To micro or not to micro?

Decorative images of paint spots

I’ve been tinkering away at a post on micro-credentials for a couple of months now, primarily as a means to consolidate what I am learning about and discussing regarding emerging models of educational provision. My plan was to write this up as a form of guide or overview to support a shared understanding before workshops or strategy meetings – because micro-credentials and their relationship with traditional Higher Education models is a complex thing and there are many different approaches around. However, I have been beaten to the post (for which I have absolutely no regrets, I only have gratitude) by an excellent paper from Rory McGreal and Don Olcott Jr entitled ‘A strategic reset: micro-credentials for high education leaders‘ published a few weeks back in Smart Learning Environments, and promoted by the Micro-Credential Observatory . The paper provides core definitions and characteristics, an excellent overview of the global landscape, and discusses very coherently the challenges around implementing micros and balancing the needs of employers, universities, and revenue to achieve strategic value. It is the perfect pre-discussion homework to the big question ‘Are micro-credentials right for our university?’.

To micro, or not to micro? That is the question the leadership in many HEIs and independent credentialing bodies are discussing. We are in the midst of an emerging systematic change where skills and competencies, rather than just degrees and courses, need to be validated and certified. Economies are increasingly requiring just-in-time workforce skills (digital skills and skills for sustainability are an obvious examples here). Employers are concerned about graduate competencies whilst employees are frustrated with progression opportunities. Meanwhile students face high costs for education and a lack of jobs. It is telling that more than 75% of micro-credentials in existence are in Business or Technology (Shah, 2021). Micro-credentials – certified, smaller, self-contained learning units that are accessible to anyone looking to reskill or upskill do not require learners to sign-up to a three-year plus programme of study. They are at the core of a new flexible approach to learning that will enable a ‘skills revolution’, guided by the principle that ‘when we learn is as important as what we learn’. This approach was extolled by our Minister of State for Universities at the Times Higher Campus Live event back in November in an address which outlined more details on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

Of course many universities already offer short courses, many universities offer professional CPD. You could think that this is kind of the same thing, not quite. I differ slightly here in my thinking to McGreal and Olcott who discuss how micro-credentials do not need to be credit-bearing. For me what defines a micro-credential above these offerings is the credential part (the name micro-credential is a big clue here). This means that university credits are used as the universal recognition of the quality of learning and competency that a learner can demonstrate. McGreal and Olcott provide a good discussion on the problematic nature of using the HE credit hour to quality assure competencies and skills, but either way a credentialed certificate is a long way from the certificates of participation offered by many short courses. It is often proposed that over time these small blocks of credentialed learning could build upon each other or be ‘stacked’ into a larger qualification including degree credit programmes. This may or may not happen and may or may not be of interest to a learner. There is a lack of market research in this area to help us to understand the need and how individuals would want to use and apply micro-credentials (Kato et al. 2020), however frameworks are emerging to support these conversations and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) in particular are undertaking some interesting work in this area – it’s worth looking at a recent report (member login required) commissioned by them in which Professor Sue Reece outlines five potential models for UK-based micro-credentials. For simplicity I rather like the horizonal, vertical and value-add models outlined in a Inside Higher Ed article called ‘Making Credentials Matter‘ written by Jimmie Williamson and Matthew Pittinsky (2016) which makes the important point that who your learners are and what they need will define the best model to adopt.

There is a whole heap of work outlining the affordances and the barriers to micro-credentials, and McGreal and Olcott have referenced many of these in their articles. Affordances being timely training; recognised quality of learning; competitive edge for both HEIs and employers; empowered employees and students. Barriers have surfaced around understanding and consistency of approach and common frameworks; lack of market analysis; HEIs resistance to change and lack of leaders who will drive it; workload associated with doing micros as an ‘add on’ rather than ‘within’; and of course no matter how you spin it – there is a significant cost adn capacity associated with developing new courses, especially ones that may have volatile subject matter and require regular review and updates. As a digital education professional I feel that this last point is particularly worthy of discussion. Micro-credentials are more often than not offered as fully online learning experiences. The move to emergency remote teaching and the resulting online-ness that many courses now have has spurred senior leadership teams to consider how to continue this modality to reach wider learner cohorts. But as I’ve discussed before, courses rapidly put online during the pandemic are not the same as courses carefully designed for online learners with different needs from our campus based students. The magic learning technology fairies do not have spells that instantly turn on-ground or blended courses into quality fully-online self-contained units. It requires investment, and I can not tell where this is going – the Government want flexible, micro, any time anywhere courses but at the same time claim providing elements of online teaching for credit bearing courses is not acceptable. As many commentators of digital education have noted, pitching modalities of learning againt each other is unhelpful, messaging is confusing and the terminology is flawed (NCOE 2022; Clay 2022; Mosely 2021). The short course trial funds recently offered by the Office for Students to convert existing degree modules into stand-alone micro-credentials will not have covered the full cost of their creation. I feel the funding reflects the attitude that online is less. Our learners who choose this pathway deserve more.

