Micro-Credentials and Work-Integrated Learning: A Natural Alignment

One of the hottest topics in post-secondary education is micro-credentials! Building on the momentum of this phenomena, we invited an expert to present on the topic of micro-credentials and work-integrated learning (WIL) at a recent ACE-WIL town hall. 

Post by Helena Prins, advisor, Learning & Teaching at BCcampus

Anne-Marie Fannon is the director of the professional development program at the University of Waterloo and was the 2019 winner of the Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada Volunteer Service Award for her incredible work in the WIL field. Anne-Marie’s work on micro-credentials with her team at the University of Waterloo serves as an inspiration and could provide some guidance for individuals embarking on this relatively new path in B.C.

In her presentation, Anne-Marie shared the University of Waterloo’s journey with micro-credentialing over the past 18 months. She discussed what they have learned about micro-credentials through pilot projects and research, and specifically how those experiences helped shape their thinking about micro-credentials. How might we leverage them both to not only better prepare students for their WIL experiences but also recognize the competencies students demonstrate during that time?

Anne-Marie’s team’s first step was to think about a micro-credential strategy for their work in WIL. It was a challenging process to create micro-credentials that would be meaningful to students, employers, and community partners. What made it challenging was not only the limited models out there to serve as examples but also that the term micro-credential was being used to represent a wide range of learning experiences. Anne-Marie was concerned about flooding the job-application space with credentials that meant very little in terms of skill development for students while also considering the inconsistency and potential confusion for employers. According to Anne-Marie, one of the benefits of being in the WIL space is that WIL often spans the boundaries of academia and industry. WIL staff get to see both sides of the employability question. They see the very rich WIL experiences of students and how these experiences help students develop in-demand skills. And they also see the challenges these students face in identifying and articulating those skills, especially in language that resonates with employers. On the employer-side, WIL staff are aware of the challenges of filling skills gaps and finding ways to fill their short- and long-term operational and strategic needs. This is where Anne-Marie sees the WIL work happening – through a process of continuously trying to close that gap. Her personal bias is that “if we were going to start issuing micro-credentials, they have to be meaningful credentials that would both help give students additional evidence of the skills they have developed during their post-secondary program, and that employers could trust the attestations that students have indeed developed these skills.” IBM uses the term “résumé worthy” to describe its certifications, a term Anne-Marie holds to her core while thinking about micro-credentials.

For the purpose of this context, Anne-Marie used the following definition of micro-credentials (emphasis added):

At the most basic level, micro-credentials verify, validate, and attest that specific skills and/or competencies have been achieved. They differ from traditional degrees and certificates in that they are generally offered in shorter or more flexible time spans and tend to be more narrowly focused. 

— The State University of New York

The main purposes of micro-credentials in Canada “right now,” as outlined by a BC Council on Admissions and Transfers report titled Micro-Credentials: Trends in Credit Transfer and Credentialing, are:

  • Provide evidence of skills and competencies not evident through attainment of degrees, diplomas, or a review of transcripts 
  • Recognize competencies achieved through co-curricular experiences 
  • Provide rapid training for in-demand skills 
  • Create pathways into traditional post-secondary programming 
  • Recognize skills and competencies developed through on-the-job learning, including professional development programs

Anne-Marie suggests there is a natural connection between three of these purposes (emphasized above). Micro-credentials in WIL could provide rapid training for in-demand skills as well as evidence of the skills and competencies that are not explicitly associated with degrees or diplomas or seen in a review of transcripts. As she started to explore this relationship further, these natural connections jumped out at her. So many of the WIL programs already contain robust assessments of student skills and competencies not limited to classroom performance. It is common practice for employers and community partners to complete a specific assessment of student skills in the workplace as a component of their co-op program, internship, practicum, or field placement. Some mechanisms for micro-credential work are already in place. Potential employers already value the work-term record that the University of Waterloo has in place, which serves as an attestation from previous employers of ways that students performed in co-op work terms. What Anne-Marie and her team have done at the University of Waterloo is just update the student performance evaluation to reflect the competencies and talents they believe are critical for success into the future. They  identified 12 competencies through a major research project that informed a “Future-Ready Talent Framework.” They used this framework as they built their micro-credential strategy.

