8 Program Pathways to Micro-credentials

The flexibility of micro-credentials makes them adaptable to myriad applications. Most often in Ontario right now, they are being used in the validation of skills learned as part of stand-alone continuous education programs. However, they can also have other applications. Micro-credentials are meant to represent a “stand-alone value” (Oliver, 2021), which suggests that the skills should be relevant to an employer once completed. But micro-credentials can also be grouped together to represent clusters of skills that can be relevant in the same field.

There should be a movement from pathways that lead to a certificate in one specific discipline to courses from a variety of disciplines that make up a certificate in broader areas, such as human relations, communication, facilitation skills, for example. It is important to develop micro-credentials with the end in mind; for example, examining high-demand jobs in the workplace and working backwards to include and target the required skills and attributes for success.

In some cases, pathways to micro-credentials can be integrated within academic programming to validate a particular skill set that is learned within a for-credit degree program. The value in integration is that it can highlight that a student has successfully demonstrated a skill that is important to an employer but not mandatory for the successful completion of the entire course. For example, a student could master a type of software used for assignments in class that do not form the bulk of the grade.

Another pathway for integrating micro-credentials in academic programs could arise when program requirements change. For example, the Ministry of Education announced changes to curriculum for elementary students with the incorporation of coding into the math units. With this change, there was demand from practising teachers to learn the skill. Coding was implemented into curriculum in faculties of education across the province to reach new teacher candidates, and other teachers acquired it through professional development. A micro-credential integrated into the existing degree could identify teacher candidates who are learning this skill and distinguish them from those in programs that do not teach the skill and from graduates who pre-date the curriculum change. Because the skills taught are identical, the same micro-credential can be earned either within the traditional classroom or as a stand-alone continuing education opportunity.

Micro-Credentials, time, and prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR)

How can micro-credentials account for previous experience and education? Micro-credentials are not just about “time in a seat” but validated by assessment. The power of the micro-credential is that it allows us to evaluate a skill regardless of how that skill is demonstrated or how it was mastered.

The traditional academic format in Ontario is based on the Carnegie credit system, which is a standard based on the number of hours spent on direct instruction. A grade is then given based on what the student has achieved during those pre-set number of hours. By contrast, micro-credentials are generally based on the demonstration of a skill instead of the number of hours spent in the classroom.

Micro-credentials are often graded as either pass or fail: a learner either demonstrates the skill or they do not, and other metrics, such as how much time it has taken to achieve mastery of this skill, are irrelevant to the final outcome. In this way, the earning of the micro-credential can be divorced from the learning experience and, as a corollary, provide for increased opportunity to evaluate prior learning (Woods & Skapenko, 2021).

Micro-credentials may be getting away from conversations about seat time, but the “size” of the credential generally has been expressed using time as a common currency beyond the original learning context. Examples are “notional learning hours,” “volume of learning,” and “credit.”As the Australians put it, “volume of learning” is the time it would take a “normal”person to learn skill. Actual time taken is variable, but there cognition units (usually credits) are ultimately based on effort time. Oliver(2019)simplified this concept to the idea of “notional learning hours.”

Micro-credentials can be offered in a variety of ways, including self-directed, asynchronous, and synchronous formats. The material itself should guide the method of program delivery rather than the credential earned.

Information on the details of the micro-credential should be clearly articulated in the description and outline. These include the number of instructional hours, learning outcomes, and method of assessment. As well, learners should know whether the micro-credential is credit-bearing or non-credit-bearing. The pathways for transferability should be established between the institutions and their registrar’s office to ensure the process is seamless and recorded on the learner’s records or transcripts.

PSW Pathway at Lambton College

Micro-credentials that are stackable and ladder into other programs should be clearly described in their description, and all departments that handle transfers and pathway opportunities should have easy access to these laddering flowcharts and progression. See, for example, the Personal Support Worker (PSW) Micro-Credential Pathway Overview developed by Lambton College (2022).

Micro-credentials can be stand-alone or part of a micro-credential program. However, not all micro-credentials need to be stackable. If the design team has agreed to pathway opportunities, the micro- credentials should be designed to support the learners with the required learning outcomes or competencies to seamlessly transfer into a larger credential program such as an Ontario college certificate or diploma.

Micro-credentials: credit or non-credit? 

Micro-credentials can be credit-bearing or non-credit-bearing; therefore, some micro-credentials can be designed and developed to support learners wanting to transfer into certificate or diploma programs. Pathways for credit and non-credit courses should be clearly articulated, and this information should be identified early in the micro-credential. Learners should know whether completing this micro-credential will help them transfer into other credential programs.

When determining whether to design a micro-credential as credit or non-credit, it is helpful to consider the question through the following lenses.

Educational goals and standards

  • Appropriateness of the program’s structure and admissions requirements, method of delivery, and curriculum quality of teaching proposed.
  • The adequacy and effective use of institutional resources relative to micro-credential program requirements.
  • The learning outcomes achieved by students/graduates meet the program’s stated goals, the credential level standard, and the standards of any related regulatory, accrediting, or professional association as aligned with the discipline.
  • The continuing adequacy, suitability, and academic rigour of the methods used for evaluating student progress and achievement to ensure that the program’s articulated outcomes have been met.

Institutional accountability 

  • Demonstrate a policy and process for new program approval.
  • Show that policy guidelines are differentiated and adaptable to the range of programs and offerings with the institution, and responsive to needs and contexts.
  • Provide measurable, consistent means and direction to undertake a quality review.
  • Demonstrate that policy and process guidelines are consistent with institutional mandate, mission, vision, and strategic goals.
  • Create rubrics for measurement of product, development, and quality of content.

Provincial accountability

  • Commonalities between institutions, industry, sector boards, and employers, and provincial policies and guidelines.
  • Standardized competencies accessible to inter-institutional transfers and pathways.


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eCampusOntario's Micro-credential Toolkit by Alissa Bigelow; Colleen Booth; Bettina Brockerhoff-Macdonald; Dave Cormier; Christine Dinsmore; Sam Grey; Laurie Harrison; Aaron Hobbs; Sharon Lee; Pat Maher; Fiona McArthur; Tracy Mitchell-Ashley; Jennifer Mosley; James Papple; Jen Porter; Don Presant; Jennifer Sommer; and Edmond Zahedi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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