Workforce development in the post-COVID world: Digital micro-credentials as a lever for transformation

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Dr David Porter, Senior Adviser: Higher Education
Dr Kirk Perris, Adviser: Education

The opportunity to create customisable learning experiences for individuals has catalysed a movement to harness the ideas of open badging (, 2020) with the aspiration of institutions to offer digital credentials for learners (AACRAO, 2020). The resulting fusion has led to greater deliberation and development of micro-credentials specifically, inspired by their attributes and value propositions for learners, higher education institutions and employers.

Micro-credential definitions exist and there is no standard one. Rossiter and Tynan (2019) note that, “unlike more formal qualifications, such as the degree, which has some intra-global frameworks, the fledgling world of micro-credentials has no such framework.” They offer some parameters including that, “A micro-credential is shorter than an award course but can represent from one to 100 hours of learning, may or may not be certified by an accrediting institution or association, and may be taken online or as a face-to-face experience.”

The Commonwealth of Learning continues to explore the space of micro-credentials, and some examples include thought leadership publications and courses on Youth Work with the University of the South Pacific. COL is also offering a micro-credentialing online workshop series beginning in late February 2021 that will be of interest to partner institutions. The focus of this series will be on upskilling individuals for employability.

The move to upskill and re-skill individuals for a dynamically changing economic environment has become integral to recovery and resilience strategies for a post-COVID world (Davidson, 2020). An unexpected corollary to the COVID pandemic has been the acceleration of developments in artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, both of which will create new career pathways while dismantling others. Consequently, the need to harness digital transformation in ways that better equip individuals and institutions to respond to opportunities for further learning and differentiated employment is imperative. Micro-credentials provide a viable and expedient pathway to explicitly certify competence and facilitate the match between individuals and employment opportunities. Higher education institutions are well-placed to own and advance this space as a provider, though they will need to pivot away from conventional thinking on assessment and credentialing.

In a 2018 paper, Gary Matkin of the University of California (Irvine) presented a clear and cogent overview of the need to rethink the way in which higher education institutions provide credentials for their students. He noted:

Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs) will significantly transform the relationship between higher education institutions and society. By providing fully digital, workplace-relevant, and information-rich records of an individual’s skills and competencies, ADCs will render traditional university transcripts increasingly irrelevant and obsolete. Universities and colleges that do not adopt in some measure the ADC movement will begin to experience a slow decline in market position and patron support. (Matkin, 2018, p.1)

Matkin outlined the evolution of digital credential thinking from the open badge specification (2013) to the idea of alternative digital credentials, which, he suggested, were a better match with current societal realities driven by the needs of learners and employers. Digital credentials can capture rich, dynamic and verifiable information about the skills and competencies individuals possess. They may also identify the shelf life of the skill and competency fostering in the process a mindset of upskilling for individuals and a layer of legitimacy to employers or registrars. In this vein, Matkin proposed that digital learning records would evolve and grow over time as the individual acquired additional knowledge and skills inside and outside classrooms. Matkin also noted that today’s learners, many of whom already hold traditional higher education credentials, are looking for shorter, more targeted learning and skill development opportunities. Digital credentials are a good match because of their structure and specificity about an individual’s acquired knowledge and skills. He emphasised that digital credentials would also facilitate better alignment with employment related job search strategies, that might work well for both individuals and employers.

Digital micro-credentials are a reflection of the short- and long-term transformations occurring in the workplace. The broad sectors of agriculture, manufacturing and services are being redefined by technology, and both individuals and industry need to adapt irrespective of occupation. Higher education institutions will be a central player but will need learning pathways that complement, if not diverge from conventional degrees, diplomas and certificates. Digital micro-credentials present a unique opportunity to acquire specific knowledge or skill captured in a credential that accurately verifies what its holder can do.

While debates on standards for micro-credentials unfold, governments and their institutions of higher learning must recognise the opportunity presented by micro-credentialing to underpin new approaches to workforce development.

References: (2020). MyCreds: Canadian registrar association launches national credential wallet. Retrieved from

Davidson, M. (2020). The future of Ontario’s workers: how micro-credentials can be a vital part of the post-pandemic recovery. Washington, DC: July 27, 2020. Retrieved from (2020). Elevate your learning with open badges. Retrieved from

Matkin, G. W. (2018). Alternative digital credentials: An imperative for higher education. CSHE Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE. 2.18. Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Rossiter, D. & Tynan, B. (2019). Designing and implementing micro-credentials: a guide for practitioners. Commonwealth of Learning. The Knowledge Series. Retrieved from

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