On August 30th, building on previous discussions of sustainable education and lifelong learning, ClassIn joined hands with the HEAD Foundation to present the latest Thoughtful Leadership webinar on higher education reimagined through microcredentials. Series moderator Lingyue Zheng welcomed Dr. Wan Chang Da, Chief Operating Officer of the HEAD Foundation and Dr. Anita Adnan, Founder and Admin of Doctorate Support Group (DSG).
With complementary views from academia and industry, speakers delved into the definitions, objectives, as well as challenges and development of microcredentials. The panel also took the learners’ perspective and addressed recognition issues of nonformal education and how one can decide if and what microcredentials are right for themselves.
Microcredentials in Academia Explained from Concept to Structure
What are microcredentials?
“According to the European Commission, microcredential is a record of learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a small volume of learning. These learning outcomes have been assessed against transparent and clearly defined standards. The courses leading to microcredentials are designed to provide learners with specific knowledge, skills, competencies that respond to societal, personal, cultural, labor market needs,” Dr. Wan Chang Da presented one of the widely adopted definitions of microcredentials to set the scene.
As Wan moved on to introduce in detail the objectives of micro-learning, he primed the audience with a question in mind: Are universities capable of providing learning across these five diverse objectives of learning?
What are the objectives of learning in microcredentials?
Wan started with a critical look at today’s higher education–what is being taught in our current structure?
Referencing Michael Gibbons’ 1994 book The New Production of Knowledge, Wan pointed out that “it is clearly outlined that the university is still very much confined to one kind of knowledge, which is disciplinary knowledge.”
As formal higher education institutions operate under a rather rigid framework, this is where microcredentials kick in.
Skills and Competencies
“The development of skills is actually very context-based. Skills, as we defined, is knowing how to do certain things,” Wan explained.
For instance, the late professor Michael Eraut used the example of reasoning skills. “What he distinguished between the level of someone who has mastered the skill and someone who’s a novice is based on the ability of the person to assess the situation,” Wan maintained.
On the other hand, he highlighted that “the definition of competencies is also rooted in the concept of a job, the context for the development of a form of capabilities.”
It was easy to derive from Wan’s introduction that developing skills and competencies is closely related to employment preparation and requirements.
“Yet the elephant in the room as we talk about universities and higher education is–is university the best place to develop skills and job-specific competencies, as well as is it best positioned to prepare students for employment?,” Wan asked. “So if we are not convinced with the answer, then the question is about are microcredentials the right place to instill this within the context of higher education and the universities.”
"Is university the best place to develop skills and job-specific competencies, as well as is it best positioned to prepare students for employment?," Dr. Wan Chang Da, Chief Operating Officer of the HEAD Foundation, asked.
Lifelong Learning and Life-Wide Learning
As opposed to university education, which has been “frigidly framed around the concept of time”, Wan described lifelong learning as a “from cradle to grave” approach that is not limited by any timeframe.
In the meantime, life-wide learning transcends the boundaries of specific subjects and programs.
Wan encouraged that “what is important for us to recognize is that lifelong learning and life-wide learning are highly individualistic and is driven by personal interests and needs. That is fundamentally related to the whole discussion of microcredentials.”
What are the challenges and next steps of microcredentials?
Despite great promises, microcredentials operate under a rather limited structure of today’s higher education. Even as schools acknowledge the importance of prepping students for the job market, “there is very little to almost no room to consider other non-academic proficiencies in the hiring of educators within the university,” Wan noted.
Therefore, “it is also very important for us to bring in different kinds of stakeholders who can provide flexible and adventurous avenues to explore new forms of learning within microcredentials,” he stressed. “Including polytechnics, educational institutions, business corporations, and also the learners themselves.”
“And I would end here by saying that our life is the best teacher for learning…Learning in the microcredential sense should be open, flexible to accommodate different kinds of learning,” Wan concluded.
