Open Thinkering


Month: February 2023

Wake me up when you’ve stopped talking about microcredentials for workforce development

What's a badge really worth?
 What’s a badge really worth? by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Note: this post had a previous title: Keeping alive the dream of an open, democratic, web-native way of giving and receiving recognition

This is a response to Justin Mason’s excellent provocation / blog post “Thinking Out Loud” About Why Static, Online, Competency-Based Microcredential Courses Are Boring. I want to use this post to get a bit more radical than Justin as I don’t have to include a disclaimer about my employer’s opinions 😉

Justin makes four points in his post:

  1. Higher education’s primary value isn’t in curating and disseminating instructional content.
  2. Static, competency-based microcredentials in higher education probably won’t solve the “skills gap.”
  3. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
  4. Competency-based micro-credentials focus on workforce development to the exclusion of liberal arts education

Despite having four qualifications from universities, I don’t actually care that much about the continuation of Higher Education in its current form. It’s also been more than a decade since I’ve been employed by a formal education institution. So I want to highlight a point that Justin makes which reminds me that all but the most prestigious universities are about to be eaten alive:

In theory, we could develop practical microcredentials for all the contexts. But who has the resources to do that? You know who has the resources to at least try? LinkedIn, and huge companies like it. For example, you know who has a vast collection of LinkedIn Learning courses and is now promoting skills assessments to compliment them, and is awarding badges? You know who’s partnering with large higher education systems and other companies to develop microcredentials around LinkedIn Learning? Yup. If you’re developing short, online, static, competency-based courses + microcredentials with the idea that you’ll create a large collection of them, ask yourself if your institution has the resources to build microcredential collections that will compete with LinkedIn Learning’s microcredentials in scope and quality. And then allow yourself to have a good cry.

Dividing up existing courses into bite-size pieces will hasten the demise of Higher Education institutions, especially if they partner with organisations such as LinkedIn. Using a third-party provider to give students access to courses that make them more employable is all well and good, but at some point they will cut out the middleman. Why pay tens of thousands to go to university to get a series of microcredentials you can get from the same provider for less (or while working)?

Universities will realise too late that what they’re selling are experiences and signals. What they’ve got the opportunity to move into is recognition of the unique nature of each learner. So instead of making ever smaller generic credentials, they’ve got the chance to provide bespoke recognition.

I really believe that the next step higher education takes toward making itself more accessible, inclusive, and equitable is through the recognition of life-wide learning. I wager that microcredentials, or something very much like them*, will probably be a big part of how recognition of life-wide learning works. But if microcredentials are understood to be 100% about workforce development, then I worry they’ll contribute to the workforce-ification of public higher education, and that’s something I don’t want to see happen. I wish, oh how I wish, that faculty and administrators who advocate for higher education’s public mission would stop simply identifying microcredentials with workforce development. Instead, I would ask them to consider how microcredentials could be one available tool that helps us extend the reach of public higher education to previously unserved people, as well as extend the lens of liberal arts learning to encompass lifelong and life-wide learning! Seriously, our rapidly changing world needs that lens!

People need income to live, which usually means that they need to work. Most work, but not all work, comes in the shape of ‘a job’ which entails an employer. This does not mean that we need to tailor our whole education system to please employers. As Justin mentions, the ‘skills gap’ is a convenient fiction peddled by large organisations who do not want to spend money on training and development. It’s only recently, after all, that graduates were expected to be immediately ‘work ready’ for employers.

But even if we did want to please employers, the way that Higher Education seems to be approaching microcredentialing seems to be backwards. Instead of creating generic content that then needs to be applied to an area, the world of work requires extremely contextual and domain-dependent recognition of knowledge, skills, and understanding.

[K]nowledge and skills tend to be embedded in contexts. People (okay… mostly my relatives) bemoan higher education for being too abstract. Learning should be practical, they say. What my relatives don’t realize is that an amount of “abstractness” is necessary if you’re developing curricula intended for any and all contexts and learners. Take, for example, an introductory microcredential on project management. The trouble is that project management in the construction industry looks significantly different from project management in the health care industry or software development industry. Even within a given industry, project management will differ from one organization to the next. So microcredential designers must consider tradeoffs. They can either build a “practical” microcredential curriculum that is 80% useful to 5% of their potential learner-consumers, or they can build an “abstract” curriculum that is 40% useful to 80% of their potential learner-consumers (those percentages are made up examples).

A microcredential itself is not ‘content’ but rather a signal of having learned or mastered something. While a university might want to control the value of the different kinds of credentials it offers, it’s not quite as simple as that. As the illustration at the top of this post shows, there are many facets to take into account. What Higher Education institutions need to bear in mind that, as part of this great unbundling, there is no actual requirement that they are the ones who issue valuable forms of recognition.

