Micro-Credentialing in Educationby Becton Loveless
For some time now, education officials and administrators have been looking for better and more effective ways of pushing STEM topics in schools. One of the difficulties of doing so is that many students lack an interest in these subjects, and teachers lack the ability to drive interest in those subjects. With more effective teaching methods, it may be possible to increase interest in STEM careers. However, even teachers who specialize in STEM subjects may not always be aware of the most effective methods of instructing in those topics, while at other times they may not be able to keep up with the latest advances in technology. This problem is made for teachers who do not specialize in STEM subjects but understand that integrating technology is an effective way of preparing students for future, enjoyable careers.
One of the solutions to this problem may be in the form of micro-credentialing. A form of credentials that can be acquired through brief coursework either online or in person, micro-credentialing can be done faster than a normal credentialing process that results in a certificate. This doesn’t mean that micro-credentialing is done haphazardly. Instead, micro-credential courses are highly targeted at helping teachers attain mastery in one specific area. This process helps teachers become more effective when working with students.
A Review of STEM
STEM refers to curriculum and courses that focus on the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Appropriately applied, all four are taken as a complimentary whole and that reinforce one another, rather than considering each element independently. The United States has placed an increasing emphasis on these aspects of education as the rest of the world has become increasingly competitive in these fields. Fewer and fewer students have demonstrated an interest in careers in STEM areas, with only 16% of high school students demonstrating interest in a related career. About 28% of incoming high school freshmen demonstrate an interest in STEM careers, but 57% lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.
STEM education is important because it can lead to careers in high demand areas. By 2018, it was estimated that there was a need for 8.65 million employees in STEM roles. An estimated 1.7 million jobs were created in cloud computing between 2011 and 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that as of 2018, about 71% of all STEM careers were in computing, with 16% in traditional engineering and seven percent in physical sciences.
Amazingly, despite the fact that many people associate STEM careers with advanced learning and education, less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree. The value of such a degree is in the higher earning it helps command. Employees with a bachelor’s in a STEM field often enter their careers earning 26% higher than their peers. It’s clear that in the future, STEM fields will continue to demand a steady supply of employees. This makes it clear that an adequate STEM education will be needed among students. This is where micro-credentialing may help to improve academic outcomes as teachers become more proficient in their areas of instruction.
What is Micro-Credentialing?
Micro-credentialing is a way that people who are already professionals in their field can enhance their already existing skills and be officially recognized as having mastered those skills. The National Education Association describes them as a “competency digital form of certification” that are available for both formal and informal skills. Micro-credentialing is very similar to earning a degree or certification, and no matter how one defines the process, the end goal is to improve an educator’s professional practice.
Despite being similar to other forms of credentialing, micro-credentialing is a much briefer process that is more highly focused on a specific topic. Very often, these credentials are very tightly focused on one specific topic, such as “machine learning.” Other examples of very specific micro-credentials include “android development or “strategic decisions.”
Micro-credentialing should not be conceptualized as some form of replacement for a formal education. Instead, micro-credentialing builds upon the body of knowledge and skills that working professionals already possess thanks to their time earning a degree and working in their fields. These credentials are not an alternative to higher education. The foundational skills and knowledge that teachers learn during their undergraduate programs set the basis upon which micro-credentialing can be done. Micro-credentials advance a teacher’s existing education and cannot be viewed independently.
The requirements for getting micro-credentialed change from one program to another. Unfortunately, there are no official micro-credentialing granting institutions. This means that micro-credentialing programs can vary greatly in quality from one program to another. Moving forward, one of the goals of many organizations is to operationalize the micro-credentialing process. It’s hoped that, within a few years, there is less variation from one micro-credentialing program to another. It would be helpful to teachers to know that what they’re learning from one program won’t be less helpful than what they could learn in another program. However, micro-credentialing is a relatively new concept that has yet to be rigorously formalized between different organizations.
Still, one of the advantages of micro-credentialing is the program’s flexibility. Teachers can be micro-credentialed through both profit and nonprofit organizations. Educators also sometimes develop informal versions of these programs for use among their peers and to pass on existing knowledge and skills. Often, micro-credentialing is available online. Teachers can work toward these using online programs and tests that are then used to gauge the teacher’s knowledge and skills in a specific area.
Competency based micro-credentialing functions like many other forms of education. Learners acquire a certain amount of knowledge, demonstrate they have a specific degree of skill and mastery in an area, then progress to learning more advanced skills. As in all other credentialing processes, teachers are assessed in ways that demonstrate explicitly that they have learned these new skills, so assessment is a normal part of the micro-credentialing process. Through that process, just like in any classroom, teachers are provided specific amounts of support to help them learn effectively and attain mastery in a new area.
How Are Micro-Credentials Used?
Micro-credentials are used by educators to demonstrate they’ve attained mastery of a very specific skill. Often, these credentials can be used on resumes when applying for jobs or when negotiating for advancement with administrators. Teachers can apply their work toward micro-credentials to fulfill their requirement to earn a certain amount of professional development units every year. Interested educators should make certain with their administrators that their micro-credentialing hours can be applied to fulfilling their professional development requirements. For instance, the Kettle Moraine School District reported offering anywhere from $100 to $600 more in base salary when teachers held micro-credentials that benefited students.
