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Micro-Credential Development: Tools, Methods and Concepts Supporting the European Approach

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Recently, the European Commission has presented their roadmap for the introduction of micro-credentials (MCs) in the European higher education sector. This approach is accompanied by an assortment of tools, methods and concepts (instruments) that are supposed to support the uptake of MCs. We analyzed whether instruments that are mentioned in concert with the European approach sufficiently support MC development through a scoping review of related publications and reports. We find that there are still visible gaps related to the implementation of feedback cycles specific to MCs. Through two illustrative cases, we also show that phases in the MC development process which show sufficient support on the face level may still need additional support. We close this article by suggesting that a digital solution such as a central platform for MCs in Europe could serve to resolve some of the identified issues.
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17th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik,
February 2022, Nürnberg, Germany
Micro-Credential Development: Tools, Methods and
Concepts Supporting the European Approach
Thomas Fischer1, Stefan Oppl2, Martin Stabauer1
1 Johannes Kepler University, Institute of Digital Business, Linz, Austria
{thomas.fischer, martin.stabauer}@jku.at
2 University of Continuing Education Krems, Department for Continuing Education Research
and Educational Technologies, Krems, Austria
stefan.oppl@donau-uni.ac.at
Abstract. Recently, the European Commission has presented their roadmap for
the introduction of micro-credentials (MCs) in the European higher education
sector. This approach is accompanied by an assortment of tools, methods and
concepts (instruments) that are supposed to support the uptake of MCs. We
analyzed whether instruments that are mentioned in concert with the European
approach sufficiently support MC development through a scoping review of
related publications and reports. We find that there are still visible gaps related
to the implementation of feedback cycles specific to MCs. Through two
illustrative cases, we also show that phases in the MC development process which
show sufficient support on the face level may still need additional support. We
close this article by suggesting that a digital solution such as a central platform
for MCs in Europe could serve to resolve some of the identified issues.
Keywords: Micro-credentials, Tool Support, Development Process, Higher
Education, Digital Solutions
1 Introduction
By 2025 the European Commission aims to establish a European Education Area
(EEA)
1
. The vision for the EEA entails that European citizens will be able to create
their own learning pathways in a highly flexible way. This will then also pave the path
for the idea of lifelong learning, which should not only include structured degree
programs that might stretch over several years, but also shorter learning experiences,
which can be used to acquire new skills or update existing ones [1]. To establish the
EEA, in 2020 the European Commission has presented a set of 12 flagship actions,
which includes the creation of a European approach to the use of micro-credentials in
higher education [2]. A micro-credential (MC) can be defined as a proof of the
learning outcomes that a learner has acquired following a short learning experience.
These learning outcomes have been assessed against transparent standards ([1], p.
10). The content of a MC is also often designed to be directly relevant to the labor
1
https://ec.europa.eu/education/education-in-the-eu/european-education-area_en [07/11/2021].
market and therefore a more widespread uptake of MCs in higher education (HE) has
been advocated for as a way to deal with skill gaps [3]. In reaction to more profound
economic changes that are currently in progress such as the digitalization wave that was
a side-effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the more wide-spread adoption of MCs in
European HE has now become a higher priority [2].
For this purpose, the European Commission has presented a roadmap of actions as
part of their European Approach to Micro-Credentials [1]. This roadmap offers
propositions for crucial concepts directly related to MCs (e.g., a common definition of
what constitutes a MC), but it is also supported by existing instruments of European
HE that could be adopted in the context of MCs (e.g., ECTS
2
), and tools and instruments
of third parties that could act as templates for the creation of additional supportive
infrastructure for MCs (e.g., digital backpacks to host a history of MCs acquired by an
individual). As MCs are ideally offered in addition to existing qualification offerings
of HE such as bachelor and master’s degrees [4], which may further strain already
limited resources (e.g., by creating further workload for faculty, [5]), a well-structured
and efficient way to implement and organize MCs in HE is essential.
