What is a microcredential? That word did not appear in any of the dictionaries I consulted, but perhaps it will in the near future due to the proliferation of microcredentials offered. Microcredentials, sometimes written with a hyphen (micro-credentials) or as two words (micro credentials), are all the rage these days. They also go by other names, such as alternative credentials; specializations; professional certificates; MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) certificates; and mini-, micro-, or nano-degrees. According to a 2022 report from Credential Engine, there are over one million (and counting) unique credentials. The courses people take to earn those credentials are created by corporations, higher education institutions, non-profits, limited liability companies, or individuals and are often offered online. Because there are so many microcredentials and no standard definition or set of regulations, confusion reigns and their credibility is often questioned.
Earning a microcredential could involve passing one course or a series of courses, spending a few hours or many weeks of study, interacting with an instructor or being entirely self-directed, and receiving a digital badge or printable certificate from an academic institution, corporation, or the platform that hosted the course(s). Accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates have to meet established, authoritative standards, but that is not the case currently with microcredentials.
Since 2003, I have earned over a hundred non-credit, non-degree online course certificates. I received a Professional Certificate from a public land grant university after completing a 10-week-long online course in which I spent about 5 hours a week and had a qualified instructor interacting with each student and grading our work. But I have also received a verified Coursera certificate for passing a course created by a private Ivy League university that I completed in only twenty minutes (even though it’s advertised as a 13-hour course) without having read or watched any of the course material because there was no active instructor and the assessments consisted of computer-graded, multiple-choice quizzes that allowed unlimited attempts.
In light of my experiences in the online microcredential environment, I see three factors to consider when wending one’s way through the maze of determining which ones could be worthy of recognition by employers or educational institutions.
Factor One: Hackability
The claim made by many that a microcredential is proof of learning a skill or mastering content is spurious, especially if it was earned without any instructor oversight. Anne Kim, writing for Washington Monthly, revealed how she hacked her way to earning a Google certificate offered on Coursera, one of the top online platforms selling microcredentials. Without an instructor monitoring progress or assessing learning, Kim was able to skim or skip much of the content and still earn a certificate because the Coursera platform, like many others, utilizes computer- and/or peer-graded assessments that allow multiple attempts to pass.
What Anne Kim experienced with Google courses on Coursera was not an anomaly. My experience taking non-degree courses on Coursera is that it is possible to earn a certificate without reading course material or watching the teaching videos if assessments consist of unlimited attempts at computer-graded, multiple-choice quizzes, and/or peer-graded written assignments. When there is no instructor oversight or monitoring, nobody knows who should or should not pass a course and receive the credential. It’s a similar situation in other venues, such as LinkedIn Learning and some online, non-credit, certificate courses offered by universities at scale using online learning management systems. When a course is offered at scale, that typically means it is open to anyone with an email address and internet access and there are no enrollment caps, admission applications and requirements, or educational prerequisites.
Being offered at scale is one of the pros of microcredentials when it comes to access to education, but it is also one of the cons because students are basically on their own since an instructor can’t monitor the progress or assess the learning of hundreds or thousands of people in a short amount of time.
Factor Two: Assessability
Because microcredentials are often offered at scale, any assessments usually consist of computer-graded quizzes and/or peer-graded assignments that allow multiple (and sometimes unlimited) attempts to pass. Not to be confused with accessibility, which refers to how easily people can access online content, assessability refers to how assessable something is regarding judging or determining value or quality.
When I’ve peer-graded assignments in non-degree courses on Coursera, I’ve seen people submit blank or bogus responses. Seeing that made me wonder if it was possible to pass a course in that manner so I gave it a try and in some instances, it worked. Also, because auto-graded quizzes allow multiple attempts and often provide feedback on which questions I get wrong, it’s through trial and error, not mastery of content, that I can pass courses. That’s the way it is with many online microcredential courses where no instructor is interacting with or providing feedback to students. Microcredentials earned in that manner are not proof of content mastery or acquired skills. Therefore, because the assessability of learning is flawed, reliability suffers.
Factor Three: Reliability
The content of courses might be high quality, but if the process for earning a microcredential is flawed, then the reliability is suspect. Some would like to expand the availability of Title IV funds for microcredential courses, and that might be a good idea if those courses involve regular and substantive instructor interaction with and assessment of students as is currently required for federal aid use in credit-bearing, degree programs. I realize that not everyone hacks their way to earning a microcredential, but in the absence of an active instructor, it’s anyone’s guess who did or didn’t master the content and acquire the advertised skills. Therefore, with over one million unique microcredentials available on the market and no widely recognized standards, each one must be investigated for reliability.
If you are a student trying to decide which microcredential to earn, an administrator evaluating which ones to accept for academic credit, or an employer reviewing resumes with alternative credentials listed, there are a few questions to ask to jump-start your investigation regardless if it was created by an Ivy League institution or a community college, a major corporation or a non-profit, a government organization or an NGO, or was offered using a for-profit, third-party platform or non-profit, proprietary learning management system.
1. Does the credential require the successful completion of assessments?
2. If there are assessments, are they graded by a qualified instructor?
3. Does a qualified instructor interact with students and monitor their progress?
Answering “no” to any of those questions does not automatically disqualify a microcredential, but it should raise suspicions and prompt further investigation regarding its credibility for academic credit or workforce training.