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What the Heck Is a Microcredential?

What the Heck Is a Microcredential?

When you’re in the middle of reviewing a contract and you need to come up with wording for a specific clause, do you sign up for a course in contracting or start researching which university degree in meeting management you should enroll in? Probably not. If you’re like most adult learners, you only need a dab of knowledge salsa, not the whole educational enchilada.

What today’s professional—in pretty much every profession—needs is just-in-time, on-the-go, targeted learning. That’s why sites like, which offers minutes-long instructional videos on just about everything, have become so popular. And that’s all great. You get the information you need, when you need it, and you go ahead and get the job at hand done.

But when it comes time to put in for a promotion, find a new job, or otherwise prove that your continuing education is in fact continuing, well, that can be harder to do when you don’t have a formal designation or degree to show for it.

You need some other type of validation that you have in fact learned a whole lot of small somethings that add up to increased professional competency.

Enter microcredentials—digital certifications of mastery of a specific skill or area of knowledge, with links to detailed criteria and proof of learning. While they do take time and effort for issuers to create and for learners to earn, these may be the next big thing in association-provided education.

The Digital Badge Option

Anyone who has played an online game is familiar with the concept of digital badges—visual icons you can display to prove you’ve reached a certain level of competency or accomplishment. They’ve long been a part of K-12 online educational programs, including the Khan Academy, and they are making inroads in university-level education as well. According to a recent survey by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association in partnership with Penn State and Pearson, one in five of the universities surveyed had already jumped on the digital badge-wagon, mostly related to noncredit training programs in business, education, and technology topics.

Associations, whose raisons d’être lean heavily on providing essential continuing education for members, may have formal, assessment-based certifications and accreditations—such as the Certified Meeting Professional for meeting planners—and some offer certificate courses. Digital badges are an obvious next step. Associations already offer the education, so why not let members share their accomplishments—from micro-learning to full certifications—via digital badges on their LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Salesforce, Moodle, WordPress, Eventbrite, and other social accounts?

 Because the value of the badge is directly proportional to the credibility of the issuer, associations have a leg up on commercially based competition that would have to first establish their bona fides in a professional arena. Some associations, including the International Association for Health Coaches and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, issue digital badges to those who complete their certification programs.

Others, including EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association for higher-education IT leaders, offer a digital badging program for those who meet criteria in a number of topic areas, including community service, communications, leadership development, and specific subject matters.

This wiki shows several other organizations currently offering digital badging programs using the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure, a free, open-source collaboration of Mozilla with the MacArthur Foundation and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory.

Digital Badging at Your Next Conference?

Some associations are using digital badging in conjunction with their conferences, but only in a limited way. For example, the American Society for Engineering Education offers digital badges for its authors and speakers. However, EDUCAUSE Chief Learning Officer Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE, says she has not seen associations using digital badges for participating in conference sessions as of yet. At least, not appropriately.

“I have seen some hand out badges for attendance, and I ask them to stop doing this, to move away from seat-time,” she says. “If you and I both sit in a session for an hour, you may have gotten something from the session you’re going to apply, and I may have gotten nothing out of it. It’s not a credible way to assess learning or competency.”

With online courses, there can be assignments that must be completed and turned in on a regular basis, she says. At EDUCAUSE, the assignments are based on applying what users learn to their specific workplaces so the takeaways will be applicable and meaningful. Those who complete all the assignments may have to take a quiz or build a portfolio that is then peer-reviewed. “The issuer has to offer ways to show you have applied the knowledge, and then decide if you earned the badge or not,” she says. “We have not given people a badge at the end of our volunteer leadership program because they did not fulfill their volunteer leadership role. It’s a hard decision, but fair.”

Because of the fast-moving nature of conferences, having this type of assignments/assessment/measurement system would be inherently trickier to pull off. However, Petrillo says digital badging could be integrated into face-to-face conferences. “You would need to build the nuggets of learning participants got at the face-to-face event with other components that are online. It’s the whole content curation piece—where do I grab all these pieces of information? Then I can go back and demonstrate competency by getting the badge from the credible issuer.”

Getting Started with Digital Badging

There are several systems individuals and organizations can use to create, issue, and verify digital badges for their participants. One of the more popular is Mozilla Open Badges, begun as a collaborative project between the MacArthur Foundation; the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory; and Mozilla. The platform consists of free software and an open technical standard for creating badges that build in data linking back to the issuer, the criteria the badge was issued under, and evidence verifying the credential. Earners can collect, manage, and share badges in the Open Badges “backpack.” 

Other online tools for designing digital badges and awarding them through a badge issuing system include Credly, Badgr, and Open Badges. Keep up with these and other platforms on the community-curated Platform Issuing Chart.


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