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How Microcredentials Will Bring Sustainability to The Online Learning Ecosystem

They’ve been hailed as a solution to close the skills gap. How will microcredentials affect the future of online learning?

How Microcredentials Will Bring Sustainability to The Online Learning Ecosystem
Pictures: kennedyfotos, sik-life/pixabay

While full academic online degrees may be the talk of town in the MOOC space, most courses still grant the slimmed-down version of microcredentials to learners. 

This popular way of rewarding online students should not be disregarded. By continuing on their current growth trajectory, microcredentials could certainly play a crucial role for a sustainable online learning ecosystem.

What Are Microcredentials?

Also referred to as digital badges, microcredentials are granted for MOOC courses which culminate in online tests.  While they are different from full degrees, they can include some academic content. 

Of course, the online exams require that users’ identities are verified. It can be a challenge for providers to make this tamper-proof, but they generally succeed.

Most microcredentials cost less than $100 and can be based on almost anything, from leading effective business meetings to front-end web development.

From Individual Courses to MicroMasters

Microcredentials are provided by course platforms like Coursera, EdX, and FutureLearn (plus their university partners, who create the course content).

At the most basic level, individual online courses over several weeks are often free to audit and can be upgraded to include paid certificates (known as Verified Certificates). 

Longer course series are also popular. These comprise of several courses which learners need to successfully complete over the course of months – an in-depth training for specific topics. Their certificates are known as Specialization or Professional Certificates.

Finally, there are MicroMasters or MasterTrack Credentials which aim to bridge the gap between education and the workplace. These refer to series of courses that include some content from a master's degree program. If completed, the results can be credited towards an academic degree. 

How Microcredentials Will Bring Sustainability to The Online Learning Ecosystem

Valuable for Students, Employers, And Providers

Digital mini-badges can be beneficial for online students as they don’t require much long-term commitment but still present a way to acquire a range of demonstrable skills. Because of the upfront payment required, they also have the effect of improving MOOC graduation rates – which is especially important given the struggle of many online learners to stay on board.

From an employer's perspective, microcredentials can represent a way for prospective employees to showcase their skills and motivation. In fact, in a survey among recruiters, we discovered that employers also value the personal commitment of online learners. 

On the other side of the equation, course providers and platforms can generate revenue through these digital qualifications. Selling microcredentials can allow them to reach a sustainable business model. Thus, microcredentials are as valuable to course providers as they are to students and employers. 

But Don't Equate Them with College Degrees Just Yet

It’s been argued that microcredentials may undermine the role of the traditional college degree. However, a degree is not only an academic qualification; it represents a deep and sustained body of work over the course of several years. At present, this is not what microcredentials are generally associated with.

Most digital badges are also still black and white assessments – they are pass or fail. This means they cannot yet replace degrees, insofar as an array of ‘passes’ is difficult to quantify compared to graded college assessments. 

A further problem is that there are still quite a few low-quality courses which also grant certificates. Employers are therefore wary of little-known international universities and look for established institutions, who are perceived to ensure certain quality standards.

Win-Win-Win for The Online Course Community?

It appears likely that most of these challenges can be overcome. 

More high-quality content from universities will be released in the online world. Educational institutions will further specialize in specific subject areas, making their digital credentials truly meaningful for employers. Furthermore, the technology to introduce more granular grading will also become available.

It’s therefore safe to assume that both employers and learners will continue to find value in easily accessible and inexpensive credentials. At the same time, course platforms will seize the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue.

As a result of this potential win-win-win scenario, microcredentials can make the entire ecosystem of online learning more sustainable – by providing value for all stakeholders.

Therefore, although academic online degrees may be the most spectacular novelty currently being discussed, it is in fact the steady growth of microcredentials that will enable the long-term sustainability of the MOOC system.

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