We discuss the concept and challenges of micro-credentials in the European Education Area with Andrzej Krasniewski, coordinator of Work Package 3, focused on Society-centred Education, at ENHANCE Alliance, founded by Erasmus Plus Programme European Universities Initiative. Mr Krasniewski is a professor at Warsaw University of Technology, Head of the Education Committee at the Faculty of Electronics and Information Technology and Advisor to the Rector on international cooperation in higher education.

What is the role of micro-credentials in the future of European High Education?

Micro-credentials complement traditional, formal qualifications universities and other higher education institutions offer. They can be viewed as a means to make the educational offer of universities more flexible and attractive, not only to traditional students pursuing bachelor, master or doctoral degree programmes but also to various groups of life-long learners. These non-traditional learners seek to change or update their skills portfolio and actively engage with new technologies to improve their position in the labour market. They also would like to develop their general personal or social competencies.

Why are micro-credentials relevant to foster the European Education Area?

Because offering micro-credentials can expand the universities’ role in providing continuous and life-long learning and help further improve the responsiveness of higher education institutions to the needs of the labour market and expand the outreach and societal relevance of higher education.

How can they increase the diversification in this model?

Short learning experiences resulting in micro-credentials support flexible life-long learning models in which periods of education and work intertwine, or education and career go in parallel. Such flexible education models are becoming increasingly popular among the new generation of learners and will likely become an integral part of the future European Education Area.

In which way micro-credentials are widening the spectrum of non-traditional learners?

Micro-credentials help people attain knowledge and skills useful for their professional and personal development. They are for everyone, regardless of age, education level and employment status. In particular, micro-credentials support inclusion and access to higher education. They also address the needs of various groups of young people with fewer opportunities. Unlike traditional degree programmes, a lot of micro-credentials are offered online. Young people are online, regardless of their socio-economic status.

Micro-credentials are also inclusive.

By offering micro-credentials, universities create opportunities for learners from unfavourable backgrounds. These might include, for example, prospective students living in rural areas, far away from big academic centres, who cannot enrol into regular degree programmes because of the high costs of living in those big cities. Micro-credentials also address the needs of various groups of older people. A significant part of the working force aged 50+ or 55+ might need up-skilling in digital technology. These adults will unlikely apply for admission to degree programmes. Micro-credentials might, however, be a viable option for them. Also, offering micro-credentials to senior citizens, participating in activities provided by the University of the Third Age can help overcome some psychological problems typical for this age group, like feeling lonely, old and useless.

Regarding ENHANCE micro-credentials, what are their constitutive elements?

With a broad spectrum of micro-credentials intended for different target groups, the ENHANCE universities need a common micro-credentials framework – the systematic description of concepts, rules, procedures and processes related to micro-credentials. We have developed such a framework and adopted it in July 2021.

Grzegorz Robak, WUT core officer

The essential part of the ENHANCE micro-credentials framework is the ENHANCE micro-credentials template – a precisely defined list of critical information elements that describe a particular micro-credential. This list includes learning outcomes, the workload needed to achieve these learning outcomes, the participation in the learning activity, the type of assessment and several other obligatory and optional information that characterises a particular micro-credential. It turns out that the proposed structure of information in the ENHANCE micro-credentials template, adopted in July 2021, fully complies with the European Commission’s proposal presented in December 2021.

Could you underline any example about micro-credentials-like education offerings for students in our ENHANCE Alliance universities?

For many years, the ENHANCE universities have offered multiple short forms of educational provision that conceptually resemble micro-credentials. The common micro-credentials framework will transform some of these forms into micro-credentials and develop many new ones. We have already reached an essential milestone in developing a rich, joint offer of ENHANCE micro-credentials. The first ENHANCE micro-credential was the certificate confirming the learning outcomes achieved by participants of the Green Campus summer school organised by the Warsaw University of Technology on 15-28 September 2021. It was awarded to 34 students representing all 7 ENHANCE universities.

