Friday, May 15, 2015

Elementary, My Dear Microcredential Provider

Based on presentation March 20, 2015 to
Certification Network Group (CNG,
), Washington, DC.

The world of credentials traditionally includes certificates, certifications, degrees, and accreditations. This world acknowledges that there are also awards, recognitions, and endorsements.  In fact, Wikipedia describes credentials to include security clearances, identification papers, badges, keys, pass codes, scientific papers (e.g., peer-reviewed), letters of credence, and powers of attorney.  In the computer world, credentials are the bits of code that computers use to track information as it is moved around and to ensure that a given code segment is allowed to do certain types of cyber work.

More importantly, the work world and the world of education-to-work workforce pipeline are seeing microcredentials as promising tools.  So, what exactly is a "micro" credential, my dear Watson?

What is a microcredential, exactly?  

Essentially, microcredentials are small credentials… valid and important subsets of a larger credential or field.

We all bring some experience with the kinds of microcredentials used in youth programs where badging is a high-frequency form of recognition.  Other recognitions are more in paraphernalia line– trinkets, jewelry, medals, trophies, and clothing.

We also have some experience with this in the adult program world where first place is a prized microcredential as are awards in juried in shows of one kind or another.  In the sports arena, we value medals and cups as awards.  We recognize special patches on jackets and uniforms of first responders, special t-shirts for entertainment production stage crews.  In some businesses, in-house badges are used to define skill sets that can be tapped for special projects.

To some extent, we know what microcredentials are, but let’s formalize the details.

Microcredentials are:

  • Subset of a field or area – The ‘micro’ nature of a microcredential allows it to focus on subsets of a field or area; the imagery and naming of the microcredential highlights the key performances in the sub-area.  
  • Discrete (bite-sized) chunks  -- Each microcredential is sized for audience’s needs and is large enough to require that the individual work for it but small enough to be do-able
  • Subject-adaptable –Typically, microcredentials are given out for a variety of topics or areas of expertise and there are multiple microcredentials available in related topics and areas.
  • Performance-based – Every microcredential requires demonstrated performance against documented against standards or requirements.  
  • Developmental – Each microcredential’s performance requirements expect the performer to “reach” or “stretch” to grow into the microcredential. 
  • Portable – Microcredentials are built to be shared either physically (trophy, patch, beads, ribbons, badges) or digitally (digital badges). 
  • Associated – Each individual microcredential has relationship with other microcredentials. Frequently microcredentials are used in combination to allow leveling-up to a higher level credential, as well.
  • Staged for increasing skill – Microcredentials show growth and development.  They might start basic and show advancement over time (e.g., swimming patches) or they may accumulate to show advancement (e.g., dog show or county fair ribbons).
  • Transparent --  The purpose and value of each microcredential is known to community that uses it.  The imagery and naming used evoke the performances required and often show developmental staging (e.g., minnow swimming patch vs the dolphin patch.)
  • Bestows a credibility to recipient – Like any other credential, the microcredentials bestows to the earner; however, the credibility has limits & concomitant responsibilities.  Owning multiple microcredentials increases the individual’s credibility and the breadth and reach of their responsibilities.  
  • Cycle of Honor – Like other credentials, microcredentials need to be bestowed by a credible organization that honors recipients who honor and value the credential and the organization that bestows it. 

Relationships between microcredentials

Relationships between microcredentials create or enhance their respective  meanings.  If the series of microcredentials moves skill levels from basic to advanced, they should be built into the imagery, naming, and performance requirements. If they are parallel in weighting but different in performances, the imagery and naming should make that clear as well.

Relationship must “make sense” to the credential holder audience and stakeholders.  As such, they must be transparent, or at least apparent, to the uninitiated.  That is, a microcredential with Level 1 in the name is probably more basic than one with Level 5 in the name – basic and sensible to even an uninitiated viewer.  Anyone looking at the microcredential would guess this.  Likewise, anyone looking at the symbol of minnow and that of a dolphin will see implied skill difference.  However, it gets more complex with work skills where badges may simply have a skill set name like ‘diesel motor – automobile class’ or ‘diesel motor – marine class’ or ‘diesel motor – big rig class’.  Still, even the uninitiated can tell that there will be different skills required for diesel motors build for different purposes.

The value of ‘like’ microcredentials and levels of microcredentials should be easily recognized.  As
with the diesel motors example, we can see both the similarities and the differences.

The weighting of higher-level microcredentials (those received through ‘leveling up’) must be obvious.  In some way, higher-level microcredentials may become equivalent to the full-credential. This should be clear in imagery and naming as well as defined in the meta-data for the advanced credential.   With leveling-up clearly defined, we can clearly see individual’s advancement.  This advancing imagery is classic to the military insignia of stripes, bars, chevrons, and stars.

Relationships also take into account that some individuals’ are not motivated to advance beyond a certain point and, therefore, those who do advance receive a significantly different level of recognition.  The Eagle Scout and WoHeLo Awards for youth are key examples of the difference that more advanced microcredentials have as individual’s skill levels mature.  The military are masters of this, as well.  However, the workplace and pre-workplace pipelines (e.g., literacy, work readiness) are still struggling with how to structure this stopping point or how to deal with the impact of an individual who does not advanced.    Many credentialing programs provide for this with the renewal or maintenance process that defines requirements to minimally hold onto the certification level attained.  The TIfPI ID certifications with badges, provides one option for IDs who work in one specialty area (e.g., asynchronous/authored elearning modules or in instructor-led training or in video), while recognizing that others will want to advance through experience with many different learning solutions.


