7 Things You Should Know
Micro-credentials are picking up steam in the professional learning world. From what you’ve heard, you might think of them as merely a series of badges learners can earn (more on that later). But there is far more to micro-credentials than that.
Micro-credentials are in fact an incredibly effective way to implement a competency-based learning model. Here’s how they work: Learners like teachers, paraprofessionals, principals and others can select micro-credentials to pursue. As they learn, they submit specific evidence to demonstrate mastery of the subject at hand — whether that be content knowledge, specific pedagogical techniques, skills like classroom management, procedures like dealing with bloodborne pathogens, or many others. Then, this evidence is weighed by an assessor, who determines whether to award the micro-credential or ask the learner to keep working on it.
Micro-credentials measure the demonstration of skill and knowledge, not time spent learning.
Time spent on professional development is not a good indicator of the value of that learning — that’s not news. Simply spending time isn’t the goal — in fact, most of us would probably say that if increased knowledge and skill in teaching can be achieved in less time, it would be a good thing. Still, time tends to be the most-measured factor in professional learning.
Micro-credentials honor existing competence and respect learners’ time.
We all know what it’s like to sit through unnecessary training, the litany of “better things to do” running through our heads when a seminar covers the same material we’ve conquered long ago. A veteran teacher who’s an expert in formative assessments may not need to sit through a course that a first-year educator finds helpful. With competency-based learning, she won’t have to. She can simply demonstrate her skill and knowledge in this area and earn the micro-credential, while the new teacher takes a course or other learning experience to gain that knowledge.
This means that teachers can spend their professional learning time focusing on learning opportunities that are meaningful and relevant to them.
Micro-credentials are a tremendous way to meet ESSA’s professional learning requirements.
The Every Student Succeeds Act sets a high bar when it comes to professional learning, and micro-credentials can help to meet each of the criteria specified in the law. ESSA calls for professional learning to be:
- Sustained. Developing a set of skills requires more than going to a one-time workshop, and with micro-credentials, the timeline can flex to meet the needs of each individual learner.
- Intensive. Professional learning that is focused on a discrete concept, practice or program is exactly what competency-based learning brings: a particular area of focus and the steps needed to achieve it.
- Job-embedded. While some learning elements of a micro-credential may be offered online, skills are mastered and demonstrated within the context of the job.
- Collaborative. One of the best ways to learn within a competency-based model is from experts: colleagues, coaches, mentors. And when submitting evidence, an in-district assessor weighs evidence and provides feedback to the learner.
- Data-driven. While time is often viewed as a data point, the most important data at an individual level is whether or not the participant can show he has learned the required skills.
- Classroom-focused. Micro-credentials allow learners to truly focus on the skills that will make the most difference to teaching and learning.
Micro-credentials break down learning into manageable chunks.
Meaningful learning needs to focus on discrete units that can be practiced. This kind of “microlearning” often involves a series of sessions that take 45-90 minutes each and are delivered over time. Not only does this put ambitious projects within reach, it provides a sense of accomplishment when each unit is practiced and implemented.
Micro-credentials ≠ badges.
As we look at what micro-credentials are, it’s helpful to also look at what they are not. By now, you can hopefully see that micro-credentials are way more than just badges. Badges are simply a way to incentivize (or even gamify) learning with micro-credentials. While the micro-credential codifies how competence must be demonstrated through the submission and assessment of evidence, a badge signifies that competence has been demonstrated.
It comes down to rigor. Looking at whether an individual attended a workshop, put a certain number of hours into a learning experience or watched a series of videos doesn’t have the same level of rigor as determining whether they can effectively put a skill into practice in the classroom. High-quality micro-credentials may award badges, but only when a participant can show mastery.
Micro-credentials can help build a district’s brand.
A challenge many school systems face today is when good teachers leave — either the school itself or the profession entirely. The job market is competitive, and building a solid brand can give your district an edge in attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.
One way to do this is by providing meaningful professional development for teachers, including micro-credentials. Competency-based learning honors what teachers already know, is flexible, and is an effective way to acquire critical skills – and that can all add up to a big differentiator for your district.
Micro-credentials can provide leadership pathways.