In this early stage of the implementation of MCs in Europe, the question should arise
though, whether the instruments that have been associated with the European Approach
can sufficiently support the development of MCs at HE institutions (HEI) (RQ for this
paper) without any prior experience with these types of qualification offerings. To give
an initial answer to this question, we list instruments proposed as part of the European
Approach to Micro-Credentials [1] and those highlighted in two closely related
Erasmus+
3
projects (MicroHe and MicroBol
4
). These instruments are mapped against
the main steps in the MC development process as proposed by Devedžić and Jovanović
[6] to show which areas may need further support. We also illustrate potential gaps in
the support of available instruments through two illustrative cases at two Austrian
universities, which are currently at different points in their effort to adopt MCs.
In section 2 we therefore highlight the steps in the MC development process, before
we provide a more detailed introduction to the European Approach to Micro-
Credentials and its affiliated instruments in section 3. In section 4, we map these
instruments against the main phases in the MC development process and then illustrate
potential weaknesses in section 5. We close the paper with a discussion of our results
and an overall conclusion in section 6.
2 MC Development
MCs are awarded after short learning experiences and often represent the attainment
of a discrete skill (e.g., basics of a programming language). MC as a term have become
popular in the last five to ten years [7] though related concepts were introduced before.
For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the platforms that offer
2
https://ehea.info/page-tools [07/12/2021].
3
Erasmus+ is the EU's programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. See
also: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/about_en [07/18/2021].
4
https://microcredentials.eu/ [07/12/2021].
them are often also mentioned when innovation in HE qualification is discussed, though
MOOCs are a type of course mode (e.g., offered online, to a large group of people, [8])
while MCs are a type of credential that can be the result of a MOOC. More closely
related to MCs, digital badges are often mentioned in connection with MC and the term
is often used synonymously with MC (e.g., [7, 9]). A main distinction that is used
frequently is that an MC is supposed to represent skill attainment [3], while a badge can
also be awarded for course participation alone and, as a minor distinction, MCs do not
require a visual representation, while it is a key characteristic of digital badges (e.g.,
[10]). This close relationship is of importance to us as we can draw on past research on
the development and use of digital badges to inform the development of MCs.
For example, a characteristic that is common to both types of learning credentials is
the fast-paced nature of their development process [7], which requires constant
feedback loops with a variety of stakeholders (e.g., learners, teachers, HE institutions,
employers, and others including governmental and education-related organizations) as
was shown by Devedžić and Jovanović [6]. They identified requirements that these
stakeholders have regarding the development of digital badges. They not only focused
on the initial development of a badge, but also the ongoing process of refining such a
credential in order for it to retain relevance for its stakeholders and to keep the awarding
process rigorous and transparent. The main phases of their Body framework
5
are:
1. Conceptualization (CON). Initiates MC development answering the development of
which skills they support and who their stakeholders are.
2. Identifying and Contemplating Barriers (ICB). In parallel to CON, environmental
constraints and prerequisites to the use of MCs are identified and ideally removed.
Includes, for example, legal and procedural considerations (e.g., level of data
privacy, recognition of MC by other HEI).
3. Development (DEV). Includes the development of a MC, which can be further
broken down into three consecutive steps:
(a) Design (DES): Main characteristics of one specific MC are defined including its
learning contents, how skill attainment is measured, its connection to other MC,
and other characteristics (e.g., duration of validity, visual design).
(b) Implementation (IMP): Technical implementation of the MC design within the
chosen learning environment (e.g., a HEI’s own learning system or a cloud-based
learning platform) and consideration of related challenges (e.g., level of data
privacy, ease of use of the environment, performance of system).
(c) Deployment (DEP): Making a MC available for use by its target audience (e.g.,
opening the registration). Also includes further considerations such as how to
make a MC easy to find and shared by those stakeholders it is relevant to.