Within their article McGreal and Olcott propose:

Learners want more options at lower costs to support their education and training for jobs. Employers want entry-level employees with better skills and capacity to learn, which in turn can give the company a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Finally, educational providers want to expand recruitment avenues to contribute to the modern workforce and remain competitive. The lesson for smart leaders is to integrate micro-credential initiatives with current institutional programs, make them easy to use with clear validation metrics, and, in this way, make micro-credentials a value-added benefit for all stakeholders. Table 1 provides a ready reference for university leaders.

(McGreal & Olcott 2022: 6)

I largly agree with the authors on this point but I expect that they would agree with me that this is complex. In UK HE at least educational value is attributed to whole programmes, programme coherence and linear programme progression – this has created deeply embedded systems and processes that makes doing anything different quite challenging, especially when faced with increased regulation and reporting on student outcomes and progression. It makes the applicability and portability of micro-credentials quite troublesome. Currently if UK learners want to use credits from a micro-credential at another university, they need to find out if that institution will accept them as accreditation of prior learning (APL) or recognition of prior learning (RPL) after an analysis as to whether they have particular knowledge or skills gaps, or their learning is outdated. This involves manual processing that has the potential to be resource heavy. There are other options such as APEL or introduction of capstone modules, and promising work by bodies such as European MOOC Consortium (2020) and European Commission (2022) for open standards of credential recognition which I hope will become established – but in summary, at present, there needs to be investment into the how university systems and processes will change to accommodate this new offering. To offer new ways of learning, the institution has to change – there is the rub.

McGreal and Olcott close by emphasising that micro-credentials are not a panacea for resolving institutional challenges and they are unlikely to become a major revenue enhancement. I would hazard a guess that until issues around their acceptance and applicability are ironed out micros will continue to be little bundles of trouble. But there is so much potential for when this does happen, especially if we look into the use of technologies such as blockchain to enable hosting, identification and portability of the credits (#Blockchain4Edu 2018). They are certainly not a ‘silver bullet’ to solve institutional challenges but the discussions they are generating on the role and responsibility of the University and how we recognise and certify learning are certainly discussions that are needed. I thank the authors for producing a good paper that supports these discussions.


#Blockchain4Edu, 2018. Blockchain et éducation : derrière la technologie, la dématérialisation des diplômes ?. [Online] Available at:

Clay, J. (2022) Why Online Learning is not Online Learning. JISC Blog (19 Jan 2022). [Online] Available at:

European Commission (2022) Higher education: making EU’s universities ready for the future through deeper transnational cooperation. Press Release (18 Jan 2022). [Online] Available at:

European MOOC Consortium (EMC). (2020). EMC common microcredential framework. European MOOC Consortium,
1–13. [Online] Available at:

Kato, S., Galan-Muros, V., & Weko, T. (2020). The emergence of alternative credentials. OECD Education Working Paper No.216. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1–40. Paris: OECD. [Online] Available at:

McGreal, R., Olcott, D. (2022) A strategic reset: micro-credentials for higher education leaders. Smart Learning Environments. Vol 9. [Online]. Available at:

Members of the National Council for Online Education (2022) Emergency Remote Instruction Is Not Quality Online Learning. Inside Higher Ed (Feb 3 2022). [Online] Available at:

Mosely, N. (2021) Online education, better, worse or different? Neil Mosely Blog [Online]. Available at:

QAA (2021) Quality Compass: Which Way for Micro-Credentials. [Online] Available at:

Shah, D. (2021, July 28). Massive List of MOOC-based Micro-credentials. The Report by Class Central. [Online] Available at:

UNESCO (2021). A conversation starter: Towards a common definition of micro-credentials. Paris, UNESCO [Online] Available at:

Williamson, J. & Pittinsky, M. (2016) Making credentials matter. Inside Higher Ed (23 May 2016). [Online] Available at:

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