The work that I’m involved with at the moment (alongside Justin!) through Keep Badges Weird and the OSN Open Recognition working group involves thinking about what happens when a Community of Practice takes the place of an institution. I think we could see the return of guilds run as a form of co-operative trade union which would recognise and legitimate workers within a given domain. They could push back against the overbearing power of employers. I think it would be massively preferable to the situation in which we find ourselves right now.

Most of the questions that badges have raised over the last 12 years have been ‘trojan horse’ in nature. What do we mean by ‘quality assurance’? How can we do assessment at scale? What’s the minimum viable qualification? In fact, when I was on the original Mozilla Open Badges team, the main opposition to badges came from exactly those kinds of universities that are now jumping on the ‘static, online, competency-based’ microcredential bandwagon. I suspect they’re, either consciously or unconsciously, looking for ways to embrace, extend, and extinguish an open standard to try and firm up their position within the ecosystem.

Perhaps I’m getting older, but I see a lot of issues that on the surface look like they’re about skills and credentialing that are actually deeper and more structural. There are assumptions about power relations baked into every conversation I have had over more than a decade in this area. At some point we’re going to need to have some real talk about that as well. My view, unsurprisingly, is that we need more democracy and autonomy in the workplace, and that this starts with this being practised within our education systems.

For now, though, I’d encourage those who see the world through the lens of microcredentials to read some work that my colleagues and I have done in this area over the last few years. I’d suggest reading these three posts, focused particularly on Open Recognition in the workplace:

Once you’ve done that, come and introduce yourself to the KBW Community, start earning some badges for recognition, and see if we can keep alive the revolutionary dream of an open, democratic, web-native way of giving and receiving recognition!

Weeknote 08/2023

Team GB vs Belgium basketball game

I’m not sure what proportion of the North East population is in London for the Carabao Cup Final this weekend, but it’s sufficient that there are no sporting activities for our two kids on Sunday. That means Team Belshaw can go out for Sunday dinner as a family for the first time in a while. I’m looking forward to it.

This past week has been half-term for our two, while Hannah and I have taken a couple of days off work. It’s also been the first of three weeks of holiday that Laura is taking, so both home and work have been different. It’s amazing how those two worlds can collide, especially this week where we successfully used nonviolent communication techniques in a family setting to defuse some issues.

During my three days of work this week, I’ve been:

Other than that it’s been the usual taxi service for my kids and standing on the touchline watching them play football and basketball.

My daughter played for Newcastle United’s U12 ETC against Doncaster U13 ETC and Tyneside Tigers, a recently-formed 11-a-side team comprising players from a futsal team — including several Sunderland ETC players. She played well, although for some reason they played her in defence for part of the Doncaster match! In her grassroots team’s game this morning she scored a hat-trick while playing in midfield and then striker, so it was business as usual.

My son is playing basketball this afternoon. Last night, we went to see Team GB vs Belgium at the arena where he also plays his games. Unfortunately, Team GB were well beaten, but it was a good atmosphere. Tonight, we’re planning to go and watch Plane (2023) at the cinema until late while my daughter and friend have a sleepover at our house.

Next week, I’m planning to lead a session on storytelling for the OSN Open Recognition working group, holding the fort a little while Laura’s away, doing regular client work, leading the session mentioned above, and finding out more about North East rural co-working via a local in-person session.

Weeknote 07/2023

Spring, as they say, has sprung.

(I was going to write this weeknote on Friday night, but it felt too early to do so. And then I completely forgot to do so over the weekend.)

Some quick bullet points on last week:

  • I’ve been working on what was going to be a blog post entitled So, er, what even is a worker-owned co-op? but after some feedback and questions it grew legs and ran away with me. So it might end up being a larger resource. We’ll see.
  • On Tuesday I had a disagreement with a colleague which affected me so much I took the rest of the day as a mental health day and went for a walk on the beach. It was wonderful and restorative, and I made up with them on Wednesday.
  • It’s been ridiculously windy all week here, apart from a few brief respites. It seems that the wind, more than any other weather condition, really affects me emotionally. Weird.
  • I had some great CoTech Digital Candle meetings with very interesting people looking to do cool things. Hopefully I was able to give them a bit of encouragement and help.
  • On Thursday I went to the first All Hands meeting. It was well-attended, and I’m feeling optimistic about the whole enterprise!
  • We continued with client work and Laura did a bit of a handover from the projects she’s leading, as she’s heading to Costa Rica for three weeks.

This week it’s half-term for our kids, so I’m taking Monday and Friday off. It’s a bit easier when they’re older as you don’t have to entertain them as much; it’s more like just encouraging them to get off their phones…