George A. Miller formulated the concept of chunking information for learning in 1956, as he presented evidence that working memory is limited in capacity. Scaling builds on previous knowledge and experience. The zone of proximal development is that learner experience, which lies between the tasks that a learner can do independently and the ones that still require support of a knowledgeable peer or instructor.

Scaling refers to the organization of chunks to allow learners access to the next skill with appropriate support in the zone of proximal development.  Scaling increases confidences by building on previous knowledge and making each new skill attractive and motivational – a stretch, but not impossible.
Scaling is essential in:
Creating bite-sized yet meaningful chunks
Creating the progression of chunks
Defining associated relationships between chunks

The organization of chunks is the scale:
Easiest to hardest
Basic to advanced
Concrete to abstract
Novice to master

The source of a scale for microcredentials would be found in a job/task analysis (when done within a work place), a practice analysis (a variation of the job/task analysis which is done across a field of practice with multiple venues and significant difference in work tasks based on venue -- see the TIFPI Practice Analysis for Instructional Designers and Developers), or a cognitive analysis (work place or core skills, such as education or supplemental education).


Scaffolding or instructional scaffolding is used to provide appropriate levels of support as the individual advances.  Early activities may require more guidance, instruction, tools, and coaching.  Later activities may require less support but more access to information and tools.
A scaffold is a temporary framework that is put up for support and access to meaning
The scaffold is taken away as the learner builds success and confidence.
Eventually, decreasing support create shifts in level and readiness for ‘leveling up’

Scaling and Scaffolding Microcredentials 

Scaling and scaffolding of microcredentials is what makes them attractive to potential credential-holders.  They want the next one, and the next one and the next.  Each is challenging.  Each is very do-able, with effort.  Together they increase skills and draw the individual forward.
In workforce development scaled and scaffolded microcredentials demonstrate skill development over time.  The path of development becomes obvious via the imagery of the microcredentials completed.

Type of Scaling and Scaffolding

The Mastery Ladder Model

  • Each microcredential must be completed in specified order with proof of mastery required for advancement.
  • Microcredentials stack with the advancement strategy clearly defined (e.g., swimming patches, SRA reading levels, Level 1-5, etc.) 
  • Direct access to a higher level may require proof of previous level skills (e.g., a pre-test)

Example:  Khan Academy uses mastery learning and stacked mastery skills well.

The Patchwork Model

  • Microcredentials are all equivalent in level 
  • Individuals start with their area of interest and add on additional areas 

Example:  Youth program’s patches and badges; businesses that use skill badges to choose special project members.

The Pyramid Mastery Stacking Model

  • Completion or mastery of all items at lower levels combine to ‘level up’ with ladders adding up to advanced skill levels  
  • Advanced levels may or may not require completion of all lower levels, but may require pre-test or test-out in order to start "in the middle". 

Example:  Degree programs where course completions (a form of a microcredential) result in leveling up to a higher-level credential – the degree.  Here one must complete 101, 102 and 103 in order to be admitted to 201 and 202 and so forth.

The Stacked Patchwork Model

  • Early level starts as a patchwork
  • Levels up based on number and, perhaps, types of microcredentials completed.

Example:  Youth programs use this model to advance participants to higher level programs.  However, they may not require completion of any previous level (e.g., “cub” level) microcredentials when working at an advanced level.  For these programs, advance is also age related.  However, workforce development uses this to build a common skill set before allow individuals to be promoted (e.g., call center representatives must complete microcredentials A – E  plus at least one from F-G, where each is call center skill specific).

The Institute for Performance Improvement ( uses this model with its instructional designer (ID) certifications.  IDs may start by demonstrating skill in various learning solution types and then uses their unique skill set to level up.

The Stair-step Model

  • Different approaches
  • Add advance to the same level
  • Many levels & continued advancement

Example:  Military advancement is based on demonstrated skills.  Many of those skill sets result in ribbons and awards.  Over time, those ribbons and awards lead to advancement opportunities.  Different individuals may bring different sets of ribbons and awards as indicators of advancement readiness, but they will all advance to the same next level.

Th Add-ons Model
Supplemental credentials

Example:  Medical practitioners and educators often acquire add-on credentials in related, but not required, areas.  A medical practitioner, who has acquired skills in business management, may be endorsed as a clinic manager.  An educator, who has acquired skills in teaching reading and working with English Language Learners (ELL), may acquire an endorsement in two additional areas – reading and ELL.

Quick Recap

Yes, microcredentials have a long and illustrious history.  We know them and love them for their unique characteristics that recognize performances in a developmental/growth-oriented way.

  • Bite-sized small chunks  -- sized for audience’s needs
    • Source of chunks is JTA, a Practice Analysis, or a cognitive analysis
  • Subject-adaptable—multiple topics or areas of expertise
    • Source of chunks is JTA, a Practice Analysis, or a cognitive analysis
  • Performance-based—demonstrated and documented against standards
  • Developmental – requires “reach” or “stretch” to grow into 
  • Portable – built to be shared
  • Associated – has relationship with other (micro) credentials
    • Related through scaling and scaffolding of chunks
    • Staged for increasing skill – starts basic and advances
    • Scaled and scaffolded to demonstrate advancement
    • Models: stacked and combined in patchworks, pyramids,  stair-steps
    • Self-efficacy – the individual chooses direction of growth
  • Transparent— purpose and value is known by community
  • Bestows a credibility to recipient – credibility has limits & concomitant responsibilities
  • Cycle of Honor – is bestowed by a credible organization that honors recipients who honor and value the credential and the organization that bestows it.
Coming soon…

Leveling Up and Career Paths (May 21st)
Discovering Expectations and Promises (May 27th)

                          … unless a better topic unfolds, of course

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