Micro-credentials & Alternate Routes to Skilled Employment

If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. That is how it works at the movie theater and it is a reality for many seeking skilled employment. Whether you stole it, bought it, earned it, or it was offered to you as a gift; you need to have it in your possession if you want to get through the door. That ticket is often a formal credential like a college degree. Yet, there are simultaneous developments coming together to give us a glimpse of another way. Self-blended learning, connected learning, the unbundling of formal education and micro-credentials are starting to combine in a way that we might soon see an alternative to the diploma, what we can think of as the bitcoins of the credentialing world (look for another article playing with that comparison in the near future).

Defining Blended Learning

In Classifying K-12 Blended Learning,” Heather Staker and Michael Horn define blended learning as, “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” and “at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

There are several important observations in this definition. First, note that it is defined as a “formal education program.” As such, they are choosing a definition for blended learning that does not include the rapidly expanding world of informal, self-directed learning, and what I often refer to as self-blended learning (This is in contrast Staker and Horn’s reference to a type of self-blended learning that is still largely teacher-directed.). By noting that part of the learning takes place online and part takes place “at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home,” this seems to rule out homeschooling and unschooling, despite the fact that many in such settings consistently embrace and leverage the rest of the this definition of blended learning (a blend of face-to-face and online; and increased learner control over time, place, pace, and path). At the same time, the definition is broad enough to leave ample room for emerging and alternate learning contexts. For example, there is no explicit mention of a teacher in this definition. While a teacher may fill the role of shaping the “formal education program”, “instruction”, partial “control”, and supervision; the definition would also fit in a context where many people (or resources) played one or more of these roles.

One of the more fascinating parts of this definition compared to other definitions of blended learning is the part about increased student control over time, place, pace and pathway. It is certainly possible to create instruction that blends online and face-to-face but does not give learners more control over time, place, pace and/or path. As a result, this is not only a descriptive definition, but one that promotes a certain approach to the blending of face-to-face and online.

Self Blended Learning

Looking at the essay from Staker and Horn, one can see reference to self-blended learning. However, there are at least two working definitions for this term. In fact, compare the visual representation of the four types of blended learning in the previously mentioned article with the similar image here. You will notice that “self-blended” is replaced with “a-la-carte”, which is used to refer to a situation where learners choose a combination of face-to-face courses and online course to make up their overall formal schooling experience.

There is a different working definition for self-blended learning that I favor, one that seems more directly connected to the words “self” and “blended.” For more detail, see my articles on Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-Blended Learning and 5 Example of Self-blended Learning. Here and elsewhere I define self-blended learning as the combination of self-directed learning and blended learning. As such, self-blended learning is where a learner takes the initiative to blend face-to-face and online experiences to enhance learning in a traditional course, or to design an altogether new learning experience that is self-organized.

With this second definition in mind, self-blended learning encompasses the power of personal learning networks and the massive growth of formal and informal self-directed learning through online communities, social media, open courses, educational apps, and other aspects of a networked world.

Self-Directed Learning Limitations

With the growth of this movement toward self-blended and self-directed learning in the digital world, there is a growing clash between the people with increased knowledge and skill developed through self-blending that is often un-credentialed, and those who study in formal learning organizations and conclude with a credentials like a certification or diploma. Given that many skilled jobs list formal credentials as requirements for unemployment, we are beginning to see a growing number of people who likely have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to thrive in a given job, but they are excluded from consideration because they lack the credential. At the same time, due to the fact that these traditional credentials are often not trustworthy evidence of one’s qualifications for a given job, some credentialed but unqualified people make it further in the application process than the highly qualified but un-credentialed. This is not a new phenomena, as many scholars from the 1970s have rich insights into the stratification of society through education credentials (For a brilliant read on the subject, see Randall Collins’s 1979 book, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. I plan to write more about this and related texts in the near future). What is different today is that the Internet has rapidly opened and democratized learning resources, communities, and opportunities; but frequently without formal credentials. Credentials remain the least open and democratized part of contemporary education, even as we see many other aspects of education beginning to unbundle.

We certainly have ample examples of self-taught and self-directed people without formal credentials who found their way into significant positions, ones that are often limited to people with formal credentials. Many of them did so in new, emerging and less regulated jobs (startups, programming and other computer-related work, social media, sales and marketing, etc.). However, there are also a few like Joi Ito, who serves as Director of the MIT Media Lab. While not having a college degree, his record of accomplishments was significant enough for people to make an exception. Joi is clearly brilliant, but there are likely hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who are equally qualified for various jobs, but they lack the credential and are never considered for them. Consider a local sales job that requires a minimum of a college degree, but a self-taught person lives blocks away and may well be far more skilled at sales than any nearby college applicants.

The Credentialed or the Competent? 

Many point to schooling as the remedy to social ills and issues, as a rescue from poverty, unemployment and incarceration, but part of that is generated by how we value credentials more than competence. Is it getting the credential that keeps one out of jail and poverty, or is it something else that society just happens to attach to a degree? When people talk about the importance of getting an education, is it really focused on getting educated, acquiring important knowledge and skills? Or is it instead about earning a credential that serves as a ticket into more exclusive aspects of society? Is it the knowledge and skill that opens the door or the credential?

