Micro-Credentials: Empowering Lifelong Learners | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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My father is a former police officer who took up photography when he retired. A few months ago, I asked him when he was going to try a new hobby. "Aren't you an expert already?" I joked, pointing to his overbooked calendar of professional photography appointments.

"I have enough videos I still need to watch that I could fill up eight hours a day for the next four years," he said incredulously. "I don’t have time to learn a new hobby yet."

The videos were from lynda.com, a professional learning website he started frequenting when he first picked up a camera a few years ago. This wasn't the first time my father constructed his own curriculum -- many of my memories of him from the '90s involve him scribbling furiously in a notebook while watching VHS tapes of the PBS show This Old House.

I've watched him create both a successful photography business and construct a two-story cabin from blueprints. In many circles, my father is respected for the vast array of skills and content knowledge he has gained through years of research and deliberate practice. What he's missing, however, is the piece of paper that recognizes that knowledge -- his highest level of educational attainment is a high school diploma.

Valuing Non-Traditional Pathways

The way we find, access, and share information has exploded in the last 20 years, and the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge is no longer reserved for the elite few. Now, anyone with an Internet connection (like my father!) can gain entry to the greatest public library system ever constructed.

Within our own profession, teachers are engaging in continued learning through personal learning networks, websites like Edutopia and MOOCs. Anyone has the ability to self-construct curriculum and gain the skills once exclusive to those able to pay for a traditional education.

Despite the vast shift in how we pursue knowledge, little has changed with how we credential those who acquire knowledge. We still primarily credential learners based on seat time and credit hours, and often only recognize learning pursued through traditional pathways.

I’ve seen many teachers expand their knowledge of teaching strategies via Twitter chats or at edcamps. Yet, when it came time to report continuing education credits, teachers still only reported professional development "hours" that involved seat time and structured in-service days. If we want to support personalized learning for our students, we should model those practices with our teachers. One way to achieve this is with a credentialing system that more accurately represents a teacher's specific skills and knowledge.

Digital badges are one way to update the credentialing system. For years, the open badges movement has been pushing to update the way we recognize learning pursued through non-traditional pathways. For teachers, badges could be a way to demonstrate skills to potential employers, build identity and reputation within learning communities, and create pathways for continued learning and leadership roles.

Rigor and Market Worth

Despite these benefits, digital badges still haven't reached mass effect in our profession. To have value beyond a teacher's blog or Twitter feed, digital badges need to have both rigor and market worth. They need to become micro-credentials.

Rigor can be achieved if leaders work together to develop competency and assessment frameworks to ensure high standards. A system filled with "junk" badges will have far less integrity than one filled with micro-credentials awarded by reputable organizations. Some initial considerations might be:

  • A common language and communication strategy
  • A framework for "levels" and clear pathways within that system
  • Guidelines for badge criteria and assessment
  • Shared badge design principles

We can only achieve this integrity by working together to identify and promote quality principles and guidelines.

However, building digital badges with high integrity won't be enough. For badges to have market worth, we need to develop an ecosystem that recognizes and supports teachers on a more granular level. Research shows that teachers who earn a master's degree don't necessarily see an increase in student achievement, and yet current salary structures and professional development models are often tied directly to those macro-credentials. Teachers must be empowered to pursue new skills and knowledge in a more personalized way. This will require school districts, policy officials and unions to work together to establish a new structure for the way that educators are recognized and compensated.

Building micro-credentials that have rigor and market worth could be the first step toward updating our current paradigm of how we credential learning. If we truly want to build school-wide cultures that empower learners to grow as individuals, we need to provide personalized learning opportunities for all of our learners -- including our teachers.

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Krista Moroder's picture
Krista Moroder

@Robin- thanks for the comment! I totally agree that advanced degrees can be valuable- and I definitely don't think they should be ignored! However, I don't think that they should be the ONLY consideration for teacher compensation or professional development models- which is currently the case in many districts. That model suggests that the effect of educators on student achievement [or any other variable- I agree that "student achievement" is messy to quantify] can be judged by nothing more than the years they taught & the number of graduate credits they hold. I think you're arguing the same thing- the worth of an educator is far more complex than that!