4. MC Community Work (COW). Relevant stakeholders (internal to the institution
such as teachers and learners as well as external such as employers and governmental
5
It has to be noted that these descriptions are in some cases derived from the requirements that
the authors of the Body (short for Badge Odyssey) framework assigned to these phases as they
do not provide an explicit description. Further, the overall depiction of the framework was
simplified for the purpose of this paper, for example by using a linear sequence of the involved
steps, while there are actually a number of feedback loops included.
bodies) are constantly involved in feedback loops to ensure the quality and relevance
of a MC. This phase can also be broken down into consecutive steps.
(a) Communication (COM): The value proposition of a (new, or redesigned) MC is
communicated to as many stakeholders as possible.
(b) Collect Feedback and Address Concerns (FBK): Stakeholders give feedback on
the MC design, which is then structured and prioritized for MC optimization.
(c) Checking Relevance (REL): Stakeholders check whether the MC is relevant.
5. Evaluation (EVA). Includes regular checks to see if a MC fulfills predefined criteria
related to its quality and relevance as well as further potentially relevant criteria (e.g.,
effort involved in offering the MC). Can also be done internally before MC
deployment (i.e., by piloting the MC with stakeholders internal to the HEI).
3 European Approach to MCs and Supporting Instruments
In an Erasmus+ project that was launched in parallel to the development of the
European Approach to MCs, the current status of MCs in the EU was investigated [11].
Through a series of interviews, it was found that while there is interest in the use of
MCs by various stakeholders (e.g., students, employers, teachers), a strategic plan for
their use is lacking in most institutions. It is crucial for the success of MCs in Europe
though that a consistent approach to the management of MC is used and that the choice
as to which guidelines to follow to develop MCs is made as early in the development
process as possible [2, 4]. Brown et al. [12] therefore advocate that MCs should not be
seen as one-off project that is done in isolation within one institution or country, as it
would eventually just fade away due to the lack of some critical attributes (e.g.,
recognition by other institutions). Therefore, a common European approach to MCs
could have the potential to support the successful uptake of MCs across European HE.
As outlined in the introduction, the European Approach to MCs includes a roadmap
for actions that are supposed to support the adoption of MCs. This roadmap comprises
a number of areas (“building blocks”) that should be tackled within the next years,
including, but not limited to [1]: creating standards for describing the learning outcomes
of MCs, common quality assurance standards for MCs, universal processes for
recognition of MCs, providing digital infrastructure for courses that lead to MCs, as
well as for the issuing, storing, and sharing of MCs. These building blocks certainly
address areas that are crucial for the future of MCs (e.g., recognition of skills that are
attained outside of formal education and awarded with credit-bearing MCs is a
substantial challenge that is frequently addressed, [2, 11, 12]). Still, while there are also
actions included that will directly impact the development of MCs (e.g., standards for
the description of learning outcomes, guidelines for the workload or credits covered by
MCs), it is not clear, whether this level of support is sufficient in most cases.
Instruments mentioned as part of The European Approach to MCs [1] as well as two
closely related reports (i.e., [2], an analytical report that was prepared as support for the
European approach; and [13], a desk research report that was prepared as part of the
related ERASMUS+ project MicroBol) were analyzed. For the purpose of this paper,
we excluded mentioned instruments that are provided by private entities or mostly
outside of Europe (e.g., Badgr
6
or Coursera
7
were excluded based on these criteria).
The 22 instruments that we identified in these three documents include conceptual items
(e.g., definitions, methodological guidelines and frameworks) and technological
solutions (e.g., digital platforms or credit transfer systems):
8
1. Bestr is an Italian credentialing platform that uses the Blockcerts standard to issue
and manage MCs.
2. Blockcerts is a solution to notarize learning certificates using blockchain technology.
3. The Common Microcredential Framework (CMF*) provides guidelines on a number
of characteristics (e.g., workload) of a MC.
4. The EU standard of constitutive elements of MC (Constitutive elements*) includes
a list of information elements that should be provided for each MC.
