Saturday, January 30, 2016

Micro-Credentialing: Potential New Professional Development System or Fad?

Last evening, while participating in an #NCED Chat, I encountered a new idea for professional development called “micro-credentialing.” To be honest, I had seen the term, but had paid little attention to it until this Twitter chat. I think perhaps my understanding of “Micro-credentialing” was a bit mistaken at first, because I thought it was simply a system of using “badges” to reward teachers for the various kinds of training they do, very similar to what the boyscouts do. From my own experience and reading, such a carrot and sticks approach to professional learning set all kinds of alarm bells to ringing. But after reading about it a bit more, it looks to me more like a new system to deliver “professional development” to teachers.

According to my understanding now, the so-called “merit-badges” are incidental to the practice of trying to find ways to “certify” the skills which teachers have obtained, and they are not carrots to be dangled in front of educators to get them to engage in personal professional development. My understanding of “micro-credentialing” is that it is simply a system of delivering educator skill training in a more personalized manner. I think any attempts to modify professional learning in a more personal manner is laudable, since so many times, the sit-and-get trainings too often do not address personal needs. Despite the promise of “Micro-credentialing,” its ability to cross over into sustainable practice, there are some larger questions that have to be answered and problems that will need to be addressed.

First of all, credentials of any kind have to “mean something” to the practicing community, or have “value." To mean something those skills credentialed have to have value in the profession. For example, simply having a merit badge that indicates you’ve mastered a teacher skill like “wait-time” or “Grit and Reseillance,” as I found in one micro-credentialing system, must have some kind of acknowledgement from the profession that it is meaningful. If a teacher has earned a “badge” then the profession must look upon it as important and something to valued. It is this hurdle that might prove most difficult to any micro-credentialing system. Somehow, those distributing the credentials have to convince the profession and all those within it, that those credentials are valuable and really do mean something, and it is going to take more than quoting research to make that happen. The teaching profession is a social entity with its own rules for determining what has value and what has not, and which discourse is accepted and which is not. Just declaring that a badge has meaning by decree because it is backed up by research isn’t necessarily going to make it meaningful or give it value. This can be especially problematic because most educational research can be contradictory about the values of some of these skills. For example, one study may support the importance of that skill, and another study may lessen its importance. So much of what is declared effective in education is often subject to contradiction at times, so simply trying to validate micro-credentials with research isn’t always necessarily going to work. In the end, for this new way of delivering professional development to have value and meaning, the profession, not state level or federal government levels are going to determine its validity.

Secondly, if “micro-credentialing” gets too cozy with for-profit business, it could take on the same mistrust that education professional often still have for “for-profit” learning in general. My online reading about the micro-credentialing area seems to be tied to possible business ventures.There are centainly concerns about this. Business ventures in micro-credentialing would only succeed if as many people as possible earn the credentials, which means, it is not in their interest to prevent individuals from obtaining the micro-credentials, even if they haven’t quite met demonstration requirements. If they make the process too rigorous, profits will be smaller, making the whole enterprise not sustainable from an economic perspective. Because of this intense need for profit, these micro-credentialing business ventures could potentially become a “Micro-credentialing mills,” where payment equals badge. If that happens, the educational professional community will hardly see these credentials as being valuable and meaningful. In my estimation, because of this, the success of “micro-credentialing” will rely on colleges and universities leading the way, with practicing professionals being part of the process of development, introduction, and implementation.

Finally, for these “micro-credentials” to have credibility, careful attention will need to be focused on the credentialing process itself. For example, if obtaining the micro-credential involves demonstration artifacts, these artifacts must be complex enough to capture the skill being credentialed, and they must be perceived not as just a “hurdle to jump” or “check-box” to check. They must be authentic. They must be representative of the skill learned. But the reverse side is that developing the artifact must certainly be attainable with all of the other demands that teachers and educators have. The problem with most current professional learning, if demonstrations are required as a part of the process, they are perceived as hoops to jump through to obtain the credit. Once the credit is obtained, the learner never applies that learning again. Giving micro-credentials can give those who obtain them the false sense that I have learned that skill entirely. Most educator skills are much more complex, so that even if one understands it in one context, they may not be able to apply in other instances.

Micro-credentialing does offer an interesting system of providing individualized professional learning for educators. Unless its implementation considers these pitfalls and many others that befall educational programming, it could also be just another gimmick and fad. In the end, it is perhaps those who earn the micro-credential who will determine the fate of this idea. Those who have the credentials must genuinely be able to demonstrate those skills consistently in the live environment of the classroom. For example because I once learned how to tie four kinds of rope knots, does not mean that I can do it indefinitely, and in the midst of a raging storm. Credentials only mean something when they impact practice daily.