Personalized learning is a buzzword in education, but teachers’ own learning often comes in a one-size-fits-all package via a crowded room or a years-old PowerPoint.
Enter microcredentials, a form of professional development in which teachers work to prove mastery of single competencies. They’re designed to be tailored to what a teacher needs or wants to know, from classroom management to analyzing student data.
The process of earning one is also relevant to their daily work: Teachers show their skill through samples of student work, videos, and other artifacts. And they can be splashy—some authorizers give teachers a digital badge for every microcredential earned, which teachers can display on their LinkedIn, blog, or any online portfolio of their work.
At least three states—Delaware, Florida, and Tennessee—are piloting microcredentialing programs, and other states are in talks with providers, the largest of which is the nonprofit group Digital Promise. Individual districts, from New York City to Wales, Wis., have also experimented with initiatives that tie microcredentials to salary bumps or career progression.
As these states and districts begin to see some initial results from their implementation, they’re learning that despite the challenges and road bumps, teachers generally like microcredentials and see their value. And while there is no empirical research on the impact for students, advocates say the benefits for students are, as the name implies, on a micro level.
“The educator has to demonstrate the skill in practice with students and be able to describe the impact of the application of that skill or competency on students,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of Learning Forward, a teacher-learning membership organization. “At the classroom level, it is immediately designed to impact change and practice and results for students.”
Still, as this form of professional development becomes more popular, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Not all microcredentials are created equal, and states and districts have yet to come to a consensus on the level of rigor they must meet and what value different stakeholders should put on an earned microcredential. Questions also surround who or what body should assess the teachers’ work, and what incentives should be tied to the attainment of the badges.
And as more organizations enter the space, its pioneers worry about preserving the value of the microcredentials.
“Are we in a race to the bottom? Who’s the easiest, who’s the cheapest?” said Mary Strain, the director of national partnerships for Teaching Matters, which has established microcredentials for some districts in New York. “I think my big concerns remain that with the explosion of microcredentials, people need to be thinking of things like quality, currency, and the quality of the assessment as well.
“Ultimately, we don’t want to be in the situation where people are collecting them like coins in video games,” she said.
But right now, states are moving slowly with the adoption of microcredentials.
“There is no research around it; it’s relatively new,” said Kathleen Airhart, Tennessee’s deputy education commissioner. “We went into it looking to discover whether this would be valuable for teachers.”
The state’s pilot started in October with about 60 veteran and novice teachers working to complete at least three microcredentials, chosen from a list of 15. In the second year of the pilot, the state education department hopes to reach up to 5,000 teachers and draft a policy to allow microcredentials to be a valid tool for maintaining a teaching license.
By year three, Tennessee hopes to reach all educators in the state and devise microcredentials around state content standards.
“We had a good first year, [but] we want to be very thoughtful in how we expand,” Airhart said. “This should be a support for teachers and not a hindrance.”
So far, teachers have reported that they feel like their practice has been positively affected by the process of earning microcredentials, said Machel Mills, the director of professional learning for the state education department.
They also appreciate the opportunity to personalize their own learning, the flexibility of earning the badges, and the relevance of the PD to their daily work.
Still, some challenges have cropped up in this first year. Some teachers have had technological issues when submitting the video evidence. And some first-year teachers have struggled with managing the microcredential process while still finding their footing in the classroom.
Those are issues that have also arisen in Florida’s pilot program, said Janice Poda, a senior consultant to Learning Forward, which has worked to implement microcredentials in the three states in the pilot.
The Sunshine State’s education department expected that a couple hundred teachers would be interested in participating in the pilot, which focuses on earning a growth-mindset microcredential—but 2,500 teachers applied, Poda said. The department put 500 teachers in the first cohort last fall, another 500 in the second cohort this spring, and the rest on a waiting list.
The state now has a study underway to determine the lessons learned from the first year, before the program expands, Poda said.
Moving forward in Tennessee, Mills said, the department wants to take a closer look at the supports offered to new teachers. They should have a strong mentor who is familiar with the microcredentialing process, as well as a school schedule that offers time for first-year teachers to collaborate with their mentors, she said.
Jennifer Vandiver, a veteran chemistry teacher in Collinwood, Tenn., earned three microcredentials through the state’s pilot program: on brainstorming, design-thinking, and wait time when asking students questions. Tennessee asked teachers to complete three in a year, although how long the actual process takes depends on the teacher. Vandiver is considering earning a fourth.
“It’s much better than going and sitting in a big auditorium full of other teachers in all different subject areas and grade levels and getting some generic professional development from some speaker who doesn’t know us or our school,” she said, adding that she liked being able to tailor her learning.
“I like getting to work at my own pace,” Vandiver added. “I also like working with my own kids, and I like for them to be able to see me trying something new and doing something different.”
Most of the time, she said, students aren’t aware that teachers do any sort of professional development. But because earning a microcredential can require teachers to videotape or photograph their lessons, the students are given a rare peek into their teachers as learners.
“They were watching me adjust as we went, and I think it’s good for them to see that, instead of everything being planned out all the time,” Vandiver said.
Knowledge, Not Hours
Groups like Learning Forward hope to see microcredentials as part of the relicensure process, which requires teachers to fulfill continuing education requirements or take college classes. Only a handful of states allow microcredentials to count toward the process, including Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, and North Carolina.
Instead of ticking off hours in a classroom to become recertified, teachers should demonstrate their knowledge, no matter what that looks like, said Hirsh of Learning Forward.
As Teaching Matters’ Strain put it: “The ethos of a microcredential or a digital badge is that it doesn’t matter how you got there, as long as you get there.”
Of course, not all teachers will embrace microcredentials. They’re a lot of work and time-consuming. An October report by Teaching Matters on the group’s work with the Mineola Union schools in Long Island, N.Y., and the New York City district found that teachers want a pay or leadership incentive to make the process worthwhile.
But even that is not always enough. The Mineola Union district’s microcredentials are tied to teacher leadership. The pilot’s premise was that if teachers earned 18 microcredentials in a year, they would receive a permanent $500-per-year pay increase and become a teacher leader. While all 10 teachers earned at least a handful of microcredentials in that year, only two completed the full 18.
“The badges are intense,” said Michael Nagler, the district’s superintendent. He ended up extending the deadline to earn all 18 to two years.
“It was more important for me that they were practicing what they learned in a real setting,” he said, pointing to improvements in student outcomes. He attributed those to teachers spending more time reflecting on their practice and paying close attention to student data.
“I think it’s a great way to recognize the work that teachers do and to treat them as professionals ... to provide them opportunities to advance in their fields purposefully,” Nagler said.
“The Boy Scouts had it right,” he added. “There’s something to be said about earning a badge and demonstrating your knowledge.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as Microcredentials Gain Popularity, but Questions About Quality Remains