisions with greater risk may be on the horizon but the good news is that those decisions do not have to be made today.
I would also share the following with most presidents and vice chancellors.
- Build your micro-credential footprint with partners and start locally in your primary service region. The Micro-credentials market does not need every institution bombarding the market and burying employers. Presidents must lead and this means selecting the key strategic priorities for their institutions. Universities can not be all things to all people because this ultimately leads to mediocrity – doing a lot of things poorly.
- Begin the conversation now about what role A.I. might play in leveraging the benefits and accessibility of micro-credentials for your institution.
- Micro-credentials will mostly be offered online and stored online. Build your arsenal if you enter the market by integrating micro-credentials with all other institutional digital delivery systems – online programmes, training, OERs, and of course A.I.
ETHE Team: Don, it has been a pleasure to have you with us today. Thank you for your insights into micro-credentials and your observations on leadership, change and policy development. You gave our readers a lot to think about.
DJO: It’s been a pleasure talking with the ETHE Team. I wish you and UOC all the best and continued success.