While school is one way to gain new knowledge and skill, it is not the only way. Yet, much of society is set up as if the credential itself was critical. Why, for example, don’t more job postings simply list the required competencies for consideration, regardless of one’s credentials? Is it because many in society have come to trust that the credential truly does further qualify one person over another? Or is there something else going on under the surface of our collective consciousness? Why do we trust the abstraction of a credential over more concrete measures of competence for many employment purposes?

The Role of Micro-Credentials and Competency-based Education

Over the last few years, we’ve seen growing interest and development in both alternate credentials and competency-based education. Much competency-based education is still closely tied to traditional schooling and credentialing structures, but this movement has begun to help us recognize the weakness or limitations in many of our models. Competency-based education (CBE) challenges us to question the validity of forcing the marriage of learner progress or accomplishment with required seat time in a class, the number of days or hours in a school building, or the number of credits earned. Instead, competency-based education focuses on outcomes. The concept of CBE leaves room to recognize the significance of part of the earlier definition of blended learning, that of giving learner at least some control over time (how long it takes), pace (when to go quickly and when to go slowly), place and learning pathway (how to achieve a given learning goal or demonstrate a given competency). At its essence, CBE is agnostic to the length and how of learning as long as one demonstrates the competency at the end. Of course, all formal CBE programs that I’ve reviewed so far do place some restrictions on learner control of these four features.

Add this essential aspect of competency-based education to one potential use of open badges. A badge is a digital symbol plus associated meta-data that can be issued and received as a result of some skill or achievement. Consider the possibility of establishing online collections of competency-based badges or micro-credentials that parallel the knowledge and skill acquired as one progresses toward getting a traditional credential or diploma.

Imagine that these badges have clearly stated criteria and a careful review process, one that ensures competence of the learner as well or better than what is done in traditional schooling. What would it look like to establish collections of these badges in the open, allowing people to suggest or provide both free and fee-based resources to help one reach the necessary competence to earn a given badge. Such a model has the possibility of creating a credentialing system that could potentially give an alternate route to skilled employment for the growing number of self-directed learners, especially those who do not elect to go through the sometimes bureaucratic hoops of a more traditional degree program.

This would challenge traditional schooling, but it would not replace it. What it would do is decrease the credential as the primary and culminating benefit of school. Instead, to justify the expense, a school would need to place even more attention on helping learners become increasingly competent and confident (and the social and extracurricular aspect of schools would maintain value among many). Of course, most schools would continue to issue traditional diplomas, but what if these micro-credentials gained enough social trust and recognition that they genuinely were accepted along with a college degree or separate from one? Some would still go to college. Others might piece together their own self-directed route to the same or a comparable credential.

Many opportunities would be made possible for such a model. It would create even more opportunities for new education startups and open source communities. And it would give learners even more choice and access to personalized and customized pathways to desired professional and life goals. One could freely blended learning resources from multiple schools, organizations, on the job training, online communities, life experiences and personal study to help gain the competencies desired or required for one or more career aspirations. It would even allow for easier retooling and retraining as a person aspires to move from one career track to another.

There is a massive “what if” in what I am writing. I am casting a potential vision for what could be more than what will be. Yet, the possibility for such a model exists now, and we are already seeing small version of it with the development of Udacity’s nanodegrees, people exploring open badges for employment, systems that promote and offer badges as a form of high-stakes credentialing, and companies like DuoLingo challenging trusted credentials like TOEFL by providing their own free or very low-cost (as in $20) certification program. Badges are gaining more traction for professional development purposes, as supplements to formal schooling, and in community education efforts. Yet, each of these efforts are increasing awareness and acceptance of badges. I am beginning to see increased promise for this proposed vision as I continue to watch more badge efforts develop, as public awareness continues to grow, and as people begin to recognize the possibilities for badges as a tool for further democratizing education. This may help to create a more open and authentic route to skilled employment, just as it appears to be speeding the unbundling of the education system.

This alternate form of credentials is not needed by everyone who chooses a less conventional educational route. See my article on Uncollege for another possibility. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is yet another option, where people learn to manage their online identity and build connections around their work and interests. These connections might even lead to jobs for which they do not even need to directly apply. The self-employed, freelance, and entrepreneurial options are often less restricted by the required entry tickets of traditional credentials. For other forms of skilled employment, the lack a formal credential is a barrier. Without that socially trusted abstract representation of one’s ability, options are limited. It is for these self-directed learners that micro-credentialing seems to offer new possibilities and increased opportunity.

There is a dark side to this. There is the possibility that micro-credentials will amplify or at least perpetuate the already significant problem of credentialism in contemporary society (look for a couple of posts on this topic as well). That is why the “open” part of the open badge movement is so significant. What I am writing here has both a realist and idealist side to it. The realist in me recognizes that credentialism is deeply rooted in much of contemporary society. However, I also see that is excludes when it does not need to do so. Concern about this issue is what drives the idealist in me, the part that resonates with the open education movement, and that sees the possibility of blending open education with a credential mindset that can open employment opportunities by further democratizing credentials, and challenge what some refer to as the current monopolization of skilled employment. That is my hope for micro-credentials.