5. Credentify is an API service that allows for the sharing of MCs expressed in ECTS.
6. Digitary is an online platform for certifying, sharing, and verifying credentials.
7. The Diploma Supplement (DS) provides information elements for HE qualifications.
8. The European Credit Clearinghouse for Opening up Education (ECCOE) aims to
provide a (a) a standard description for credentials, (b) a model credit recognition
agreement, and (c) a digital learning passport of which only the first has been
published thus far.
9. The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) describes the
volume of learning based on workload.
10. EduCTX is a distributed blockchain platform for the management of certificates.
11. The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) provides eight levels to categorize
learning outcomes.
12. The Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher
Education Area (ESG) describes a set of standards for quality assurance in HE.
13. The Europass Digital Credentials Infrastructure (Europass*) allows for the issuing
and verification of digital credentials and also provides a digital environment to store
and share credentials.
14. A list of Critical Information Elements (Information elements*) that should be
provided on a MC (not necessarily directly connected to it).
15. The Lisbon Recognition Convention (LRC) describes regulations for academic
recognition in the European HE area.
16. A common definition of MCs (MC Definition) by the European Commission.
17. The Micro-Credential Meta-Data Standard Draft (MC Meta-data*) is an adaptation
of the Qualifications Metadata Schema of the European Commission and provides
an ontology of meta-data that should be provided for MC to facilitate recognition.
18. The Open Education Pass (OEPass) is intended to provide a learning passport that
records all learning a student has done.
19. The Framework of Qualifications of the European Higher Education Area (QF-
EHEA) describes four distinct cycles for HE (e.g., first cycle are bachelor’s degrees).
6
https://info.badgr.com/ [07/23/2021].
7
https://www.coursera.org/ [07/23/2021].
8
The asterisk highlights when we used an own abbreviation for an instrument (in parantheses).
20. The Criteria for the Recognition of E-Learning (Recognition criteria*) provide
seven criteria with robustness levels to facilitate recognition decisions.
21. The Reference Tool for Quality Assurance and Benchmarking of Online Learning
(Reference for quality*) provides a manual with guidelines on how to assess the
quality of e-learning programs.
22. The Register of Trusted Issuers (Register*) is intended to be an accreditation
database for MC issuers.
4 Mapping Instruments to MC Development Phases
We mapped the instruments and their uses to the phases and steps in the MC
development process. For this purpose, the support that the instruments could provide
to each phase was interpreted in a wider sense, also considering indirect effects in most
cases. For example, when classifying the potential contribution of a digital platform for
MCs (e.g., #1 Bestr, #6 Digitary, or #10 EduCTX), their direct effects are obvious as
they support the implementation and deployment of MC. It could also be argued though
that they affect the design phase indirectly, as they provide a template or at least some
restrictions for the provided meta-data. Initially, the classification was done by the first
and third author independently for all tools and the results were combined (i.e.,
diverging classifications were added up with the idea of a wider interpretation of each
instrument’s contributions). The classification was then reviewed by the second author
with no need for further adaptations.
Some common themes amongst the instruments resulted in common classifications.
These include, but are not limited to, instruments that support quality assurance (e.g.,
#21) being classified as supporting EVA, instruments that support recognition (i.e., the
assessment of content and quality of a MC by other institutions) being classified as
supporting at least EVA and REL, instruments that include data standards (e.g., #4, #8a,
#14, #17) being classified as at least supporting DES, and digital platforms supporting
mostly IMP and DEP (e.g., by enabling the creation and issuing of MCs). The result of
this classification is displayed in Table 1. An initial finding derived from the total
number of instruments in each phase is that, thus far, there is little support for the MC-
specific collection of feedback (FBK). Only two instruments have been assigned to this
phase, i.e., Bestr (#1) as it allows for the endorsement of existing MCs and CMF (#3),
though it does not directly support the creation of feedback cycles, but has the stated
purpose to encourage the development of MCs based on stakeholder needs. Hence,
aside from endorsement functionalities, other forms of feedback by stakeholders (e.g.,
suggestions for improvement, evaluations of content, etc.) are not included.