The University of Waterloo used funding obtained in 2019 from eCampus Ontario to test a model for issuing micro-credentials in WIL that leveraged employer evaluations of students’ workplace performance as attestations to the skills and competencies they developed and demonstrated in the workplace. Anne-Marie’s team partnered with Electricity Human Resources Canada, which identified communication and collaboration as two key competencies in demand in the electricity sector. Students from the electrical and computer engineering department were eligible to earn a micro-credential when they met two benchmarks:

  1. 80 percent in a professional development course 
  2. “Superior Performance” rating on student performance evaluation on related competencies

Anne-Marie’s team ran a survey of 120 employers and 1000 student responses to examine the employer and student perceptions of micro-credentials. The three main research questions were as follows:

  1. How familiar are employers and students with micro-credentials?
  2. What is the perceived value of micro-credentials to employers and students?
  3. How motivated are students to earn micro-credentials in a WIL context?

The results indicated that awareness of micro-credentials was low (something that is rapidly changing here in B.C.), but that increasing familiarity could improve perceptions of value. There was a positive correlation between awareness of micro-credentials and perception of value. The perceived value was further influenced by the granting body of the credential, the completion criteria, and the skills recognized through the credential. These are important insights to consider for all those who embark on micro-credential projects in B.C..

The team at the University of Waterloo conducted interviews with seven students who participated in their pilot projects. Some of the themes that emerged from those interviews were as follows:

  1. Stricter criteria added legitimacy.
  2. Not all students were aware that earning a micro-credential would add value to their application package.
  3. Students were focused on the learning and skills, not necessarily certification (which is encouraging news for instructors).
  4. Some students were motivated to put more effort into their course and workplace experience knowing they could earn a micro-credential.

When thinking about micro-credentials for upskilling students and their WIL experiences for future employability, Anne-Marie shared an example of something her team had to design in response to COVID-19 in spring 2020. They needed to create and find more work opportunities for students while recognizing that many enterprises were going digital. They partnered with some key strategic industry partners to help upskill their students in core digital skills. They asked for existing training content, covering topics such as digital marketing, web design, e-commerce, etc. They structured it almost like a MOOC with content freely available to students that included a short assessment at the end. Although these offerings were not exactly what Anne-Marie would consider “a micro-credential–worthy experience,” the project did make her wonder about the potential of working with industry partners and leveraging their existing content. Could we pair that learning with some workplace assessments that could provide a valid attestation of a demonstrated competency in the workplace?

Anne-Marie listed some of the challenges of assessing learning in WIL as the uniqueness of each student, student self-assessment, the uniqueness of each WIL setting, the identification of career-readiness benchmarks, the WIL supervisor as assessor, and the employers’ willingness to publicly endorse talents. It is worth reflecting on these challenges, in particular how we will engage employers to endorse and have trust in our micro-credentials.

The next step for the team at the University of Waterloo is to take what they have learned and develop a strategy for verifying and validating the skills and competencies students acquired and demonstrated throughout their WIL experiences. Anne-Marie’s team will also explore co-creating micro-credentials with strategic industry partners, which would allow students to develop and demonstrate skills in particular competencies.

What can B.C. educators learn from the Anne-Marie’s experience? On a superficial level, what stood out was perhaps the importance of communication to promote the perceived value of micro-credentials. Digging deeper, you might come to value the time and resources needed to do this work well. Whether working from the top down or from the bottom up, Anne-Marie encouraged participants in the town hall to start small, but start somewhere!

Ross McKerlich, project manager of micro-credentials at BCcampus, said, “Anne-Marie showed us the impact of micro-credentials in work-integrated learning. Micro-credentials provide a window into the co-op learning experience — competencies that are earned and proudly recognized for future employment.” 

Hannah Ahluwalia, co-op student at UVic, responded to the presentation by reminding participants that “fellow students don’t get involved in co-op or other WIL with associated costs… I think it’s important to keep this in mind when designing micro-credential programming for students… I think it is worth exploring how schools can offer micro-credential courses outside of formal co-op. This may be building a completely new course or partnering with campus organizations that already provide these services and building it up so that it is ‘micro-credential worthy.’ There are so many types of WIL and methods of experiential learning, and making micro-credentialing accessible to a wider range of students is important.”

May we not ignore the student voice in this conversation! Not surprisingly, Hannah’s comments echoed those of a learner panel at the recent eCampus Ontario forum on micro-credentials, which underlined the importance of micro-credentials to provide choice, relevance, flexibility, and access.

If you want to listen to Anne-Marie’s presentation, you can find the recording here.

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The feature image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash