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Bite-sized learning

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
3 December 2019

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to micro-credentials, those bits of bite-sized learning can help workers stay on top of technological change. 

What’s a micro-credential?

While definitions vary, micro-credentials can be understood as short courses that allow people to learn new skills or have an existing competency recognised. The important thing is that at the end of the course they earn a credential of some description. Time-wise, courses can range anywhere between a few hours to several weeks depending on the depth of knowledge they are seeking to achieve.

Micro-credentials offer the chance for people to create so-called “education playlists” (Ryerse 2017) that are tailored to individual interests and are more flexible for people where full-time study is unrealistic.

In New Zealand, after a trial period, micro-credentials can now be approved by NZQA as part of New Zealand’s regulated education and training system. There are 68 NZQA-approved micro-credentials, most of which are for 20 or fewer credits under the NZQF (the minimum is 5 credits), although some are at the maximum of 40 credits (and would be more akin to what are called “nano-degrees” in other countries).1

Figure 1: Distribution of NZQA-approved micro-credentials by credit size

Pie chart

Advantages and disadvantages of NZQA accreditation

NZQA accreditation brings some advantages, such as quality assurance. For those changing careers, externally-validated credentials can be valuable as there may not be cross-industry appreciation of the value or rigour of different types of industry-specific training.

However, at a roundtable hosted by the Commission on micro-credentials, participants were clear that the NZQA approach is just one avenue. For example, non-NZQA-accredited micro-credentials (eg, offered by an industry organisation) can be more rapidly updated in the face of changing technology, and they can also be more flexible in terms of the mix they offer between recognition of prior learning and additional training to fill knowledge gaps.

There are also several issues with the current NZQA approach to micro-credentials that industry would like to see changed, such as eliminating the 5 credit minimum, and allowing micro-credentials to be “stacked” towards a larger qualification. The funding rules are also considered to be too inflexible.2

A future for micro-credentials in New Zealand?

My key take-outs about micro-credentials in New Zealand are three-fold.

First, they offer an increasingly valuable complement to the traditional types of “front-loaded” learning that many of us associate with education and training in New Zealand. As technology changes, being able to show that you can master new approaches and skills is likely to be a real asset in the workplace and help people to move between jobs if the need arises.

Second, giving people the ability to be more selective and targeted about what and when they learn is useful. I doubt that approaches like micro-credentials will (or should) replace traditional forms of learning like university degrees or multi-year apprenticeships anytime soon (if ever). But, as a way to plug a knowledge gap or really hone-in on what the learner actually needs or wants, they’re a useful option.

Third and finally, government policy shouldn’t stand in the way of choice and flexibility in the provision of new models of education like micro-credentials. Undoubtedly there’s a case for ensuring what is offered is educationally rigorous, appropriate, and provides the learning that the course description says it will, and governments should help to play this role in the regulated training system. However, that’s not the only way to ensure the provision of relevant and good quality micro-credentials (or to extend the sushi metaphor above, the freshness of the sashimi on the conveyer belt!). Industry bodies have a strong incentive to offer quality training options as a means to enhance their reputation and attract workers.

Notes
1. To put this in perspective, a bachelor’s degree on the NZQF requires a minimum of 360 credits.
2. This is the requirement that short course delivery by tertiary providers or Industry Training Organisations is limited to a maximum of 5% of the total TEC funding received. The TEC has stated that this can however be eased on a case-by-case basis.

References
Ryerse, M. 2017. ‘Competency-Based Micro-credentials are Transforming Professional Learning’, Education Week, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/on_innovation/2017/11/competency-based_micro-credentials_are_transforming_professional_learning.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

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