Agreeing on an exhaustive or universal definition of micro-credentials is unlikely given varying types of providers, jurisdictional considerations, and institutional differences. However, a focus on language can help clarify the meaning and structure of a micro-credential. For example, the term micro indicates shorter and more specialized units of learning than in a term-based or 36-hour three-credit course. On the other hand, a credential is earned by a learner and serves as evidence of accomplished learning. In most approaches to micro-credential development, earning a credential requires some form of assessment.
In reviewing micro-credentials presented by eCampusOntario, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities (2021) and UNESCO (2021), the overarching consensus is that shared characteristics involve collaboration between an accredited educational institution and an employer or industry sector. Together, they can identify, create, and review workplace relevant training that is of value to the learner and the employer or industry sector. Micro-credentials should demonstrate that depth, rather than breadth, of a specific skill or area of focus, and that learners are assessed to ensure that new skills and competencies have been gained. However, ongoing questions involve how to assess mastery and related quality assurance of micro-credentials offerings with academic post- secondary institutions.
Taking these common characteristics into account, the definition provided in A European Approach to Micro-Credentials (Futures et al., 2020) may be a good starting point for those newer to micro-credential development :
A micro-credential is a proof of the learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a short learning experience. These learning outcomes have been assessed against transparent standards. The proof is contained in a certified document that lists the name of the holder, the achieved learning outcomes, the assessment method, the awarding body and, where applicable, the qualifications framework level and the credits gained. Micro-credentials are owned by the learner, can be shared, are portable and may be combined into larger credentials or qualifications. They are underpinned by quality assurance following agreed standard (Futures et al., 2020).
While the term micro-credentials may be new to the wider post-secondary landscape, especially the university context, the concept of creating courses or programs that are shorter than traditional degrees and diplomas to fill an identified training need for business or industry is not new for continuing education units. Workforce training is continually evolving, as can be seen by the amount of flexibility and discussion of the term micro-credential. Micro-credentials are already also being offered and issued by various providers beyond higher education institutions, such as industry associations, sector boards, and employers. These entities operate in diverse jurisdictions with differing approaches to public education policy and implementing structures. Consider also the national context in Canada with education being a provincial responsibility, which creates a challenge for having a one-size-fits-all definition of micro-credentials only for higher education. Further challenges are presented by the varying natures, missions, and practices of post-secondary institutions across Canada, including Indigenous institutions, colleges, and universities, combined with each institution’s unique geographical setting and reach, as well as their priorities and mission.
Given this wide variety of contexts and needs, what is more necessary than landing on a common micro-credential definition is a common set of flexible characteristics that define what a micro-credential is and is not.