It could therefore be argued that there is a gap in the domain of instruments that
explicitly support the creation of feedback cycles. Alternatively, it could be argued that
the lack of instruments in this area indicate that some other existing instruments (e.g.,
not specific to HE) already sufficiently fulfill this purpose without the need for MC-
specific tools. Yet, the feedback mechanisms related to MCs create new challenges that
may create the need for such tools; e.g., MCs are intended to be designed and updated
in response to changes in skill needs. Therefore, feedback cycles also have to be fast-
paced and organized efficiently (e.g., to allow for involvement of as many relevant
stakeholders as possible). Furthermore, updates might have implications on the validity
of previously completed instances of the MC, which also needs to be supported by
appropriate mechanisms (e.g., decisions as to whether owners of previous MC instances
need to pass another assessment to be granted the updated version).
Table 1. Mapping of Instruments to MC Development Phases
9
Instrument
CON
ICB
DEV
COW
DES
IMP
DEP
COM
FBK
REL
1. Bestr
X
X
X
X
X
X
2. Blockerts
X
X
3. CMF
X
X
X
X
X
4. Constitutive elem.
X
X
X
X
5. Credentify
X
X
6. Digitary
X
X
X
X
X
7. DS
X
X
X
X
8. ECCOE a)
X
X
X
8. ECCOE b)
X
X
8. ECCOE c)
X
X
X
X
X
9. ECTS
X
X
X
10. EduCTX
X
X
X
X
X
11. EQF
X
X
X
12. ESG
X
X
13. Europass
X
X
X
X
X
14. Information elem.
X
X
X
15. LRC
X
16. MC Definition
X
17. MC Meta-data
X
X
X
18. OEPass
X
X
X
X
X
19. QF-EHEA
X
X
X
20. Recogn. criteria
X
X
21. Ref. for quality*
22. Register
X
X
X
X
Total
6
9
15
17
9
11
2
9
Though various information and communication technologies (ICT) may support
this type of interaction (e.g., social media), we are not aware of any instruments (or
methodologies to combine existing instruments), which would be readily available to
allow for the implementation of feedback cycles for MCs as envisioned by Devedžić
and Jovanović [6].
9
CON = Conceptualization; ICB = Identifying and Contemplating Barriers; DEV =
Development; DES = Design; IMP = Implementation; DEP = Deployment; COW = MC
Community Work; COM = Communication; FBK = Collect Feedback and Address Concerns;
REL = Checking Relevance; EVA = Evaluation
While parts of the Community Work section of the MC development process (e.g.,
FBK) clearly show gaps, the development (DEV, and in particular DES and IMP) and
preceding phases seem to have been frequently addressed. Concerning the results of
this mapping, it has to be noted though that the listed instruments are not all equally
likely to be used for MC development in European HE. For example, some of the
instruments are suggestions (e.g., #22 Register), others were part of pilot projects or
early initiatives, which will now be replaced by other instruments (e.g., experiences of
the development of #18 OEPass feeding into the evolution of #13 Europass) and some
are highly similar and therefore likely to experience some form of consolidation (e.g.,
the information elements listed in #4, #8a, #14, #17). Hence, having many instruments
assigned to one phase does not necessarily mean that this phase is adequately supported.
We illustrate and further discuss this circumstance for the initial phases in MC
development (Case 1) and the development portion (Case 2) in the next section.
5 Challenges in MC Development: Illustrative Cases
5.1 Case 1: Conceptualization, Barriers & Communication (CON, ICB)
The University of Continuing Education Krems is a public university solely focusing
on continuing education offers in its teaching program. As such, it already offers
specialized master programs with 90-120 ECTS and more focused curricula for
certified programs (15-30 ECTS) and academically certified expert programs (min. 60
ECTS), which finish with a graduation certificate, but no degree. Given the demand-
oriented, highly specialized nature of continuing education [14] and the university’s
focus on offers on EQF-level 7, the curricula already feature very specific qualification
profiles and learning outcomes. Developing MCs thus is considered a promising field
of development to reach new target groups and create more flexible offers (e.g., [15]).
