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Micro-credentials and digital badges - what's the difference?

Micro-credentials, digital badges, open badges, nano-credentials - what do they all mean and how do they relate?

It's no surprise that this is one of the questions we are frequently asked. While this approach to learning and professional development isn't new, micro-credentials have grown significantly in recent years and have become a bit of a buzzword in the education space. 

What's the difference between micro-credentials and digital badges?

The simple answer? Not much. 

A micro-credential is like a mini-certification. The idea is that they are usually digital, short, and relatively low-cost courses that have a specific focus on demonstrating proficiency in a particular skill. Learners can earn micro-credentials in a number of ways, for example, through completing a course, a series of modules, or a traditional assessment. 

Digital badges are simply a visual representation of a micro-credential. Once learners have demonstrated proficiency in the required skill, they're provided with a digital badge. Badges can be shared on social media, added to email signatures, displayed on resumes, and added to digital badge wallets like Credly and OpenBadges.

A digital badge isn't just a pretty picture. It's backed up with a skeleton of metadata - this includes information on the issuer, the individual who received the badge, the criteria to earn it, and evidence that the criteria has been fulfilled. This metadata makes digital badges easily verified as legitimate compared to a paper certificate. 

As conversations about micro-credentials are gaining traction, you may have also heard a wide variety of opinions on their benefits, some notably critical. 

What's the problem?

Herein lies the issue - the major difference between micro-credentials and digital badges is that anyone can slap a badge on their online course and call it a digital badge, however a micro-credential is usually awarded by an educational institution.

The terms have become conflated and are often used interchangeably. You can understand why, badges are easy to understand and sound more fun. They conjure up memories of scouts, video games, and gold stars. But the lack of standardisation has been noted by critics. 

Governments around the world are attempting to find ways to officially recognise micro-credentials, but in Australia there is currently no legislation or agreed upon terms. 

However, micro-credentials aren't going anywhere and they could be on the way to becoming standardised. In October 2019, the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) was reviewed and addressing micro-credentials increasing popularity was a key aspect of the review. You can read the full report here, but the basic recommendations were that micro-credentials need to be clearly defined and a plan needs to be formed for how they will complement formal qualifications before they are incorporated into the AQF. 

Why are micro-credentials important?

While governments may be lagging behind in setting standards, micro-credentials are becoming increasingly necessary to keep up with digital innovations.

The way that learning is undertaken, accredited and recognised has changed dramatically in recent years. With the constant pace of technological innovation, employers want to hire people with specific skills and up to date training. At the same time, professionals and job seekers are often time poor. 

Micro-credentials help to bridge the skills gap that has emerged between workers and the fast-pace of their industry. For this reason, digital badges are being used across multiple fields, in short courses, corporate settings, informal learning settings and across all levels of education.

In fact, because micro-credentials are not formal in the context of AFQ, they have actually enabled educators to quickly respond to industry needs by creating programs faster and more aligned to current needs. The AFQ process takes years, whereas micro-credentials can be up and running in a matter of weeks. 

Is a micro-credential what your program has been missing?

Micro-credentials are also a great opportunity for collaboration between organisations and Universities. We've work with multiple Universities and short courses to accelerate their learning programs with micro-credentials. 

If you think a micro-credential is what your program has been missing, it's not just a matter of creating a badge and unleashing it into your online course. Here are our tips for getting the most out of micro-credentials. 

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Samantha Harris
14 August 2020 3 Min Read

Not sure about the benefits of micro-credentials?
Take a look at our post, where we talk about what micro-credentials are, the benefits for learners, employers and institutions, and how to get the most out of micro-credentials.

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