Teaching and Learning

Building a learning ecosystem with micro-credentials

Learn how leaders in higher education are building learning ecosystems with the help of micro-credentials that empower students to express skills and competencies from admission to graduation and beyond. Micro-credentials provide a way to develop a unified course and credit structure that can offer timely, flexible and aligned courses for people of all ages.

April 7, 2022

Civilization is entering a historically unprecedented rate of change. In addition to economic, political and environmental instability, we’re experiencing a rapid pace of technological advances driving pervasive disruptions in the ways we live, learn and work.

Because of these changes, institutions of higher education are witnessing the rise of continuous adult learning as people increasingly seek flexible pathways to gain relevant knowledge, skills and credentials.

Notably, these learners are more diverse than the traditional 18- to 22-year-olds for whom most institutions of higher education were designed to serve. Increasingly, learners tend to be older or employed and are often caregivers with multiple responsibilities – those for whom part-time, online study is the only feasible way to acquire the learning and credentials they’ll need.

Amidst these changes, leaders at institutions of higher education are designing new learning ecosystems embedded with micro-credentials, using badging technology to recognize highly valued skills and to build flexible, customizable and stackable pathways that link for-credit and non-credit courses together.

At Southern New Hampshire University, micro-credentials became essential fixtures in a cohesive, relevant learner-centered ecosystem. However, executing on that vision was no small feat.

“Our first goal was to figure out how to make all of our current offerings interoperable – across both place-based and online degree programs or certificates,” said Gwen Britton, Vice President of Product Strategy.

Those familiar with Southern New Hampshire University know that competency-based education is integral to their vision of an interoperable learner-centered ecosystem.

A primarily purple illustration shows three buildings, each with a green badge atop, representing the institution, individual and profession of a learner record.

“As part of our massive ‘one catalog’ initiative, we are slowly but surely converting all of our programs from course outcomes to competencies, and that makes it much, much easier for us to make things interoperable,” said Britton.

Applying micro-credentials to competencies can be tricky for many institutions of learning, a challenge that Southern New Hampshire University confronted head-on.

Reflecting on their early work with micro-credentials, Britton noted, “As we started getting into the work we realized that a competency might be way too big in order for us to surface something at the badging level.”

That discovery eventually led to an essential connection between micro-credentials and skills. “That’s when we kind of moved into the Open Skills Network world and started associating skills to competencies – that’s where the badge magic happened.”

The impetus for micro-credentialing at Southern New Hampshire University co-evolved with a broader strategic initiative to unify online and place-based courses. However, for Maine, the effort was state-wide.

Claire Sullivan, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Innovation in Digital Badges and Micro-credentials at the University of Maine System, describes the main drivers of their statewide learning ecosystem. “Our goal is to build micro-credential bridges across a newly unified statewide system to better meet the labor needs of Maine,” said Sullivan.

Similar to Southern New Hampshire, the need for unification influenced the development of a cohesive learning ecosystem. “Our state is concerned about the lack of coordination and credential alignment of our two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and workforce system,” said Sullivan. Increasing coordination across the systems promises multiple benefits in both the short- and long-term.

“This misalignment increases cost, impacts the progression of our students, and is holding back our economy. Our infrastructure was not built to quickly and seamlessly upskill and reskill the talent employers are looking for today. Micro-credentials can help us better align and build a more unified ecosystem,” said Sullivan.

A primarily purple illustration reflects high-rise buildings spread across the globe with green badges beside each one to illustrate the shareability of skills learned by individuals.

Like many early innovators, the University of Maine System began experimenting with micro-credentials in non-credit courses. However, like Southern New Hampshire and other universities, efforts are underway to expand to for-credit courses.

At Arizona State University, digital badges help increase greater learner agency. Donna Kidwell, Chief Information Security & Digital Trust Officer, notes, “We recognized that we did not adequately empower our students to express their skills and competencies throughout their time with us, from admission to graduation.”

That is changing as Arizona State University issues digital badges for both academic and non-academic activities. “We’re using badges as a way to dynamically evidence the value of the experiences of our students. Our goal is to increase greater learner agency so learners can create and broker on the value of their university experiences far in advance of when they get the official diploma.”

Similar to other institutions of learning, Kidwell recognizes how learners and their needs are changing. “We are an institution of higher education – we also know there’s a tremendous need for upskilling and cross-training and other areas where a degree may not be the thing that gets you to the next step. So as part of that vision, we really started thinking about how to get there.”

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Join us at Badgr to have conversations with thought leaders about their strategies to build a learning ecosystem with the help of micro-credentials and pathways in a time of significant change and uncertainty. We look forward to expanding this conversation to include you and others on this same path.

Dr. Sheryl Grant, a woman with her hair pulled back, looks at the camera. She wears earrings and eyeglasses with rectangular frames.

About the author

Sheryl Grant, Ph.D. is Director of Digital Credentialing Strategies at Badgr where she is responsible for the research, design and delivery of strategic planning and offers expertise in support of complex, multi-year digital credentialing programs.

Dr. Grant is among the change agents who helped build the field of micro-credentials, spearheading the Open Badges movement 12 years ago with Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC. She has published articles, blogs, book chapters and the book What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities, an early response to designing badge systems grounded in actual practice.

Are you interested in learning how other colleges are building learning ecosystems with digital credentials? Join Badgr and other higher education leaders as we unpack this timely topic.

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