From an institutional perspective, a critical point is communicating available offers
of the HEI to potential students and providing a consistent overall image of what is
expected from and can be expected by students when taking a MC at the university. It
thus needs to make sure that external stakeholders do not perceive offers to address
identical needs or overlap each other in a way that makes them hard to distinguish. In
addition, the institution’s governance would benefit from a consistent approach. In
order to ensure this, a process needs to be established that addresses such issues already
during the phase of Conceptualization (CON), emphasizing simultaneous activities of
Identifying and Contemplating Barriers (ICB) and internal MC Community Work
(COW). Such a process could be supported by the following instruments:
3. CMF: The CMF originally was developed in the context of MOOCs, but still
provides useful guidelines to specify a common frame of what is expected from a
MC from an institutional perspective. In particular, the specification in terms of
workload, educational level (cf. 11. EQF) and the required summative assessment
component could be part of such a framework, in which MC designers could operate.
8. ECCOE (a/b): Parts of specifications to be developed as part of the ECCOE
clearinghouse, in particular those relating to how to describe a MC and the criteria
set to be part of recognition agreements can also be used as a basis to specify a
common institutional frame for MCs and inform their conceptualization.
9. ECTS: ECTS are part of the foundational framework of MC specification and can
be used as a metric for the size and granularity of MCs, providing a way to relate
learning outcomes to envisioned workload and thus make comparable different MC
approaches, ultimately enabling internal (and external) discourse about the scope
and depth of an MC’s didactical approach.
11. EQF: The EQF is also part of the foundational framework for MC specification.
Its descriptors provide abstract, yet operatively applicable means of assessment of
an MC’s content and the level of education it aims at. Given that MCs should by
recognizable by HEIs, MCs offered by other HEIs will have to meet the descriptors’
requirements on EQF levels 6-8. As such, these descriptors can be used to facilitate
internal discourse over MC content in the phase of conceptualization.
12. ESG: Quality assurance from an institutional perspective plays a major part in
acting as a provider of MCs in the European HEI landscape. Existing frameworks
and guidelines, such as the ESG do not yet explicitly address MCs and yet have to
elaborate on whether, and if, to which extent, MCs can be treated like other HEI
activities or which specific needs to be addressed separately.
15. LRC: Similarly to the ESG, the LRC could provide procedural guidance in
handling MCs and thus also inform their conceptualization process. Still, as with the
ESG, there is need for clarification if and to which extent the LRC can be applied.
16. MC Definition: A commonly accepted definition of MCs, just like the CMF,
can contribute to set a frame of what an institution is willing to accept and offer as
an MC. In particular, the MC definition similarly as the CMF calls for transparent
summative assessment, which appears to emerge as one constitutive component of
MCs and thus already needs to be considered during conceptualization.
18. OEPass: Again, the metadata specified for MCs in the OEPass can inform the
process of specifying the framework that is used to structure the conceptualization
of and discourse about MCs on an institutional level. In particular, OEPass not only
addresses questions of workload and assessment, but also covers learning outcomes
and didactical considerations.
19. QF-EHEA: In line with EQF and ECTS, the QF-EHEA is part of the
foundational framework MCs can build upon and operate in. Similar to the EQF, the
QF-EHEA provides descriptors that can be used to assess the adequacy of an MC’s
learning outcomes with respect to the educational level they address.
20. Recognition Criteria: These have been specified in the context of e-learning,
yet also can inform the specification of MCs during conceptualization to describe
them in a commonly understood and accepted way and make them comparable based
on agreed-upon metrics and criteria.
5.2 Case 2: Design (DES)
The Institute of Digital Business (IDB) at Johannes Kepler University (JKU) Linz,
Austria, offers a mandatory introductory course for business students called “Technical
and Methodological Foundations of Digitalization(TMG). It covers introductory
topics like hard- and software, web and networking technologies, spreadsheet
calculation, databases, process modeling and other subjects relevant for digitalization
like legal conditions and social questions. Supplementing the in-class teaching, students
work through several pieces of homework, which, if successfully completed, allow
them to take an examination in an electronic examination room (see also [16]). The
introduction of one or more MCs awarded to students that successfully complete this
course seems fitting as its contents are largely standardized and reflect basic skills that
can be assessed in a formal way (e.g., ability to formulate SQL queries). The question
arises though, whether/how an existing course can simply be translated into (a) MC(s).
