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Microcredentials: are they here to stay?

Cedefop has launched a new study on the role of microcredentials in upskilling or reskilling in a fast-changing work environment.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend of digitalisation of labour markets and the automation of production systems. Recognising the resulting higher demand for digital and related skills, the 2020 EU skills agenda focuses on targeted policies that can facilitate the upskilling and reskilling of EU citizens.

The need for individuals to re-evaluate their career prospects and engage in continuing vocational education and training is more pronounced in times of economic and social volatility, especially in the face of furlough or redundancy. Interest in continuing learning has surged during the pandemic, particularly through online sources, according to recent Cedefop analysis of Google Trends data.

With growing consensus on the need for more responsive education, training and learning systems that allow individuals to upskill and retrain in quicker and more flexible ways, alternative credentials have come under the spotlight. Although qualifications and degrees from initial education and training still play a key role, alternative credentials (including digital badges, microcredentials, nanocredentials, minor awards, etc.) are seen as necessary to make existing qualifications and credentials systems better fit for purpose. This priority was acknowledged in the 2020 EU skills agenda which is calling for a European approach to microcredentials.

What are microcredentials?

Microcredentials are frequently portrayed and promoted as a new way for individuals to build their own skills profile (portfolio) by collecting and ‘stacking’ learning in flexible ways, at their own pace and according to their own priorities. While there is currently no consensus on the term and definition, many see microcredentials as byproducts of the proliferation of massive online open courses (MOOCs). According to this, they are perceived as a (frequently digital) way to give visibility and value to predominantly shorter learning courses and/or experiences. While their role in higher, academic education has received much attention and their link to the proliferation of relatively low-cost and short duration MOOCs seems to be clear, the influence of microcredentials on further and continuing training in the labour market is less understood.

Looking at the certification and qualification landscape in general, task and competence-oriented certificates often linked to shorter learning experiences, already play an important role in many parts of the labour market (offered by sectors, private companies, international organisations and public bodies). While the term microcredential may be novel, the activities it encompasses may refer to long-standing practices. To understand the phenomenon fully, we need to understand how the technology-driven growth in microcredentials and online badges interacts with existing certification systems serving enterprises, sectors and technology areas.

Limited evidence exists on the general labour market value attached to microcredentials, with critical questions needing answers: Is the increased attention to microcredentials mainly linked to their (digital) delivery form or is it related to a genuine change in the way we recognise knowledge skills and competences? What kind of information can be extracted on their long-term impact on EU individuals’ labour market prospects?

Cedefop early findings on microcredentials

In its recent CrowdLearn study, focusing on one of the most dynamic segments of labour markets, the online platform or gig economy, Cedefop collected information from crowdworkers and key stakeholders (including platform companies) on whether skills assessments and awarded micro-certificates offered by platforms are used and of value for individuals in finding work. Most major online platforms typically offer crowdworkers an opportunity to gain a multitude of micro-certificates and badges by completing platform-specific skill tests, ranging from English language courses to graphic design. Although the evidence collected as part of the study is piecemeal and provides only one specific case study on the issue, focusing on online platform markets may offer some early insights into the future of the (digital) microcredential landscape.

The CrowdLearn study reveals that in the specific context of remote online work governed by relatively impersonal relationships between client and worker, microcredentials positively influenced job prospects for about 1 in 3 crowdworkers (Figure). For most online platform workers, however, such bite-sized credentials complement other signals of the overall trustworthiness and experience of job candidates, notably client feedback.

Figure: The value of micro-certificates in the online platform economy

New Cedefop study in progress

The CrowdLearn evidence shows that ensuring employers’ trust in the value of microcredentials is a key policy challenge. Their potential for supporting end-users needs to be further explored, as does the extent to which they are prominent in vocational education and training (VET) and work-based learning. Better understanding how microcredentials are linked to labour conditions and individuals’ earnings, how they are related to standard education degrees, and to what extent an overflow of microcredentials may lead to decreased transparency in traditional qualifications, is also a key issue for education policy-makers.

To address these issues and more, Cedefop has launched a new study on the role of microcredentials in facilitating learning for employment as part of its future of VET project. The study aims to offer new and valuable knowledge on the characteristics of microcredentials, their added value to individual learners, employees and employers, as well as their impact on existing qualifications and recognition systems.