Author:Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Ph.D., Professor at Harvard University Extension School

Micro credentials are definitely the wave of the future. Some universities are picking up on this (Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins, USC, etc.), others are resisting, but all have it on their radar. Professionals (teachers, doctors, lawyers) have also begun to use this format, and for good reason.

The short story

Need: People need continual professional development and/or totally new skill sets as they grow in their current jobs, as they transition into new ones, or as they change fields all together (e.g., a teacher becoming a computer programmer; a teacher who wants to become a nurse). The OECD’s series on Reskilling and Jobs suggests that most industries are undergoing huge shifts in new skills (mining, for example), while others are changing due to new discoveries in technology that shift aspects of their jobs (medicine, for example). Yet others have changed their job descriptions drastically due to COVID (teaching, for example), and there are now many new competencies required of them that a decade ago were not in their purview. Similarly, other professions (law enforcement, for example), have skills which they seek to explicitly teach, like bias reduction, which does not occur without a certain length of time. Current PD, in which someone helicopters in for a few hours to spread wisdom, do not work. Darling Hamond’s research is clear: successful teachers’ professional development has to be sustained over time and experienced over contexts to really make a difference. Furthermore, the general longevity of people and the social security needs of the US are projecting an increase in worker life to extend into the 60s if not 70s; people need to learn across the lifespan.

Current offer: People can either “upskill” or “reskill” in three basic ways. The most traditional thinking is that you go back to college for a new degree. This means uprooting yourself and often a family to go somewhere to study, invest thousands of dollars and spent many years refocusing life. This is not really a good option for most people who are often looking for a job to make better money (they don’t have the money to invest in a college degree).

The second way is to self-train by going to Coursera or other online options and taking a MOOC. These self-paced courses are often offered within your own timeframe, and often they are free. Problem? The evidence shows that MOOCs are not very effective. Only around 10% of people complete them, and by “complete” this means they plow through content; they do not get the chance to apply the skills in practical ways, and they don’t have the time to build up industry-standard-values around their world. Conclusion here is that short, self-guided courses benefit about 10% of the people who take them, but upskilling requires a much more in-depth dive into the material.

  1. University micro certificates The third option which is growing quickly is in micro-certifications. This usually comprises of three to six university courses. These are usually offered as a “buffet” in which a university identifies a list of courses that can be chosen, and the student then combines what they want. For example, my course at Harvard (Neuroscience of Learning: An Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health, and Education) is part of the micro-certificate and part of the Master’s programs in (a) Museum Studies, (b) Management and (c) Psychology. People take it as one component of their micro-certifications (the science requirement).
  2. Industry-University partnerships micro certificates Other versions of micro-certification are now emerging from business and industry in which they partner with universities. In San Francisco, for example, industries in Silicon Valley partner with local community colleges. The business identifies the need (“we need 2000 people who can program this code”). They actually teach the college all of the content, then the universities create a micro-certificate around that, adding on other courses about innovation in the tech industry, or on other soft skills like how to be a team player. Upon graduating with the certificate (in 6-9 months), the students are guaranteed a job. This is a win-win-win situation in which industry gets the people it needs; the community colleges get more students; and the students get both a certificate backed by a university AND a guaranteed job change.
  3. Private Sector micro certificates A final version of micro-certification comes from the private sector. As many universities are not agile enough to pivot to offer a new type of degree (micro-certification), this slowness has prompted some to jump into the potentially lucrative business of providing certificates. For example, Microsoft offers its own micro-certification in Office. This promotes its own products, and also offers a needed skill set in many fields (no teacher, secretary, or even computer programmer typically knows “all” there is to know about how “Word” or “Excel works; they just figure out the basics and never unlock all the tools). This is both good and bad. It is good for the user who needs a quick way to get the skill. It is bad because universities, which have a very strict check on their quality, do not back the programs so you can often get a mixed bag of certificate courses. Microsoft is a huge entity which normally honors its offer. Other smaller private sector initiatives (often by popular bloggers online with no degree in the field) are popular with youth and use TikTok and Instgram to “educate” others and have zero accountability for content. This, in my opinion is very dangerous.

In short, micro-certification is the wave of the future. Why? (a) People do not have the time or money to go into a university degree program these days. (b) Many also see how the world can change quickly (pandemics, war, etc.), and realize that the need to learn a different kind of skill set than offered at brick-and-mortar universities is needed. (c) Many think going to a university for four years to study environmental science is a waste because by the time they graduate, the problems will be different! (This is the case of my nephew.) (d) They also want the agile nature of being able to accumulate a variety of skills that allows them to jump into nontraditional jobs (an educational neuroscientist who want to learn how to create online gamification to remediate math skills;  a lawyer who wants to see is visual aesthetics such as paintings can change her office environment; a psychologist who wants to invent an App for online child therapy for grief counseling during COVID, etc.). All of these examples are from students in my class this semester, so I have first-hand evidence of this line of thinking. Yet others have worked in a field for 20 years, hate it and want to shift to a new job. They benefit the most from micro-certification.

Ultimately, micro certification is beneficial for a population looking to “upskill” or “reskill” these days. The degree from a prestigious university is still being seen, however, as the only merit to then teach or retrain others. That is, people who get a six-course micro certificate at Harvard are good to go, but many often choose to stay on for another six courses to get the Master’s degree as this still carries more professional clout. Micro certification helps people move quickly from one job to another (say over the summer or within a semester), but it does not offer the prestige of a university degree when it comes to being able to transfer that skill or to teach others that same competency.

Hope this helps!