Micro-Credentialing in Education
Educators at all instructional levels have taken an interest in the micro-credentialing process. There are a number of ways that micro-credentialing are advantageous for teachers. For instance, in traditional teacher conferences and workshops, teachers have fewer options about what they can learn about. During these meetings, agendas are set, and activities chosen in advance. Teachers have few options if they want to learn about something else, since decisions about what is going to be discussed is out of their hands.
On the other hands, micro-credentialing is a path by which educators can learn about what they feel is important to their teaching. Micro-credentialing, particularly if it’s online based, is self-paced and allows teachers to freely select what they want to learn about. All they need to do is complete collections of lessons that lead to mastery in a topic.
In an article by educator Jennifer Vandiver for Digital Promise, which focuses some of its research into the benefits of micro-credentialing, she mentioned that one of the difficulties for many teachers is that professional development often sets the same goals regardless of a teacher’s subject area, the grade level they teach at, or even their own personal goals. Despite the fact that education has so heavily focused on delivering tailored teaching interventions to students for the last few years, professional development continues to rely on old methods of instruction and a one-size-fits-all model.
Her own experience in a micro-credentialing pilot program from the Tennessee Department of Education helped her become a better instructor. She also touted other benefits of the program. Micro-credentialing was an empowering process. The program she participated in allowed for the creation of online communities that could support one another, which again emphasized the diverse nature of the micro-credentialing process.
Examples and Benefits of Micro-Credentialing
One area where teachers have shown interest in becoming micro-credentialed is in the area of maker education. Maker education refers to classrooms in which students are much more hands on and do the majority of their learning through projects. This requires teachers to shift their education interventions to become much more heavily project oriented, which can be difficult for some.
An example of micro-credentialing in maker education was demonstrated by CraftED, which partnered with organizations in the San Diego area to offer micro-credentialing that awarded the Maker Educator Badge. This credential required that teachers undergo 10 hours of development in maker education, including three digital lessons during which teachers learned about topics like creating a maker space and the background of the entire maker education movement.
Teachers also had to attend in-person lessons, during which they learned generally about how to become maker educators. Between their online and in-person experiences, teachers invested as many as 15 hours learning about this form of teaching. Upon completion, they were able to demonstrate skill in converting their classes to maker spaces and could point to their Maker Educator Badge as evidence of their new abilities and knowledge.
The relevance of maker spaces to educators in the sciences should be apparent. Project based education places a heavy emphasis on experimentation, which lends itself to conducting science experiments, playing with different types of technology, and putting together engineering projects. Underlying all of these is mathematics, which is needed to properly measure different elements of the experiment and ensure a successful outcome.
Because the maker space can be difficult for teachers to conceptualize, micro-credentialing provides a path forward to converting a traditional classroom into one where project-based learning is the norm. Since this form of learning heavily emphasizes collaboration, hands-on activity, and student-centered education, there are a number of positives to adopting this type of instructional method. Micro-credentialing can help teachers better understand how to adopt these practices as a permanent aspect of their course rather than using projects to only occasionally break up traditional instructional practices.
Micro-credentialing has specific benefits for technology since technology is a part of almost every part of learning in the current environment and is not just limited to STEM topics. Unfortunately, technology also moves rapidly. While it is true that many teachers have experience with technology and learned to use certain technological devices and software earlier in life, by the time they become instructors, technology has progressed even further. This makes it difficult at times for teachers to adequately use recently developed technologies, even if they have been technology literate for most of their lives. Because technology moves so quickly, it makes it nearly impossible for some teachers to integrate new devices into their instructional approaches, let alone teach it.
While teachers often recognize the value of technology in education, they are often poorly equipped to use it in a teaching capacity. Although it’s possible to provide professional development that guides teachers in the integration of technology, both primary and secondary school instructors are already pressed for time. This is where micro-credentialing makes a perfect complement to existing professional development. Miro-credentialing can be the means by which teachers become more familiar with the new technology available to them. By taking advantage of the flexible nature of the micro-credentialing process and learning new skills at their own pace, teachers can eventually acquire mastery over new technology, as reflected once they’ve been recognized for completing their micro-credentialing coursework.
Micro-credentialing is a fast, effective process by which teachers can acquire new skills. The benefits of this process are many. Micro-credentials can be used to help teachers acquire skills that apply specifically within their fields. However, micro-credentialing also has the potential to specifically help school administrators achieve their goals of increasing interest in STEM fields.
Through micro-credentialing, teachers can learn how to better instruct in STEM areas. However, the benefits go beyond teachers who specialize in STEM subjects. Teachers who want to integrate technology into almost any subject can use micro-credentialing as a path forward. This process can help them master new skills and attain new knowledge that supports the integration of technology. In this way, technology can become a part not only of courses that focus on STEM, but of almost any subject taught at the primary, secondary, or post-secondary level. Given the changing nature of the world and the never-ending growth of technology, using micro-credentialing to improve technology integration in schools may help better prepare students for careers later in life.