Teaching Profession Opinion

Are Microcredentials the Next iPhone?

By Contributing Blogger — January 26, 2017 5 min read
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If you are new to the idea of micro-credentials, take a look at how they work in this short video from Digital Promise, used with their permission.

Fifteen years ago, would you have believed someone who told you that your mobile phone would become your ubiquitous information system with, potentially, too much of a hold of your life? Probably not. So, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of the notion that recognizing small, nuanced skills will transform teacher professional development. But some folks think that they will.

Recently, I attended a lively meeting on the current and future state of micro-credentials hosted by Digital Promise. More than 100 developers, researchers, educators, and thought leaders gathered to consider how micro-credentials might improve—in Silicon Valley some would say ‘disrupt'—the country’s $18-billion professional development enterprise. Transforming this market would have far reaching impacts on collective bargaining agreements, salary advancement, and continuing education requirements. Microcredentials would also shift professional development toward a system based on demonstrating competency and away from the current practice of “seat time” accounting.

But let’s review a bit: what exactly is a micro-credential, and why would anyone get excited about one? Here’s how it works:

Teachers identify the micro-credential they want to pursue. It might relate to knowledge and skills they have already mastered or to a new area in which they’re hoping to develop expertise. The micro-credential provides details about what they should know and be able to do; specifies appropriate documentation; and recommends resources and activities to develop the competencies.

Teachers submit evidence of their competence. This might include a portfolio, video, samples of student work, classroom observations, or other documentation of their learning “in action.”

Trained assessors, who have earned a specific micro-credential, evaluate the evidence submitted by their peers. The micro-credential can then be displayed and shared as digital badges on websites, resumes, online profiles, and with colleagues and administrators.

The excitement about possibilities comes from several sources.

The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) reported that professional learning systems in high-performing countries are distinct in that collaborative learning time among educators is built in to the routine in those countries. Time is allocated on a daily basis for teachers to learn with and from their colleagues. But teachers in the U.S. are fortunate if they have an hour a week to spend with grade-level or department teams, and rarely is that time dedicated exclusively to collaborative learning.

The implications for micro-credentials get more intriguing as NCEE’s report outlines how collaborative learning is achieved in those locales.

Building Growth Into Teaching Work

First, professional learning systems in high-achieving countries recognize and reward teacher expertise. In Hong Kong, teachers are assessed in 21 areas across four domains: management and organization, learning and teaching, student support and school ethos, as well as student performance.

Second, those expert teachers are rewarded with access to roles that allow them to lead the profession without leaving the classroom. Those roles focus on improving the practice of colleagues and leading school improvement teams. In British Columbia, accomplished teachers become Coordinators on Inquiry charged with facilitating teacher development and demonstrating high-quality instruction.

Finally, high-achieving systems structure professional learning to enable teachers and school leaders to share responsibility for their own professional learning and that of their peers. In Shanghai, mentor teachers are held accountable for the quality of their mentoring, the performance of teachers they are developing, and the performance of students in those classrooms.

Micro-Credential Solutions

A micro-credential solution exists for each of these enabling factors.

They are specifically designed to recognize the nuanced skills sets required of expert teachers. Once that expertise has been recognized, it can be rewarded with diverse leadership roles that coincide with particular pathways of micro-credentials. Teachers and school leaders can then share responsibility for one another’s development by assembling ‘stacks’ of micro-credentials that will be pursued over the course of a learning cycle.

In California, micro-credentials could help schools and district recognize a diverse range of teacher expertise, organize that expertise in online communities, and make it available to teaching colleagues across the state. As colleagues and I recently profiled, a great deal of accomplished teaching and community engagement is not recognized, rewarded, or leveraged in California. Micro-credentials offer a means of shoring up these deficiencies.

Developmental Questions

But big questions remain.

How will states, districts, and schools mobilize for efficiency and effectiveness? The research literature is extensive and clear: the field will never shift as long as well-wishers insist on “doing” things to teachers rather than honoring the expertise and professionalism of the most accomplished practitioners.

How will micro-credentials be sustained from an economic perspective? While the case study of a district in Wisconsin is an encouraging signal that micro-credentials can transform professional learning at scale, there remain a significant number of challenges when it comes to supporting such a personalized, decentralized professional learning environment. 

What is the research agenda for micro-credentials? Beyond researching the quality of individual micro-credentials, the field needs to identify the conditions that enable and support them, as well as the influence micro-credentials have on individual teachers, schools, districts, and systems.

Will micro-credentials allow for a system of professional learning that meets the needs of educators along a continuum from individual agency to institutional needs and goals? The Holy Grail for professional development systems is finding the sweet spot between personalized learning that gives teachers the time and space to develop according to the needs of their students, while concurrently serving broader systems goals that enhance the collective capacity of the profession.

Answering these questions will determine whether micro-credentials are the next iPhone or the next Beanie Baby: a momentary fad or a major innovation.

Kristoffer Kohl is a research assistant at ‘On California’ and a National Board Certified Teacher at the Center for Teaching Quality. He co-authored Teacher leadership for 21st-century teaching a learning, a report outlining a set of strategies to narrow the achievement gap in California by fueling the development of a teacher leadership system.

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