Several other ENHANCE micro-credentials are now under development, including a micro-credential related to the MOOC „Responsible Innovators of Tomorrow”, a Certificate in Climate Action, and a micro-credential on sustainability offered by TU Berlin, available to ENHANCE students. We are working not only on micro-credentials intended for students but also for staff. An example is a Certificate in Higher Education Teaching.

In the typology of ENHANCE micro-credentials, what’s the difference between certificates and badges?

There are two types of micro-credentials: certificates and badges. Certificates are assigned ECTS points and European Qualifications Framework (EQF) level. They involve rigid quality assurance, which includes a thorough formal assessment of learning outcomes. Some are stackable, meaning they can be recognised as components of more extensive credentials, particularly those of degree programmes. Unlike certificates, badges can be awarded rather non-formal methods of assessment of learning outcomes or even based on participation in learning activities. In principle, they are not assigned ECTS points or EQF levels and are, in general, non-stackable.

Are there also different targets to reach, for instance?

Both certificates and badges can be offered to different groups of learners. For example, badges can be awarded to senior citizens participating in learning activities provided by the University of the Third Age and degree-seeking traditional students for their work to benefit local communities or society, such as supporting elderly people in dealing with digital transformation.

Which benefits and opportunities do the micro-credentials offer to students?

For traditional students, micro-credentials will create an opportunity to achieve additional competencies, frequently beyond the significant field of study, and have them formally certified. It might be a new valuable educational experience, especially for micro-credentials developed jointly with partners from industry, local governments and non-profit organisations or micro-credentials awarded for service to society-based learning activities. Some micro-credentials will raise students’ awareness of social issues, such as the earlier mentioned module on „Responsible Innovators of Tomorrow”.

In this way, is the progress made towards a personalised education?

Taking courses and participating in other forms of education in virtual or blended learning format, resulting in micro-credentials offered by the ENHANCE universities, can also be seen as the measure to customise students’ education pathways. Such micro-credentials can be included in a personal portfolio (or CV), documenting the student’s international experience.

ENHANCE Alliance is developing new forms of learning activities. How can you engage students in this challenge?

Sara Wigger from RWTH Aachen

One of the goals of the ENHANCE education strategy is to make students co-creators of education processes, involving them in developing and implementing educational activities and processes. One specific type of micro-credentials we will offer our traditional students is a badge awarded for learning through service to society. An example of such service-based learning and community engagement, mentioned in our ENHANCE proposal, would be offering training and individual support to senior citizens who have difficulties with new information technologies.

Actually, we will rely on our students to propose various forms of learning activity that can qualify for such micro-credentials. Some ideas for service-based learning, mentioned at the workshop on micro-credentials organised on 25 November for members of the Student Forum, include: serving as student ambassadors to promote the ENHANCE Alliance in local schools, the development of micro-credentials useful for non-traditional learners (offered by the Third Age University or „student-led ENHANCE academy”) and the engagement in ENHANCE higher education incubators to develop new concepts in teaching and learning.

And from your personal and professional perspectives, why are you committed to micro-credentials promotion?

One of our roles as academic community members is to serve society. It includes the development of an attractive, diversified offer of high-quality educational provision and promotion to attract as many people to education, especially to higher education, as possible. I’m convinced that micro-credentials in general and ENHANCE micro-credentials, in particular, will provide many groups of potential learners, both traditional students and non-traditional learners, with new opportunities. However, micro-credentials are not very well known and recognised among their beneficiaries – potential learners, employers society. Many members of the academic community – university students and staff also know very little about micro-credentials.

Promotion is therefore necessary. It should address the academic community but go far beyond that group. I’m not an expert on promotion, but I can imagine a campaign intended to increase access to higher education, addressed to youngsters with fewer opportunities, under the motto: „Come and try. This will be your first university certificate”. Our students can play an essential role developing and implementing such a campaign, learning a lot in this process and be awarded micro-credentials for this form of service to society.