The MC development process in this case currently revolves around the development
portion with the main focus on Design (DES) which means that the following
instruments are potentially relevant:
3. CMF: The CMF was mainly issued aiming at MOOCs. Although TMG does not
fall into this category and strongly builds on face-to-face learning settings, some
parts of the CMF can be helpful. For example, following the standardization ideas
might result in better recognition, and the call to incorporate the needs of potential
stakeholders can help to better focus the included topics (e.g., specific SQL-related
skills that should be taught).
4. Constitutive elements, 14. Information elements and 17. MC Meta-data: All
three provide an extensive list of course information and meta-data recommended to
be included in a MC. These recommendations are useful for designing the bespoken
MC and should definitely be taken into account.
7. Diploma supplement: DSs are included with every finished degree. The meta-
data included as part of a DS (see also #4, #14, #17) could proof useful for MCs,
even if DS are currently not offered for qualification offerings on a smaller scale.
9. ECTS: At JKU, the workload of all courses is defined in ECTS, a semester
typically having 30 ECTS. TMG is assigned 6 ECTS, and as a common
recommendation for MCs is 4 to 6 ECTS, the teaching content of the course should
be allocated to one or a maximum of two MCs.
11. EQF: TMG is part of several Bachelor curricula, therefore it is assigned the EQF
level 6, which also translates to the same Austrian National Qualifications
Framework (NQF) level 6. Within the curricula, TMG is situated in the first two
semesters, so relatively at the beginning of level 6. This should be reflected in the
MC and can proof useful to assess the level at which the included course contents
should be offered (i.e., rather novice level than expert level).
6 Discussion and Conclusion
We analyzed the current tool support of MC development in European HE to identify
potential gaps in coverage. In addition to the first general gap, we identified in the area
of feedback cycles specific to MCs, we included two case examples to illustrate those
areas with major tool support may require further refinements in their tool support.
In Case 1 we examined challenges that occur in the initial phases of MC
development within an institution: The selection of educational offers that should be
packaged as a CM based on the strategic aims of an HEI and based on the expertise of
its academic staff. Reviewing relevant instruments (CON, ICB) from the perspective of
our practical case reveals a heterogenous picture of how well and to which extent these
early phases are addressed. Basically, three common topics can be identified that are
already covered by existing instruments and can inform a HEI’s strategy in developing
and offering MCs: Some instruments (most notably #9 ECTS, #11 EQF, and #19 QF-
EHEA) provide a foundational framework for HEIs that informs all European academic
study offers and thus also can be used for setting the outlines for MC development.
Others, like the CMF (#3), the ECCOE specifications (#8), the MC definition (#16),
the OEPass (#18), or the Recognition criteria (#20) provide input on which aspects to
consider when specifying the institutional framework for MCs in which stakeholders
can operate when developing MCs. They not only can inform the relevant metadata but
also provide input on potential manifestations of MC aspects, which in turn can be used
by HEIs to specify minimum requirements or design spaces for MC conceptualization.
Finally, some instruments (e.g., #12 ESG, #15 LRC) already address aspects necessary
to be considered when establishing operative and governance processes for MC
development. Still, they do not yet consider the specific requirements of MCs, but take
a generic quality assurance perspective. It is yet to be determined, if MCs have such
specific requirements at all that necessarily sets them apart from other academic
educational offers and requires them to be treated differently during the development
process. If so, the existing instruments do not yet provide sufficient guidance or input
to design such processes from an institutional perspective and thus at the moment leave
HEIs to develop such guidelines for themselves. While for internal decisions, such as
how to select MCs to offer publicly from a set of potential candidates, this might be
adequate, this lack is problematic for processes that reach beyond institutional borders
(such as for recognition of MCs) and require mutual trust. Such trust can mainly evolve
from a common framework of not only how MCs are described, but also of how they
are conceptualized, developed and assessed in terms of quality (e.g., [17]).
