Micro-Credentials Guide - What They Are and Why They're Valuable
Micro-credentials appear to be on everyone’s priority list - whether an educator, learner, employer...
All degrees are not created equal, and employers know that. They also know that just because a learner has completed a course of study does not mean they have both the soft and hard skills needed to perform the work in the position they are seeking. In other words, a degree does not equal employability in all cases. In this information-rich Credentialate Guide we explore what employability outcomes learners, educators and employers want.
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“How did you do in your last class?”
In an informal survey recently, we asked a number of students this question, some still attending college, some post-graduation, some just ending their high school careers. The number one answer involved a letter grade:
And the list could go on. Until we asked the follow-up question, “What skills did you take away from that class (or learning opportunity)?” Not one of them answered the initial question with a skill, a knowledge takeaway, or even facts they might have learned. And the types of classes ranged from a Masters level course to courses on coding and marketing. What’s the common denominator?
For learners, it is more about the outcome, i.e. the final qualification, and that outcome is what they perceive makes them employable. But we all know that isn’t the entire picture. So what does employability mean? That depends on who you ask...
To define employability, you first have to look at what the person you are asking wants. For example, when we look at the data gathered by QILT (Australia), HESA (UK) and various data from the United States, these definitions become clearly evident.
While educators, especially those who have recently worked in the field in which they teach, know that employability means more than just getting a job: the way educational institutions define success as the number of learners who go on to be employed post graduation. And truthfully, a lot of them do a pretty good job. According to our recent study, around 70% of learners worldwide end up employed, most of those in their chosen field of study (at least initially).
In addition, when you look at the reasons that some of them are not employed, it is clear they are employable, but have chosen to take a year off, care for a loved one, or even continue their education at a higher level. So what’s the problem?
The issue is that learners have a different perspective on employability and the value of their education.
First, because of the way post-secondary education is paid for in various countries around the world, different costs are associated with education in different places. Many learners in the United States face crippling student debt, and some will struggle to pay off the loans they took out within their lifetimes. In fact, some Ivy League degrees are the worst offenders. This article looks at which college programs give students the best bang for their bucks.
Even those in other countries face the cost of time. Four years spent in an educational institution may put them four years behind their peers who seek alternate routes to education, and they may still end up in entry level positions where they feel underemployed and unappreciated. In our survey, 37.5% of those working in a field other than their course of study were doing so because they “took whatever work they could find.”
Learners not only want to be paid back for the time they spend studying, but they want to get into their preferred job, not just a job. For many, that means additional higher education, or the need to “stack” certifications alongside or on top of their degree. Otherwise, they may define themselves as “technically employable, but not at the level I desire,” like Sharon, a graduate with a Masters in Graphic Design from San Diego State University told us. “In addition to my degree, I pursued a few software certifications on Masterclass to ensure I could prove my ability to use and adapt to industry software.”
Which is a third aspect of what learners want. “I knew how to use InDesign,” Sharon told us. “But I had to be able to prove that knowledge to an employer.” In other words, learners are looking for Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and often Recognition of Prior Experience (RPE). It’s not enough to have the skills if you can’t prove it.
And when we talk about learners, there is an often neglected group of learners: those entrepreneurs who aspire to self-employment. In that case, skills-based proof of learning is even more important. They don’t have to prove competency just once to get hired: they must prove it over and over again to be hired by multiple clients in a variety of situations.
“To win a proposal, I need to be able to clearly demonstrate I have the skills my client needs in some way they can verify,” Sharon said. This is why sites like Upwork, Clear Voice, and others are so vital to both freelancers and those who hire them. These sites have frameworks and places like a CV or work history where an individual can showcase their skills and experience. LinkedIn serves as a resource for many freelancers as well.
For those looking to start a business on their own rather than work in the gig economy, RPL holds arguably greater importance. Venture capital funding and initial client onboarding is directly tied to founder skills. “Each time I start a new business, I have to prove myself,” Rand Fishkin, author of Lost and Founder and founder of MOZ, an SEO giant, and now SparkToro says. “Even though I left MOZ and started another company, I had to prove myself and the worth of the product to partners, employees, and customers all over again.”
