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The future is micro: Digital learning and microcredentials for education, retraining and lifelong learning

Microcredentials are an innovative way to demonstrate proficiency in skills and competencies and offer a potentially transformative tool to address skills gaps in Canada’s labour market and future skills needs. Yet, they are also a relatively new innovation, and stakeholders need to overcome a number of challenges and nurture growth in the microcredential ecosystem in order to underpin their widespread use and adoption.

eCampusOntario has developed, in collaboration with its partners, the Micro-credential Principles and Framework as a foundation for building microcredential projects in Ontario. This work has played an important part in efforts to build a consensus of definition in Canada and to address current needs in the emerging Canadian microcredentials ecosystem. The Principles and Framework is designed to bridge gaps in stakeholder understanding and create a unified microcredential ecosystem in Ontario.

Key insights

Developing an effective microcredential ecosystem depends on a number of interested and interconnected partners working together. Principal among these are learners, employers or community partners and post-secondary institutions collaborating to develop microcredential programs.

Microcredentials have the potential to meet the needs of learners at all ages and stages of their careers, including providing opportunities for re-skilling and up-skilling. Learners might include people preparing to work in a new sector or job, learning while also working full time, or demonstrating workplace-ready skills to complement an existing degree for professional development or to recognize prior learning.

Study participants saw the need for the assessment of skills and competencies to be authentic and relevant to real-life workplace scenarios. Authentic assessment asks a learner to do or demonstrate a specific skill, competency, or attitude as it relates to a particular workplace or in their personal life.

Executive Summary

First, the microcredential landscape, from both a global and Canadian perspective, has previously been characterized by competing definitions and approaches to microcredentialing. Today, however, there is tentative emergence of a high-level consensus. This is mirrored in the increased enthusiasm for the use of microcredentials in much of Canada and elsewhere.

As a way of advancing the adoption of microcredentials, and to further test and refine its Micro-credential Principles and Framework, eCampusOntario partnered with a number of Ontario post-secondary education institutions to launch 36 microcredential pilot projects. The utility of the framework for these pilots was then assessed through five focus groups with pilot leads and community and employer partners, as well as an online survey of project partners from participating post-secondary institutions. Data on six themes was collected and analyzed, and the following findings emerged:

1. The utility of the eCampusOntario Principles and Framework: Participants of the research study found the framework to be useful when developing microcredentials.

2. Relevant skills and competencies: Microcredentials have significant value for supporting the development of workplace related skills and competencies.

3. Being responsive, agile, and flexible: Much of the value offered by microcredentials derives from their ability to respond to the needs of learners and the changing labour market with agility and flexibility. Current governance structures in the post-secondary programming context, which limit this agility and flexibility, represent important challenges to unlocking the full value of microcredentials.

4. Authentic assessment: Assessments of microcredentials need to be meaningful and relevant to learners and employers.

5. Meeting learner needs: Microcredentials have the potential to re-skill and up-skill learners of all ages and learners at different stages of their lives.

6. Collaborative development: Microcredentials benefit from collaborative development by numerous stakeholders in the ecosystem, including but not limited to post-secondary institutions, community partners, and employers.

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