New micro-certification program could become model for upskilling workers

Lindsay Borthwick
May 13, 2020

Post-secondary institutions across Canada have been exploring new ways to train adults for a changing world of work. Now, the COVID-19-driven labour market disruption is accelerating the need for an agile system that lets adults quickly acquire in-demand skills and market them to employers. A micro-certification initiative that wrapped up just as the country locked down could serve as a model.

eCampusOntario, a consortium of 45 colleges and universities in Ontario, supported 14 pilot projects at colleges and universities to expand and harmonize the use of micro-certifications in Ontario. Each pilot lasted about three months, to March 31, and received up to $25,000.

In contrast to traditional degrees and diplomas, micro-certifications are short, focused credentials that verify a person's mastery of a specific skill or competency. They are designed to deliver a high-demand skill, and are often digital, which allows them to be readily verified and shared with employers.

“As we go forward in this kind of brave new world of work, it's going to be important to have a digital record of our skills, and full ownership and flexibility over how we showcase those skills in our professional lives,” said Lena Patterson, co-executive (acting) director of eCampusOntario, in an interview with Research Money. “Post-secondary education is now an open loop. People are constantly returning to upskill and reskill. Micro-credentials are the way that we make that learning visible and that we give it the power to carry forward for us into our profession.”

What is micro-certification?

“A digital credential is the official certification of the acquisition of an individual’s skills or capabilities. It is awarded in a digital form, which is verified, secure and shareable with peers, employers and educational providers. Digital credentials can be curated, annotated, and distributed over digital networks under the earner’s control.

RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Rethinking recognition

eCampusOntario started working on micro-certifications in 2017 as part of an effort to rethink how learning is recognized, especially diverse forms of learning valued by the labour market. In 2019, it brought together a working group of experts from academia and industry to develop principles and a framework to ensure micro-certifications would be consistent and recognized by educational institutions and employers across the province. Next came the pilot projects, which tested the principles and framework.

Each project was a partnership between a post-secondary institution and a local company or not-for-profit organization, but their goals differed. Some of the projects were early stage, focused on curriculum development; others focused on implementation and awarded micro-certifications at the end of March.

“All sorts of unique partnerships emerged because of the close connections between the institutions and the local economy or community in which they were situated,” said Patterson.

For example, the University of Windsor and Transform Shared Service Organization developed a health informatics certificate. A project led by George Brown College and several partners focused on helping students upgrade their communications skills to work with people who have a combined loss of vision and hearing.

OCAD University joined forces with Myant, Inc., which designs, engineers and manufactures technology-enhanced textiles, to develop a course focused on human-centered product design. As a result of the pilot project, the first course is launching this month.

"The focus of the course is on understanding customers, their needs and how to address those needs," said Kathryn Ellis, project coordinator at OCAD. "The intention is that this will be developed into a series of five stackable micro-credentials that will take the learner through the process of developing a whole holistic understanding of the human-centered design."

The micro-credential is aimed at people who are retraining or moving into a new industry. Robert Luke, OCAD's VP of research and innovation, said the university has been moving toward helping people apply the discipline, skills and competencies of art and design to new industries, including technology, healthcare and banking.

He added that it has led to an important shift at OCAD: "A really significant outcome was the fact that the university was able to, in many respects, use this project to cohere interest and momentum around standing up university-wide micro-certification requirements."

For eCampusOntario, Patterson said the projects demonstrated the importance of engaging industry partners, as well as the potential within the post-secondary institutions to deliver micro-certifications and connect them to other learning opportunities. Planning is underway to fund additional projects.


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