Beyond offering effective learning, micro-credentials can also provide a way for teachers to advance in their careers. At a certain point, the next logical step for a teacher is to leave the classroom and become an administrator. But what about those who don’t aspire to the principalship and want to remain in teaching?
One of the unexpected benefits of micro-credentials is opening a door to leadership. Imagine a master teacher who’s highly skilled at formative assessment. You might ask that teacher to become an assessor: someone who looks at the evidence other teachers submit in order to earn micro-credentials. This puts that master teacher in a position of leadership, where they can provide feedback, collaborate with peers, share expertise and be seen as an expert by colleagues. Better yet, this leadership opportunity doesn’t remove that teacher from the classroom. It’s a fantastic way to build internal capacity in your district for a rich set of skills and create a culture of collaboration and sharing.
Frequently Asked Questions
Micro-credentials make the professional learning experience far more effective. They do this by:
- Requiring job-embedded evidence to earn the micro-credential, so you know the educator can apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom.
- Allowing educators to focus on developing the skills they lack, without spending a lot of time on the skills they already have.
Some professional development systems that offer micro-credentials also enable a collaborative-based approach to assessment, which allows you to leverage the strength of experts in your district.
While the need to develop skills and demonstrate competency has not dwindled, traditional ways of delivering and measuring professional development are becoming obsolete. In fact, 71% of teachers aren’t satisfied with their current PD offeringsi and only 40% feel that PD activities are a good use of their time.ii
Every teacher has unique skills and areas for growth — so why should professional learning be one-size-fits-all? And among other criteria, the Every Student Succeeds Act calls for professional learning to be sustained, intensive and classroom-focused. In other words, the need is for professional development that reaches individual teachers right where they are — and equips them to make genuine strides in their classroom practice.
Micro-credentials provide exactly that. They allow learners to progress through their PD goals as they demonstrate mastery of skills — regardless of time, pace or place of learning.
Glad you asked! Depending on the system you’re using, there are several advantages micro-credentials offer:
- Take a growth-based approach. Micro-credentials redefine the professional learning experience, shifting the emphasis from seat time to demonstrated competence.
- Support development around targeted needs. Allow instructional leaders to recommend micro-credentials that match an educator’s specific growth goals.
- Provide ongoing feedback. Educators can submit pieces of required evidence — one at a time — enabling district-assigned assessors to provide incremental feedback.
- Enhance all your PD resources. Micro-credentials have the potential to make all the PD tools and resources your educators access — from virtual PLCs to online tools to coaches and mentors — more relevant and meaningful.
i Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ View on Professional Development. (Boston Consulting Group and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, December 2014). https://s3.amazonaws.com/edtech-production/reports/Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
ii The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development. (The New Teacher Project, August 2015). http://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP-Mirage_2015.pdf
Teachers love micro-credentials.
One surveyi showed that 97% of respondents who had completed at least one micro-credential indicated they wanted to pursue more in the future.That’s because micro-credentials are more than mandatory continuing education. They’re formative learning opportunities that:
• Personalize professional development …all of which helps teachers improve their practice and apply what they’ve learned in their classrooms.
• Make mastery manageable
• Reinforce accountability
Yesterday’s traditional PD model often doesn’t translate to classroom practice.
Studies showii teachers are dissatisfied with traditional professional development. Workshops often fail to connect with teachers’ day-to-day needs and lack the kind of job-embedded learning that leads to long-term success. Effective PD happens in context: it directly relates to the competencies and skills teachers use every day in class.
Micro-credentials are more than just summative.
Professional learning that integrates formative learning strategies maximize growth. With this kind of learning pathway, educators learn, practice, receive feedback and demonstrate mastery of each skill for a given micro-credential. It requires self-reflection and self-evaluation, and culminates in users selecting and submitting evidence to show proficiency.
Micro-credentials are a big step toward giving teachers voice and choice in their PD.
Teachers are in the best position to understand their own needs, as well as their students’. Micro-credentials empower teachers to choose the skills and competencies to pursue bringing their own goals, needs and interests — and those of their students — to the table.
Micro-credentials make mastery manageable.
Granular by nature, micro-credentials build competencies in small, focused steps, making them easy to incorporate into daily practice. By breaking the evidence down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and requiring proof of competency, they help close the gaps between knowledge acquisition, implementation and mastery.