No matter what their ambition after graduation from any education program, no matter what their career goals, learners define employability - even self-employability - by the same standards. Broken down to the simplest terms, learners want:
The biggest impact on whether or not education pays off is not what the learner wants, but what the employer is looking for.
Employers, like learners, have different definitions of employability depending on the industry, location and job title they are hiring for. However, they are generally looking for three things:
When we combine the perspectives we get an interesting mix of answers that defines employability in a general way, but one likely acceptable to all stakeholders.
Employability generally defined means:
So how does this definition relate to current frameworks? The answer, like in so many cases is: it depends.
Before we go any further, we must also tackle another set of definitions. We must define that last bit of our bullet list, and talk about informal, non-formal and formal learning. In a recent conversation with Edalex, Jeffrey Lehrer, from Scouts Australia explained these terms, well, informally from his perspective.
This definition is particularly potent coming from the Scouts organisation. Why? Well, the organisation itself contains all three aspects of learning, from the Scout programs to training adult volunteers. Much of the learning is informal, but structured non-formal learning defines many badges in the Scouting program itself - and that learning can lead to other formal learning pathways outside of the Scouts organisation, such as the Outdoor Education Network.
But if we look at our own education, and that of nearly every potential job candidate, we will see all three kinds of learning, and skills that may have come from more than one. For example:
On the job, it is possible that skills from all three of those sets of learning could play a role in the success of the employee, but likely only one, perhaps two will be taken into account when a HR manager looks at the candidate: their formal schooling, and the degree or certificate they received. A large factor may be the grades the learner received in that program.
If the learner shares their experience in Scouting, the interviewer may take that into account, but they can just as easily dismiss it as non-formal learning and unimportant. And it is also unlikely, even if it is on their resume, that the learner brought said badges to the interview (the proof of skills).
Finally, the training they received from their grandfather, while likely useful in many ways on the job, is not recorded anywhere on a resume or transcript. It may be mentioned casually in an interview, but there is no “proof” of learning, and the only way to illustrate this skill is on the job, likely in a scenario beyond the scope of a typical “working interview.”
The truth is, as we define the types of learning, we then must revisit our definition of employability: the term implies that all of the types of learning defined here play a role, but in the reality of the job market, they may or may not.
And then when we talk about employability and learning, we must look at another category of learner altogether and an additional definition of employability - the one that Sharon and Rand Fishkin talked about above.
“I’ve been working since I was 16,” Ryan, a contractor for a major software start-up told us confidentially. “But I’ve never really had a job per se. By that, I mean that I have never worked for a single employer at any one time. I’ve always either had my own business or worked as a contractor.” Ryan has several industry certificates and a bachelor’s degree. “Most of my clients assume I worked more traditionally at some point in my life, but I never have.”
“I only had a few jobs in my life before I started my own company,” Dean Rosso told us. He recently sold his family produce business in Idaho, and is developing a start-up using robotics to automate farming tasks. “I’ve never worked for anyone else since.”
These are two types of entrepreneurs, but with one thing in common: they aren’t looking for employment in the typical sense. They either work in the gig economy, from contract to contract, or in Mr. Rosso’s case, he starts companies of his own from the ground up. Both have to prove themselves in different ways, and education can play a big part in their success.
“The difference is, I don’t have to prove myself to one boss to get a job and then I’m done,” Ryan tells us. “I have to prove myself to new clients over and over again - through my education partly, but mostly through my experience and references related to what I’m capable of.”
Ryan is the very definition of a lifelong-learner. “Sometimes a client will ask if I know how to do something. I’ll tell them, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ Then I find a way to learn how to do what they asked for.” He told us in his most recent venture, the start-up he works for, wanted an app developed. He’d never done that before, but he knew how to code websites. “I thought it couldn’t be that much different or that much harder. So I went and took a course.”
The course he took could be defined as non-formal learning, an internet course offered by Apple, that helps coders learn new things for free. However, it worked, and his project was successful. “Now that’s one more thing I can add to my toolbox,” he said with a grin.
