In recent years, the Canadian labour market has been defined by technological change and disruption, creating the need for employees to consistently upgrade their skills. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting job loss have only added to the challenge. The need for upskilling and reskilling among many different industries has created a trend toward short, specialized courses known as micro-credentials that focus on specific competencies required by employers.
Though demand is on the rise for these flexible learning options, the definition of micro-credentials can vary between jurisdictions and even among institutions. For prospective learners to see their usefulness and for employers to recognize their value, a better understanding of micro-credentials is essential. That is why our association, Colleges and Institutes Canada, recently undertook an environmental scan to ascertain how these courses are defined in Canada, what they look like and where they are being offered.
To accomplish this work, we needed to start by agreeing on a definition, which involved wide-ranging consultations with educators, employers and stakeholders across the country. Launched in March, our national framework on micro-credentials was our attempt at reaching a consensus around these new types of credentials and was endorsed by all of the regional associations representing colleges and institutes in Canada.
The definition that emerged describes a micro-credential as “a certification of assessed competencies that is additional, alternate, complementary to, or a component of a formal qualification.”
The national framework also offers guiding principles that articulate how colleges and institutes approach the development of micro-credentials. This ensures that programs meet the needs not just of students, but also employers, as they have a critical role to play in identifying the skills needed in their field.
This is not entirely new for colleges and institutes, which have always been key providers of continuing education, including short programs and certificates. But as lifelong learning increasingly becomes the norm, we are seeing an increasing demand for more flexible pathways and credential types for learners.
Micro-credentials also tend to be stackable, offering a new way for students to reach their education goals. This is a way to replace outcomes-based education with competency-based learning, to move beyond the semester system and traditional approaches to crediting learning, and to give greater access to new skills through recognized providers.
Micro-credentials are also seen by many as a way of integrating and empowering new populations of learners, while at the same time supporting Canadian business by training people with skills that are needed for innovation, development and commercial success, quickly and flexibly.
“… as lifelong learning increasingly becomes the norm, we are seeing an increasing demand for more flexible pathways and credential types for learners.”
Our environmental scan showed a great interest in micro-credentials across Canada and a degree of agreement on the purpose, characteristics and value of micro-credentials. It also showed that 56% of responding colleges are offering micro-credentials either online, in-person or both, and that 33% are planning to or interested in doing so in the near future. So, this is just the beginning.
Micro-credentials are also being used to rapidly train new workers in sectors facing labour shortages. We saw this most recently during the pandemic as acute shortages in the long-term care sector were exacerbated. To address this, the federal government asked us to develop a fully subsidized micro-credential to attract and train new long-term care workers. The brand-new Supportive Care Assistant Program will be offered by our member colleges and institutes all across the country through our Building Capacity in Long-term Care project, which is just one example of how these new types of programs can be leveraged.
When it comes to micro-credentials, colleges and institutes foresee a growing clientele of lifelong learners that is similar to their usual continuing education cohort. In fact, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic enrolment at Canadian colleges and institutes has held up remarkably well, which many in the system attribute to a renewed demand for upskilling and reskilling.
The other advantage colleges and institutes can offer when developing micro-credentials is the use of prior-learning assessment and recognition (PLAR), which is already common practice at nearly all institutions. This process can reduce costs and the time commitment for adults who might otherwise find participation in training difficult. This allows prospective learners to begin with an assessment of competencies already attained through education or work experience, which can allow them to skip certain courses or modules. The integration of a PLAR process could also allow micro-credential credit to be given for training or courses taken anywhere, including outside of Canada, supporting transferability.
It’s clear that micro-credentials are here to stay and are set to become a key tool for people looking to keep their skills up to date at any stage of their career. As colleges and institutes across the country develop their offerings, these new flexible pathways that emerge will no doubt become a key component of career development in all sectors of the economy.