Micro-credentials reinforce accountability.
PD that centers on seat time typically doesn’t require much more than attendance — a poor measure of mastery. Micro-credentials make the case for a competency-based learning model, requiring demonstration of skills and abilities. In other words, they require evidence.
i Acree, L. (2016). Seven Lessons Learned From Implementing Micro-credentials. Raleigh, NC. Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at the NC State University College of Education.
ii Teachers Know Best: Teachers' Views on Professional Development. http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/resource/teachers-know-best-teachers-views-on-professional-development/
How to Get Teacher Buy-in
Our world moves fast, and teachers can get inundated with new things to do: Chromebooks, and one-to-one initiatives, and iPads, and every other strategy or philosophy or piece of technology that promises to transform the classroom. How can school leaders who believe in the value of micro-credentials gain buy-in from teachers and see that the promise of competency-based learning is realized?
The Weilenmann School of Discovery, a charter school in Utah, has seen tremendous success with micro-credentials. When we spoke with several of their administrators and teachers, they offered some suggestions for getting teachers on board.
Prioritize new plans based on research.
This helps to prevent Shiny Object Syndrome. “If you don’t make good research-based decisions, you’re bound to be kicked around by every fad,” said Cindy Phillips, Weilenmann’s Executive Director. “You look at the research on the efficiency to time of this kind of professional development, and you just can’t beat it.”
Set goals collaboratively with teachers.
“We ask our teachers to set very specific goals that are aligned to our state standards of professionalism. And we identify the micro-credential that goes with that goal.”
“Instead of assigning a micro-credential, we asked them to choose,” said Kat Mitchell, Lower School Director. “And when we asked them to choose, we had far better success in them wanting to do it.”
Perhaps this isn’t appropriate for every organization, but Weilenmann offers teachers a small monetary incentive for every micro-credential completed, up to three. Incentives don’t need to be financial, however — recognition and career pathing can be motivating as well.
Connect people together for support.
Perhaps multiple teachers are pursuing the same micro-credential at the same time. If so, grease the wheels for collaboration.
Take strategic advantage of the school’s schedule.
Is winter break coming up? That might be a great time to encourage teachers to pursue a micro-credential. Or perhaps include them as part of summer PD.
Ask administrators to complete micro-credentials, too.
At Weilenmann, administrators are teachers as well, and they take part in the same professional learning that the rest of the certified staff does. Cindy said this helps keep them aware of what teachers need on an ongoing basis.
“Students will always do something that they perceive as fun, and that they see that there’s something meaningful about it,” said Cindy. “One of the best ways to get buy-in before the first year even starts is to have a fantastically fun moment with your teachers, where you’ve previewed all kinds of great curriculum, assigned it out, and have the teachers demonstrate how they’re going to use it the very first day, so that your buy-in is almost immediate because it’s fun and meaningful. The same way you would hook your students in.”
Give teachers freedom to use what they’ve learned.
“There is no point in developing qualities of great teaching, or leadership abilities or whatever it may be, and having it hidden away in some corner of the school. You need to not only allow your teachers the autonomy to innovate and to utilize new skills in new ways, even if it wasn’t exactly what you had planned, because they’ve now learned something — they’ve grown beyond what they were doing before and want to try it out. As an administrator, if you snuff that out, you have completely undermined the credibility of all the premises on which you say that your school is based.”
Ask teachers to share success stories.
Micro-credentials provide a rich opportunity for conversations about teaching, said Steve Williams, Weilenmann’s Middle School Dean. “One thing I’ve seen is that teachers are talking about things they’ve learned. They would talk about things that they would improve… I have seen that among all of our teachers, and I think they want to do this. I think 90% of the teachers that I have talked with are interested in doing more micro-credentials.”
Be open to feedback.
“I don’t think anyone appreciates a push-down initiative,” said Steve. Communicating early and being up front with faculty about the what, why and how of micro-credentials, and giving teachers a chance to discuss, ask questions and react to them is important. “That there’s opportunity to talk about it, and it’s not just something you have to put your head down and do. And I think that gives people strength and a sense that they’re a part of this, and that their feedback really does matter in the process.”