From Broadcast to Me-Cast, Lessons for Micro-Credentials from TDA CEO Craig Robertson

Most of us have seen the transformation of the media in our lifetimes. From broadsheet and broadcasting, to narrowcasting and podcasting and now, me-casting.

It tells a tale that resonates with micro-credentials.

Micro-credentials appear to be the new black in learning, here in Australia and around the world. Colleges and Institutes Canada has released a national framework for micro-credentials. Here in Australia, the former minister for education, Dan Tehan announced the micro-credentials marketplace and the review of the Australia Qualifications Framework also made recommendations about micro-credentials. The review of senior secondary pathways also recommended they be considered in senior schooling.

There’s been little policy action since. What do we mean by micro-credentials? In large part they are part of, or a segment of a formal qualification. But they can go beyond that in the real world. Industry associations are developing badged courses and global platforms are offering bite-sized learning opportunities, often with the teaser that the learning can be made official if the participant presents for assessment to a registered education body.

The review of the AQF defined micro-credentials as: a certification of assessed learning that is additional, alternative, complementary to or a component part of a formal qualification.

The AQF expert panel came down on the side of formal learning, recommending that valid micro-credentials need to be formally recognised. That means learning outcomes must meet the expectations of accreditation, similar to regular qualifications, and that brings in government-backing in all three education sectors: schooling, vocational education and higher education.

But to contemplate the broader trends at play let’s unpack media transformation. Only The Australian survives as a printed broadsheet. Its pedigree is they contain serious stories built on deep analysis and the best of investigative journalism. Broadcasting is more familiar through our free-to-air channels. Families sit down and watch one-off events as they are beamed to every TV in the country, but at the choosing of the broadcaster.

Pay TV is the best-known form of narrowcasting – consumers subscribe to the type of shows they want to watch. Podcasting and free-view TV are on-demand. Consumers are in control, subscribing to what they want to consume at their timing.

Me-casting is the ultimate in consumer driven communication. Known more through Facebook, Instagram and Tik-Tok, users create the content – good, bad or offensive – and casts it to their subscribers.

Three trends are apparent. Entertainment is far more accessible; the consumer is now in control and in the case of me-casting there is virtually no quality control.

There are deeper trends which should take the attention of educators when these trends are applied to micro-credentials: de-institutionalisation and democratisation.

Formal credentials import institutional rigour. How the content of a qualification is authorised, what organisation can deliver it and how it is delivered and assessed, are important assurances from government for the consumer. Many things frustrate educators about qualifications, but in the end they carry a seal of authenticity backed by governments. Non-formal micro-credentials have freedom in design and can ignore these requirements. Admittedly, they can be mirrored because governments are not the sole purveyors of good education design and the boundaries of formal learning such as validity of content, calibre of the pedagogy and rigour of assessment can be pushed. 

The consequence of this de-institutionalisation, however, is buyer beware! Until governments seek to regulate non-formal micro-credentials the protection offered through formal learning is not there.

Democracy gives a free voice to the citizen. It sounds a good thing in the context of the complex geo-political situation in the world. Surely the Arab Spring, which saw citizens drawn by social media to protest oppression, is a good thing. I couldn’t disagree. When it comes to me-casting, however, the democratic consequence is that any truth will do, especially if it titillates and sensationalises. There is plenty of evidence for this even to the extent of QAnon in the United States which claims the US Government is run by criminals.

Credentials, by their very nature, can’t afford this laisse faire relationship with truth and knowledge. Scientific knowledge and rigorous social science have been built up over the centuries and openly tested since the enlightenment and when knowledge was made available to the masses when the printing press was invented. Good education curates knowledge into forms and processes so it can be learnt. Credentials, including in their micro form, must uphold this attribute. The AQF review got it right by insisting on formal assurance processes for micro-credentials.

Nevertheless, micro-credentials hold the promise of accessible on-demand learning. This does not exclude global platforms or industry badges from playing a key role in the learning eco-system except that their limitations need to be made known to consumers. On the other hand, they can also seek to be recognised by the mainstream education systems, but they need to accept the regulation that goes with it.

My argument may appear somewhat esoteric when it comes to careers advice. It leads to three messages that can guide practitioners.

  1. Start life with a full qualification

    School leavers need to complete a full qualification as their first learning experience in adulthood. The attributes of a qualification represents a holistic dealing with a field of learning and the process of learning builds capabilities that prepare the student for the experience of work, and life. A qualification provides a solid base to then venture into micro  credentials.

    The National Skills Commission has indicated that over 93 per cent of new jobs will require education beyond school. A full qualification pays dividends.

    One only has to look at some of the dilemmas that play out in VET in Australia where short form learning or small units of competency are recommended for someone to start their learning journey. A job may result, but that attribute from the unit is only of value while the skill is required in a workplace and we know that work is evolving at a rapid pace. The learning is often made redundant by the march of technology and innovation. A full qualification gives a greater chance of success in such a changing world.

  2. If a micro-credential appears too good to be true, then it most likely is

    Someone doesn’t become a brain surgeon off a few learning experiences picked from the back of a cereal box, yet we see a similar sell through micro-credentials. Learning is complex and multi-faceted and is meant to be hard. Short courses which oversell fail to set someone up for life in a complex competitive labour market. Career counsellors know this all too well. The job is to give clients tools to discern when they are selecting learning. When it comes to micro-credentials, the form of backing by governments is a pretty good first up guide.
  3. Learning to learn pays longer term dividends

    We know intuitively that automation, digitisation and artificial intelligence is sweeping through most aspects of work and community life. It is difficult to predict the skills that will be required in the future, but it is safe to forecast that those with broad capabilities and knowledge plus an ability and passion for learning will succeed.

    Too often we think the learning spirit is the privilege of smart kids. I beg to differ. Everyone learns, but many take in learning and express it in different ways. The core job of careers advisors is to encourage everyone to take on learning. It doesn’t mean capture by books. And educators have a responsibility to activate the learning spirit, in whatever form. 

    That spirit empowers. It opens possibilities in the individual beyond their current circumstances and gives them the strength to endure through the rugged world of work and career.

I hope this gives you some broad sense of how to discern micro credentials.

This blogpost for the Career Development Association of Australia can be viewed here.