Can micro-credentials replace traditional tertiary qualifications?

In an open letter to the New Zealand public, signed by over 100 businesses, micro-credentials and badging are promoted as new ways for people to gain skills.

Here’s an exert from the open letter, which can be found here:

“While traditional tertiary education has its place, it is one of many pathways to employment. Internship, apprenticeships, new micro-credentials, on the job training, online courses and badging are all effective ways to learn. For many, the time and costs of gaining a tertiary qualification without certainty of employment means we all need to think outside the box to connect people to jobs and opportunities.”

What exactly are micro-credentials? How can their value be measured against traditional academic qualifications? Can an online course delivered by an overseas supplier be recognised in New Zealand?

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is currently grappling with those questions in a six-month micro-credential1 pilot project over the second half of 2017.

It is evaluating three programmes, including the Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree programme delivered by Udacity, an online training organisation based in Silicon Valley. NZQA has no financial arrangements with Udacity, and students enrol directly with the provider. It has however assessed the course as “equivalent to a 60-credit package of learning at Level 9 (Masters Level) on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF).”

The next Self-Driving Care Engineer programme offered by Udacity begins in November. It will cost US$800, will run for three terms over nine months, and take up to 15 hours a week. Applicants must have software development knowledge, including intermediate Python programming experience. Udacity has partnered with companies such as Mercedes Benz and BMW and claims that students will have a greater opportunity to apply for roles in these companies following course completion.

Udacity founder and CEO is Sebastian Thurn, the former head of Google X, the laboratory which explores new ideas. Under his leadership between 2010 – 2012 it came up with the forerunner to Google’s self-driving car division (now called Waymo), Project Loon (delivering internet connectivity to remote areas by way of hot air balloons), and Google Glass. There is good profile of Thurn by CNBC here.

The other two pilot programmes by NZQA are New Zealand based – Otago Polytechnic’s micro-credential Edubits scheme which provides credits for a range of skills such as meeting planning and Microsoft Word knowledge, and the Young Enterprise Scheme for secondary school students.

While the NZQA is conducting a pilot, it appears bullish on creating a ‘micro-credential system’, writing in an email to The Foresyte Report: “Micro-credentials have the potential to offer a range of lifelong learning options, as New Zealanders seek to develop skills throughout multiple careers. They also support learners to participate in a way that suits their individual needs and circumstances. Employers will benefit from increased access to just-in-time and relevant skills that reflect their needs.”

Depending on the outcome of the coalition talks following the general election, the National Party have pledged $3 million to create an Innovative Tertiary Fund for tertiary providers seeking funding for new micro-credential course development.

1According to the NZQA micro-credentials are also known as badges or nano-credentials.

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