The bigger issue has nothing to do with the size of a credential ("macro"/"micro), but rather how we judge how learning has occurred. There are so many opportunities to learn- and it's beyond time that we move from a credit "hour" approach to a competency-based approach. Digital badges empower that, because the actual evidence of learning is carried within the metadata. We get paper transcripts that list classes and credit hours when we finish graduate classes- what I'd love to have is a digital, interactive transcript that shows my competencies and evidence of my learning instead!

Brenda Lewis's picture

What the author fails to recognize here is the fact that teachers who actively seek advanced credentials (whether macro or micro) are usually self-motivated, and actively seek additional ways to advance and update their teaching methods. Either way, please let's not use this subject to create a "haves vs have-nots" situation among teachers. In my experience, students benefit most when teachers share knowledge and exchange teaching ideas with each other.

Krista Moroder's picture
Krista Moroder

@Brenda- I totally agree- and (yikes!) I didn't intend to present a "haves vs haves not" situation! Can you clarify? My goal was to present an argument that teachers deserve to be recognized as professionals for ALL of their learning- whether pursued through traditional pathways (like graduate school) or nontraditional pathways (like sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas with each other)!

Krista Moroder's picture
Krista Moroder

Linked below- two white papers that give more of a background on digital badges- what they are, and how they empower competency-based education.

"Expanding Education and Workforce Opportunities Through Digital Badges"- Alliance for Excellent Education- http://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/expanding-education-and-workforce-o...

"The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners"- American Institutes for Research http://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/AIR_Digital_Badge_Report_508.pdf

Ashly2499's picture
Technology Coach

Excellent article, Krista! I'd love to be a part of actually developing these credentials. This field of research is also an area I am very interested in for my dissertation.

Sarah Blattner's picture
Sarah Blattner
Badge Lead, Secondary Educator and Founder of TAMRITZ

I am so glad to see open badges gaining traction or at least awareness in professional development. Lots of new developments are underfoot to make issuing, earning and sharing badges as micro-credentials more intuitive and easier to access in general.

I am preparing to launch my second badge-based, summer professional development experience for teachers. I use BadgeOS and the integration of Credly to create a learning platform for the teachers, all of which is open source and based in WordPress. It is truly a DIY set of tools that anyone can uttilize. I am also collecting data with the help of a researcher on the impact and best practices related to professional development for teachers and badge-empowered learning. The initial feedback is quite encouraging, and I look forward to sharing lessons learned in the early summer, when the data has been fully assessed and synthesized.

In the meantime, you can take a look at my take on PD and badges at http://tamritz.org/teachers-pd/. I also share lessons learned from the trenches through my blog at http://tamritz.org/blog/.

Krista Moroder's picture
Krista Moroder

@Ashley- Thanks! Are you a part of our "Teacher Badges" community on Google+ yet? Mozilla announced a "Badge Alliance" a few weeks ago, so we're trying to get some conversations flowing around these ideas. We do a hangout every three weeks, but it's also just a good place to lurk and network with other people who have the same interest. Link: http://tinyurl.com/teacherbadges

Ashly2499's picture
Technology Coach

@Krista- No, but thanks for sharing! I joined, and it looks like a great resource!

@Sarah- What an amazing entrepreneurship experience! Your site looks excellent. Good luck with your courses!

Sarah Blattner's picture
Sarah Blattner
Badge Lead, Secondary Educator and Founder of TAMRITZ

@Ashly2499 Thanks so much. It has been quite the learning journey, for certain and so much fun as well!

Clara Galan's picture
Clara Galan
Former Social Media Marketing Assistant for Edutopia

An excellent article! Micro-credentials are changing teacher development as we know it -- and teachers can finally be recognized for professional development beyond a credential or master's program. Since technology is evolving so rapidly, it's important to keep up-to-date to ensure students are best prepared for what lies outside of the classroom. Many of the new teaching strategies I learned were outside of my credential and master's programs.

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