There is increasing talk about microcredentials in higher education. Earlier this week, the federal government announced the first group of courses it is supporting in a microcredential pilot program.
Microcredentials have been around in vocational circles for several years but are starting to be offered more widely by universities. The Universities Accord review panel has noted “microcredentials are likely to be increasingly in demand” as industries encourage lifelong learning.
The government’s pilot involves 28 courses in IT, engineering, science, health and education. But they can also be offered in fields as diverse as law, psychology and architecture.
What are microcredentials?
Microcredentials are small courses in a specific area of study.
They focus on updating or gaining new skills in a short time frame, typically ranging from a few weeks to a semester of study. They are viewed as a way to meet industry and employee needs quickly and address critical skills gaps.
For example, the pilot program includes a microcredential on phonics for teachers to develop their skills in literacy teaching. It also includes a course in disease management outbreaks for GPs and other health-care workers.
The cost varies but can range from a few hundred dollars to more than A$4,000. At the end of a microcredential, you may receive a stand-alone certificate, or the microcredential may provide a credit transfer pathway and count towards a degree.
They have been part of Australia’s industry skills landscape for a while now and have been delivered by TAFEs, industry organisations, and even by employers. However, they are still quite new in universities and many of the professions that universities have traditionally supported.
At the end of a microcredential you may receive a certificate or credit towards a degree.
The benefits of short-term study
Microcredentials can address critical skills gaps. They offer a way to update and progress your career without the long-term commitment and expense of a traditional graduate qualification.
You can also mix and match education and training to form a more bespoke study plan.
So it is no surprise microcredentials are gaining a lot of attention in the higher education sector. Most universities already offer “short courses”, “professional certificates” and “executive education”. These are all microcredentials by another name.
However, all this flexibility can be confusing and it may not be clear whether a microcredential is the right choice for you. Here are four things to consider.
1. What do you want out of further education?
If you need a specific skill, then a microcredential is a good idea.
Microcredentials have a different purpose to traditional degrees.
Microcredentials can feel more like vocational education and training – highly targeted to cover precise competencies in a specific setting. This means they are rarely designed to develop broader capabilities and frameworks of professional practice you can normally expect from a degree program.
So in your career and educational planning, it is important to think through what you really need.
In a nutshell, if you need a specific skill, then a microcredential is ideal. However, if you need support bringing together diverse skills, knowledge, and dispositions to extend your professional practice, then a traditional degree may be a better investment.
2. What specific skill is on offer?
If your career plan does call for an improvement of specific skills, there are some important questions you should ask yourself before you enrol in a microcredential course.
The first is simply “does this course offer a skill I actually need?” Unlike the vocational system (such as TAFE), universities’ microcredential catalogue is still relatively small. The skills government and industry are choosing to support at the moment may not be the skills you need in your context or to advance your career.
3. Am I suited to this type of study?
In the hustle and bustle of a microcredential course, it is often assumed participants will be well prepared to manage their own learning.
Because they are so short, microcredentials generally focus very strongly on the content itself. How you learn it, is often up to you.
To be successful, you may be required to take greater personal responsibility for all your own learning strategies. This might include recognising what you already know (or don’t know) about the topic, taking a quick look at the readings to get an overview before reading them carefully for more details, and adopting processes to critically question learning materials.
Microcredentials can focus heavily on content, rather than giving students help to learn.
4. How will I use this in my job or profession?
You also need to think about how you will transfer your microcredential learning into your everyday work habits.
A science teacher who learns some physics content, for example, may need to alter their wider assessment strategies to incorporate what they learned. A physiotherapist with a new treatment technique may need to decide how to explain it to the clients they work with.
Traditional degrees are usually designed to help with this translation-to-practice work. Part of the trade-off with microcredentials is they can throw this translation work back to the course participant.
For this reason, microcredentials will work best for people who have established good professional development practices like reflection and peer-review, or for those who can engage in active and ethical experimentation with the new skill in their real-world practice.
Preparing people for professional environments has always been a core purpose of universities, and the adoption of microcredentials will likely expand the ways this can be done.
A microcredential, however, is a different educational proposition to a traditional degree course. So it is important the consumer chooses wisely.
But even though they are different, the two are still compatible. You may even find yourself engaging in both traditional university courses and microcredentials as you evolve and adapt throughout your career.
Simon Leonard works for the University of South Australia. He receives funding from the Australian Government’s National Careers Institute, the South Australian Department for Education, and Trinity College, Gawler.