However, when it comes to Dean Rosso, he has a different view of employability. With a Master’s degree in business administration, he found that starting a company is similar no matter what the company will do. However, he had to learn about employability from a different perspective.
“I’m not a software or A.I. guy,” he told us. “Even though I love using technology to make things more efficient, I don’t know all that much about how it actually works.” Instead, he relies on partners and managers to let him know what they need. “I largely have to trust their judgement. Most say a developer doesn’t need a degree to work on our projects, but they need experience and skills in place of that degree.”
When we asked him how candidates prove those skills, he gave us three things his hiring managers tell him they look for:
“First, they look for past projects. The candidate can show them anything - from an app they created as a personal project, to something they created for someone else - just something that shows they understand coding and computer language,” he said. “They of course have to be able to prove it is theirs, but most of the time that can be verified through conversation.”
The second thing his company looks at, is formal education if the candidate has any. “The problem with software guys is that some of the best in the business struggled to pass high school,” he said with a laugh. “But we try to look at why they struggled. If they were bored and just disengaged with learning, we have to evaluate what that means if they get bored on the job.”
The final criteria involves company culture and a desire to learn all the time. “We’re in a brand new field,” Dean told us. “No pun intended. No one has done the things we want to do and that is why we want to do them. But there is no manual or guide. We’re learning as we go, every single day. The desire and ability to learn is more important than what the job candidate knows today.”
When talking to these two, the result is a new viewpoint. Neither of them will be employed in any conventional way, although, “If this company doesn’t work out, I may actually have to get a job,” Dean jokes. Both have to “prove” their skills over and over again, to either win clients or to convince others to offer funding and back a new company.
“It’s not easy,” Ryan said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The question that comes to mind immediately is, “Is self-employability that different from employability?”
It’s a good question, and to answer it, let’s look at this term from another point of view.
When we asked Mr. Lehrer if learners understood the value of the skills they’re acquiring and how to align them to competencies, he gave us a simple answer: “No, they don’t.”
However, he further explained that they do understand once someone has a conversation with them. These are things they might not otherwise think of sharing with an employer, but once they understand the skills and competencies their learning proves, they are more likely to do so. The long-term goal is to have more Recognition of Non-Formal Learning as part of RPL statements. At the end of 2019 the Rio Declaration on Non-Formal Learning was created by a group of the six largest youth organisations in the world, stating that while these organisations provide great training, there needs to be a way to align it to formal learning.
Of course, a few short months later, the world of education was thrown into a new kind of chaos, along with these six organisations, but there are still those working behind the scenes to try to make this a reality. Still, the recognition that non-formal learning has a structure and can be both recognised and validated is not far from becoming a reality, at least for some.
The issue is, of course, informal learning. There is no structure as we saw from the example above, and there is no path to recognition and verification, at least not yet. But the skills and competencies a learner has gained are still important.
For RPL to bridge non-formal to formal learning, there needs to be a translation piece. If a Scout got a Queen’s Scout Award (Australia) or a Eagle Scout Award (U.S.) what does that mean? Even most uneducated employers will know that a lot of work goes into one of those awards. But what work exactly? What skills and competencies were gained?
Scouts Australia has a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) program, the translation piece, that offers an explanation, if you will, of what goes into these various awards. They can then be used to bolster university entrance applications, employment applications and more.
What does this transition of non-formal to formal learning look like? “It varies,” Lehrer said. “It varies a lot.” In the case of adult volunteers, their education is at least in part about risk management: to teach the scouting members to sail, the adult must first prove themselves a competent sailor, a competent teacher and a person who manages safety well.
The Scout member can also take 4-5 times as long as an adult member to achieve the same outcomes. It just isn’t consistent, because it depends on what the learner is learning, why they are learning it and how structured the non-formal learning must be as a result.
How does this recognition and verification take place? And what does it mean to employability?
Let’s all close our eyes and dream for a moment. Let’s picture an ideal world with the perfect bridge between non-formal learning and formal education. Do you see it? No? Things a little blurry?
