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Should the U of O invest in the development of stand-alone micro-credentials? Image: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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Already implemented at Western and U of T, do micro-credentials have a future at U of O?

In 2020, Ontario announced that it would be investing $59.5 million over three years to support the development of micro-credentials.

Though the term “micro-credential” is relatively new, the concept of pursuing additional education to “skill up” after graduation will be familiar to most. Micro-credentials formalize continuous learning to help professionals market their skills and meet changing industry needs.

Some micro-credentials are offered through post-secondary institutions, while others are awarded by private companies like Cisco, Amazon, and IBM. They differ from a traditional degree or certificate because they are much shorter and more specialized.

The work typically ranges between six hours to a couple of weeks, though some micro-credentials may take months to complete. The focus is usually on quickly acquiring practical skills directly related to a specific job. These credentials are usually offered virtually and can be completed at a student’s own pace, though some institutions offer micro-credentials on campus.

This means micro-credentials are a flexible option for students looking to improve targeted skills and differentiate themselves from other job candidates. They’re also useful for working professionals looking to stay up-to-date in fast-moving industries, like the tech and healthcare sectors. Many micro-credentials even offer group discounts for companies looking to invest in their employees’ skills.

Since micro-courses are usually developed in close collaboration with an industry, they allow learners to develop the exact skills that employers are looking for. Some courses are even stackable, meaning that taking multiple can lead to a bigger credential.

After completing a micro-credential, students are typically awarded with a digital badge that can be shared on social media sites like LinkedIn. These badges come with a unique code that validates the achievement’s authenticity.

Why is continuous learning necessary?

The same way a doctor has to stay up to date with the latest medical research to offer the best medical assistance, professionals in every industry need to stay up to date with current industry standards and best practices.

It’s no secret that there is a massive skills gap in the tech industry. This means that many companies are having difficulties finding workers qualified to use the latest technological innovations. In the tech sector, 94 per cent of employers said it’s challenging to find skilled technology professionals. A commitment to continuous learning makes it possible for professionals to get these highly sought-after, high-paying positions.

In fact, many workers are drawn to certain job positions because of continuous learning opportunities. A TechRepublic study found that “a lack of growth and development opportunities was the top reason cited by respondents who had left a job in the past year.” By providing growth opportunities to their incoming and existing employees, companies can attract more talent.

Additionally, micro-credentials can help people specialize and establish their professional niche.

For example, two marketing students would have different areas of expertise if one completed a micro-credential in brand management marketing and the other in search engine marketing.

The world of work is evolving

For better or for worse, employers are looking for increasingly educated employees.

James Tinajero, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, says micro-credentials will help meet modern professionals’ needs.

“The future of work is changing. We know that Ontario workers will change careers and professions multiple times over the course of their lives and will need more flexible, industry-relevant training options that will prepare them for good jobs,” said Tinajero in an email to the Fulcrum.

“In December 2021, the government announced it was supporting the development of up to 250 new rapid training programs that will be available for enrolment in 2022. These new programs are expected to help people upgrade their skills to succeed in their current careers or find new employment,” he explained.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for shorter, flexible credentials. In early 2020, many people lost their jobs at once and found themselves urgently needing to re-skill and pivot their careers. Moreover, the shift to remote work and eLearning has increased the demand for workers trained in the newest tech, making the skills shortage clearer than ever to employers.

A fresh way to train new hires

Some workplaces are even developing their own micro-credentials as part of their training program for new hires.

Omar Abotahoon, a second-year software engineering student at the University of Ottawa, completed a 60-65 hour micro-credential as part of his training for his co-op term at Canada’s Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN).

He had good things to say about the experience, sharing that the course made him feel more comfortable at his new job. 

“Instead of dumping a bunch of documentation on top of my head for me to read, CENGN invested time and resources to properly train their new technical students, and I think that’s what every other company should be doing,” he said.

With his new Cloud System Specialist certification and the accompanying digital badge, Abotahoon will be able to show proof of his cloud computing skills to future employers.

“I learned many new skills that will be useful for my career down the line. For these reasons I believe that micro-credentials can be very valuable and that companies should leverage their power,” he added.

A solution to bridging the education gap?

Cheaper, shorter, and flexible credentials could help make better-paying positions available to people unable to pursue a postsecondary degree. Virtual education makes it easier to work towards a higher-paying job while working full-time.

Many micro-courses don’t have prerequisites. This means that someone without a postsecondary education could still get their skills validated by a respected educational institution. The University of Toronto and the Western University of Ontario have implemented micro-credentials as part of their schools of continuing education.

In early 2020, the University of Toronto offered 24 micro courses, 19 of which were offered virtually. Prices for these courses range between $500 to $600. This makes micro-credentials a good option for people who haven’t completed a degree but are looking to learn more and prove their skills to prospective employers.

In March 2021, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada to fund micro-credentials through a student financial assistance program. Currently, over 1,200 micro-credentials are approved for financial assistance through OSAP.

“The government’s micro-credentials strategy and new portal will help more people gain the skills they need to become ready for in-demand jobs,” Tinajero commented. 

“By ensuring loans and grants are available to rapidly upskill and reskill, Ontario’s workers can access the education they need for the in-demand jobs of today and tomorrow.”

The University of Ottawa currently offers a variety of microprograms in arts, business, social sciences, engineering, law, and medicine. Unfortunately, these programs are reserved for people who’ve already completed a four year Bachelor’s degree.

Should the U of O invest in the development of stand-alone micro-credentials?

But… shouldn’t a university degree be enough?

Some would argue that possessing a university degree should be sufficient for getting a desired job position, without the need for additional education. If micro-credentials are meant to close the gap between postsecondary education and industry, why isn’t the curriculum itself being updated to meet industry needs?

The growing popularity of micro-credentials could be seen as extremely transactional, with the main attraction being marketable digital badges instead of education. With so much information available online nowadays, someone could realistically skill up following free online courses or in-depth Youtube videos. This commitment to continuing education shouldn’t matter less because it was not formally acquired through a renowned organization.

The additional cost of pursuing micro-credentials could be viewed as a barrier to entry for marginalized groups looking to enter certain industries. Evolution is natural in any field, and people have been learning to keep up with new skill requirements for years through a combination of on-site training and doing the work.

However, the truth of the matter is that technology is advancing at a faster rate than ever. The skills students learn in university courses won’t stay the industry standards throughout their careers. Formalizing continuous education can streamline the process of acquiring new, necessary skills for companies looking to avoid any hiccups or the deceleration of operations.

Traditionally, the main “product” sold by universities has been the four year degree. Diversifying the options offered by postsecondary institutions helps meet more students’ needs while making further education more accessible, helping Canada maintain a knowledgeable, effective workforce.

For up-to-date information on micro-credentials in Ontario.