Postsecondary Trending Now: Microcredentials and the Higher Ed Hype Cycle

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Postsecondary Trending Now graphic

Remember the good old days? Surely you do.

Ah yes, the good old days in higher education — when we spoke of and wrote about disruptive innovation, disintermediation, and re-aggregation with grand abandon. Heady days indeed, where we imagined, right and left, a complete reinvention of so many industry or commercial practices.

It would be interesting to perform a Gartner-like hype cycle analysis on some of these prospective disruptive transformations. Take the music industry, for example. The switch to buying music online via download was supposed to liberate us from the tyranny of having to buy the whole CD or album just to get the one song you liked. But that did not live up entirely to the hype. I’m thinking of the “album only” phenomenon you encounter on places like iTunes, where it’s back to the future: you still have to buy the album to get the song.

A recent webinar led me to think again about these notions of disruptive innovation. In partnership with Georgia Tech Professional Education and the International Association for Continuing Engineering Education, the ELI hosted a half-day webinar on microcredentialing. It was a terrific session (see Yakut Gazi’s earlier blog post and you can also listen to the recording here []). All the presenters shared insightful perspectives on the role and potential of microcredentialing in higher education.  

One presentation, given by Professor Kyle Peck of Penn State University, led me to return to the all-too-familiar territory of disruptive innovation.

One of his key points was “microcredentialing can end our [higher education’s] monopoly on the only educational credentials of real value.” His point, if I understand it correctly, is that microcredentials have the potential to provide a far better description of a learner’s accomplishments, a description that is more detailed and as such, provides a richer account than the traditional university transcript.

Microcredentials also could lay the groundwork for student/employment interactions that are no longer relying on institutions of higher education. This could well be the case if the transcript — the record of a learner’s accomplishment — evolves into a lifelong instrument, based on blockchain technology that is tied to the learner instead of an institution.

But Prof. Peck’s message was not a simplistic prediction of the end of higher education as we know it (as he put it, “universities will not ‘quit their day jobs’”). Instead, he pointed to ways some institutions are experimenting with new models and partnerships, (e.g., Georgia Tech with AT&T) and new models (e.g., adding microcredentials inside of traditional degree program or establishing nanodegree programs).

So I offer two conclusions in the wake of this event:

  1. Microcredentials present us with another “disruptive innovation.”  Yet if we are to continue to use the term “disruptive innovation” in any constructive way, we will need to be more nuanced in that usage. We need to be mindful that there are degrees of disruption. An innovation that is substantially disruptive might result in a business practice going extinct. But much more often the result is a modification or adaption by the existing practitioners that may be major or minor in scope. Simply attaching the tag “disruptive innovation” to any and all change in practice obscures more than it reveals.
  2. It’s becoming increasingly clear that microcredentials will be very significant in education as we go forward. It’s obvious that they do indeed offer new ways to document and demonstrate a learner’s accomplishments, both at both accredited and non-accredited institutions. As we experience a proliferation in microcredentials, increasingly more employers will likely not only request to view them, but also desire to play a role in developing them. What remains to be seen, however, is whether a standard construct will emerge, or if institutions and consortia will continue to develop microcredentials — be those digital badges, nanodegrees or some other as-yet-unnamed format — independent of one another.

Listen to the microcredentialing session [] or read Prof. Yakut Gazi’s guest post: Alternative, Stackable, and Microcredentials: Where Are We Headed?

Malcolm Brown is director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.