Online credentialing programs might not be new. But interest in them among educators and school administrators has been growing ever since for-profit online education provider Udacity began offering sophisticated “nanodegrees” in 2015 tailored to the specific needs of potential employers, such as Google and AT&T.
Now, more and more states and districts are launching pilot programs and experimenting with so-called microcredentials as a way for teachers and administrators to demonstrate their teaching and leadership skills. According to the authors of a newly published report, at least 10 state education agencies—Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington—have launched official microcredential pilots. And another five states—Illinois, Maryland, Montana, New York, and Wyoming—are experimenting with microcredentials in some way.
Co-authored by Barnett Berry, CEO of CTQ (the Center for Teaching Quality) and P. Ann Byrd, COO of CTQ, and sponsored by the non-profit Digital Promise, the report argues that we’ve reached a kind of tipping point in the evolution of the “emerging micro-credentialing ecosystem,” and that now is the time to focus on some critical questions if the potential of these systems for the professional development of educators is going to be fully realized.
“Pieces of the puzzle are in place that could make it possible for microcredentials to become the transformative tools we all hope they will be,” Berry told EdSurge. “But if policy leaders and practitioners don’t answer some hard questions in a coherent fashion across the system of teacher development, pursuing this model could just be about throwing good money after bad.”
Why now? It’s no longer early days for the microcredentialing movement, says Odelia Younge, senior project director of the educator microcredentials initiative at Digital Promise, and people are ready to get on the same page.
“We’re past people just looking for basic knowledge about what a microcredential is and using it for continuing education units and professional development,” Younge said. “Things have shifted. Now people are innovating on what used to be the basics, coming up with some amazing solutions around things like licensure and embedding competency-based pathways and teacher leadership. We’re at the point now where people want to know that this is something that can be reliable as it scales and that it will fulfill the promise we’re seeing.”
Reports from early adopters (among them, the NEA, the country’s largest teachers’ union) have been promising, and the potential market for such programs is potentially huge. According to Digital Promise, nearly three out of four U.S. teachers are currently engaged in some type of informal professional development or learning. And yet, there’s no consensus on exactly how microcredentials might fit into existing teaching policies, and no consistency among the increasing number of district initiatives or the growing list of microcredentialing options.
Microcredentials are not “a substitute for the kind of professional learning that every teacher needs,” the paper’s authors write. But they “can serve as a way to better understand what teachers know and can do, as well as a way to develop personalized systems of professional learning for any teacher or administrator, no matter where they are in their careers—from seeking a license to teach to serving in an advanced, hybrid teaching/leadership role.”
The paper’s authors provide a series of questions designed for both educators and policymakers to consider. The questions, they write, “are designed to provoke out-of-the-box thinking and action toward more innovative approaches to teacher-led learning.”
The questions are divided into four categories: Initial Licensure, Re-certification/Professional Development Requirements, Teacher Evaluation and Support Systems and Advanced Roles and Career Paths. Each category includes about six questions. Here are some examples:
Initial licensing policy questions:
- How can an ecosystem of microcredentials be used to document what new recruits, with varying pre-service training and experiences, know and can do?
- How can a stack of microcredentials surface hard evidence on the kinds of additional training and supports new teachers need—especially in light of the vast differences of expertise and experience they have?
Recertification policy questions:
- How might microcredentials promote demonstration of learning in the re-licensure process?
- What additional supports and safeguards must be put in place to ensure that any microcredentials offered and issued for credit toward licensure or professional development requirements represent a more meaningful professional learning experience than the majority of continuing education units currently offered?
Teacher evaluation policy questions:
- How can microcredentials be used as evidence in the assessment of teaching effectiveness that places teacher-led learning and its impact at the forefront of the process?
- How can principals and teachers together examine microcredentialing artifacts that are aligned to areas for individual growth of teachers to drive reflection, coaching and continued professional learning in the context of the school?
Advanced roles and career pathways policy questions:
- How can states and districts define more clearly what leadership roles are most beneficial?
- How can the evidence from microcredentials make more well-known how teachers spread their expertise as leaders—for instructional as well as organizational and policy reforms?
Ultimately, the microcredential ecosystem may require something like a shared repository of vetted credentials, Younge said, to get close to universal buy-in.
“It would help districts wading into this new area to feel good about what’s happening,” she said, “because the microcredentials would be linked to the types of skills you want to be recognized. And the repository could be tied to research that shows how this skill is going to lead to these results in your classroom.”
In addition to collaborating on the report, CTQ and Digital Promise are partnering on the development of an educator microcredentialing ecosystem, which is built around a framework for the development of microcredentials. It includes a platform that lets educators browse and search by area of interest.
Even if policy makers do come up with the right answers to the questions posed in the report, the advent of microcredentialing systems is bound to have a disruptive effect on existing systems sooner or later. And the paper’s authors acknowledged this inevitability.
“[T]he system of professional learning must be redesigned,” they concluded, “so those who work most closely with young people can readily spread their expertise to one another and find meaning and see the impact in doing so.”