That’s because there is no clear answer. The Scouts are starting to use digital badges, but for the education they offer adults only. The reason? Finance. Setting up digital badges on the block chain or in another verification framework that is both accessible but immutable is challenging and right now, costly.
But there is work happening to map non-formal learning to formal frameworks, which is one option. Doing it any other way is a challenge, without some kind of translation piece. This is where Credentialate is making significant strides. But there are still issues with no easy answers. Accreditation, assessment and similar issues remain.
It’s also important to think about what employment means in today’s world. Sharon and Ryan, both workers in the gig economy, told us they had to prove skills to clients over and over again, like “applying for one job after another,” Sharon said.
Rand Fishkin and Dennis Russo are now on the other side of the coin. Entrepreneurs who work for themselves and must prove themselves to investors and customers over and over as well. “The startup world has a short term memory,” Rand says in his book, Lost and Founder. “It’s all about ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
While self-employed, how different is their plight, really, from someone who is employed? Employees usually stay at one job an average of just over four years. “Career jobs” for a single company are rare, and following the events of 2020, over 40% of people are thinking of changing jobs this year, some of them to an entirely different career field. How important is the ability to learn and adapt to these workers?
At the same time, employees are now concerned with how portable certifications are. Does a Google certification translate to the same certification at IBM? Does training at Apple count when you go to work for Amazon? Is there an underlying framework, a source of both value and verification? The answer for the most part is, “no.” Companies may recognise training from another, but often an employee will have to be re-trained to ensure alignment with policies and values of the new company.
In other words, this non-formal learning may or may not make an employee more or less employable, but lacking a centralised framework, an employee might repeat the same learning over, and over, and over again. Even if we did establish a central framework, are we then blurring the line between non-formal and formal education?
And after we have examined all this information, is it time to take another look at our definition of employability?
At the very beginning of this piece, we defined employability in its most basic form. We boiled it down to:
But after what we have discussed, has that definition changed at all? The answer is a strong maybe.
After talking to learners, educators, and employees it seems that perhaps the most important trait a learner can have is the knowledge of how to learn. Whether we are talking about employability or self-employability, the overall desire is the same: an employer wants a verifiable, accurate record of what a job candidate knows and more importantly, can apply to this position.
A learner wants a portable, verifiable record of prior learning that they can use to either get a job or prove their worth in the gig economy, or even to start and run their own business.
And the educator wants to give the learner evidence of their learning, the skills they have obtained, and their ability to apply them - an employability certification if you will - that is verifiable, portable and accurate.
So if we’re all working toward the same thing, if we define employability in a similar way, why are we not progressing faster toward this goal?
The answers are not easy. From international policies that need to change, to the alignment of non-formal to formal learning pathways, to the need to collect, assess, and verify informal learning, there are obstacles.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome. If we can speak the same language and use that as a base to start meaningful discussions, we’ll be on our way to finding and implementing new and better solutions.
Credentialate is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials to students backed by personalised evidence at scale. By automatically extracting data from existing platforms and using an organization’s own assessment rubrics, we can objectively measure awarding criteria and validate its evidence.
By this same method we can automate the assessment, monitoring, promotion and validation of evidence-backed skills. For an institution, we provide the data and insights required to track skills and competencies across courses and entire programs.
Finally, we have decades of collective experience in educational technology and long-standing ties with global educational powerhouses. These solidify our ability to produce credible digital badges.
Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials to students. If you’d like to learn more About Us and how we can work together, contact us or Schedule a Demo and let’s discuss!
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Credentialate is the world’s first Credential Evidence Platform that helps discover and share evidence of workplace skills. Launched In 2019, it was initially developed in close collaboration with leading design partner, UNSW Sydney, in support of a multi-year, cross-faculty community of practice and micro-credential research project. Credentialate has continued to evolve at an accelerated pace, informed in partnership with educators and industry leaders from around the world. Credentialate provides a Skills Core that creates order from chaotic data, provides meaningful insight through framework alignment and equips learners with rich personal industry-aligned evidence of their skills and competencies.
Find out more at: edalex.com/credentialate