In Case 2 we examined another example which we expect to be of high relevance to
many institutions of higher education: The introduction of MCs based on existing
structures and contents (e.g., [7, 18]). While we see extensive considerations for the
design of MCs from scratch in the listed instruments, reusing existing resources and
translating courses into MCs is not frequently addressed. Several of the included
instruments provide a framework for the design of MCs in the form of meta-data
representing aspects needed. However, they lack guidance for the actual design process
and the decisions that are included in it. For example, in the described course, 6 ECTS
will be earned if a student demonstrates knowledge in several theoretical areas, but also
proficiency for some practical skills (e.g., spreadsheet calculations, SQL queries, word
processing). 6 ECTS are well within the recommended workload of 4-6 ECTS for a
MC (#3 CMF). Yet, as a MC is supposed to represent a discrete skill, the question
arises, how this current structure can be translated into such a new qualification
offering, with several further questions along the way, including, but not limited to:
Which course contents should be added or removed to create a viable MC?
Which learning outcomes can and should be standardized?
Should the MC be further divided into badges, with different levels?
Should the MC be stackable and connected to other parts of the Bachelor curricula?
Is the current form of assessment suitable to proof the achievement of each one
defined learning objective?
The overall conclusion that we can draw based on our scoping review and the two
exemplary cases is that there is initial support for the MC development process on the
European level, yet it is far from comprehensive. While we certainly acknowledge that
there cannot be full support for all instances and cases of this process, and there has to
be room for experimentation (e.g., [2]), high procedural complexity and the prospect of
major re-structures to be able to offer MCs (e.g., [19, 20]) will likely negatively impact
the uptake of MCs (e.g., [5]). An opportunity therefore arises for digital solutions to
support MC development (e.g., [2]).
What could be envisioned is a platform solution that connects potential stakeholders
across European HE and allows for the implementation of continuous feedback cycles
(e.g., feedback on MC ideas or designs) and at the same time can be used to create links
between those interested in the uptake of MCs and domain experts (e.g., to share
experience on MC design as described in Case 2). This platform could also be used to
provide an overview of MCs being offered and therefore provides the possibility to
communicate the value proposition of MCs (as described in Case 1). Currently, such
functionalities can be found distributed amongst a variety of instruments (see Table 1)
although they should be combined in order to support the whole MC development
process. A next step could therefore be to check, whether existing instruments can
sufficiently be combined to realize this vision, which could be problematic (e.g., it is
not clear whether Bologna tools can be fully adapted for MC, [18]) or whether concepts
for new instruments that support MC development are necessary. A recent report by the
OECD [21] also supports this call, as it also highlights that communication amongst
stakeholders will be a major challenge for the uptake of MCs.
Finally, we acknowledge that our review has limitations, which can be opportunities
for future research. First, we conducted a scoping review that focused on instruments
mentioned by the European Commission or in related projects and therefore likely only
included a small number of instruments that exist throughout European HE. Yet, as
mentioned before, this was done to keep the focus on instruments likely to be promoted
on the European level. Second, the framework that we used as the basis for our
classification originated in the area of badge development. Although there is a close
connection between badges and micro-credentials (see section 2), we need to keep in
mind that there are some differences (e.g., importance of visual design for badges).
Hence, a framework that is specific to MC development could help to create a more
fine-grained assessment of the status of MC development support in European HE.
Third, we included two illustrative cases that were supposed to show that instances
of the MC development process exist that are not yet sufficiently covered by listed
instruments. There are certainly many more instances, in particular when adopting an
international perspective, that would require comparable analyses and we hope that
future research will be done to identify the most important use cases in MC
development, which will then be the basis for the development of digital solutions.
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