Microcredentials to Bridge Academia and Industry
An introduction to Doctorate Support Group (DSG)
“I like the question Dr. Wan showed just now: can universities do microcredential? If not, who else? So we are the who else,” Dr. Anita Adnan transitioned into her presentation.
Adnan founded Doctorate Support Group (DSG) on Facebook when she was doing her PhD in Nottingham, UK in 2010. From 100 members in the beginning, the group now houses more than 98,000 members with a focus on postgraduates in Malaysia.
“Almost everyone has similar problems, similar challenges to get connections, to get a network, to find universities, to find supervisors. So what we have been doing is to connect all the resources together,” Adnan introduced.
DSG’s current endeavors on microcredentials
Adnan also set out to conceptualize microcredentials. “These are smaller, shorter programs of study…so postgraduates can understand various skills and competencies that they have to achieve. These specific skills are also narrowly focused,” she explained. “And by the end of the courses, the students will earn a digital badge and some official credits.”
To address what’s lacking in higher education, DSG has partnered with universities in Malaysia to award digital badges. And the community, one of the groups identified by Facebook to be involved in metaverse for education, is also expanding such efforts in the virtual space.
What are the courses and microcredentials offered by the DSG?
Adnan highlighted some relevant courses such as software for data analysis, methodology for research, foreign languages, and writing.
“We have a lot of foreign language institutes that are keen to work with us…We are currently working with 30 partners all over the world, and most of these software founders are based in the UK and Europe,” Adnan outlined the network in place.
As a result, DSG not only offers opportunities for postgraduates to upskill, but the group also certifies existing skillsets with a row of badges.
The vision for the future of DSG
“So the vision is to be the one-stop center for postgraduates needs,” Adnan drew up a future of the group comprised of a physical space, an online space, and its own metaverse space.
Doing away with the limitation of space, DSG also looks to expand and complement its structure, including
Mentorship: thesis experts, professors and doctors
Online academy: doctoratesupport.com
Marketplace: connecting researchers to resources
Funding: funds from Facebook and support from university partners
Adnan wrapped up her presentation on a warm note. “Come to the DSG if ever you have any education resources or if you need any partners to work in Malaysia. We are open for any collaboration.”
Q&A: Recognition, Timely vs. Timeless Learning, Course Recs
The panel jumped into the Q&A session addressing audience member John’s question on how well-recognized and accepted microcredentials are in our system.
“Moving forward, I guess the bigger challenge at the system level is looking at institutionalizing a structure where some of these credentials can be recorded,” Wan pointed to the most up-to-date initiative in Ireland where learners can submit microcredentials to a national system. “The other direction in which the recognition can work is through employers and through employers within the same area.”
Adnan, on the other hand, approached the question from the public sphere. “There’s only so much our industry partners can do. However, in the end, it has to be the government and universities that accept credentials of microcourses…All of us have to keep talking about this, so the universities or whoever in power realize that the mode of education is not the same anymore,” she maintained.
"All of us have to keep talking about this, so the universities or whoever in power realize that the mode of education is not the same anymore," Dr. Anita Adnan, Founder and Admin of Doctorate Support Group, said.
“I’m wondering to know how our students should utilize microcredentials and what kind of credentials could be beneficial?,” audience member Echo asked.
“First, you have to identify what it is that you are passionate about, what it is you want to do for maybe the next four or five years of your life. And then, with that in mind, you can actually design your own learning online,” Adnan gave a step-by-step with recommendations of sites such as coursera, openlearning, and more.
In turn, Wan reflected on how established institutions and microcourses support different learning needs.
“Without a doubt, if you want to go deep into a specific knowledge development, the university is still the place…but we gotta at the same time recognize that the individual’s needs to learn can vary beyond a certain subject or direction,” Wan emphasized the agency of learners. “It should be up to the individual how to navigate and to develop their own portfolios within the ecosystem of microcredentials.”
“Today is the first day in my grad school, so it’s very inspiring to hear both of your advice. I think it is so beneficial, and thanks a lot!,” Echo responded.
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