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Podcast: Unpacking Blended Learning and Micro-Credentials with Dr. Mark Brown

  • 41 Min Read

Join us for a lively discussion about two of the most talked about terms in the education space: blended learning and micro-credentials.


Welcome to Episode 7 of Teach & Learn: A podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. Hosted by Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, the show features candid conversations with some of the sharpest minds in the K-20 education space. We discuss trending educational topics, teaching strategies and delve into the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today.

Episode Description

In today’s episode, we unpack two of the most talked about terms in the education space: blended learning and micro-credentials. Whether you are for or against them, you can’t argue that they’re among the most talked about topics in the teaching and learning space today. To discuss this topic further, we welcomed Dr. Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) based at Dublin City University. Dr. Brown and Dr. Ford discussed:

  • Why the term ‘blended learning’ can and should have more than one definition.
  • How blended learning could be a solution to making professional development for educators more accessible.
  • The difference between a transformative mindset and a growth mindset
  • The three things institutions should think about as they develop their micro-credential offerings.

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Show Notes

01:00: An introduction to Dr. Mark Brown

05:53: Dr. Brown discusses his research on teacher professional development context and why blended learning may be the solution to the cost and time factors

08:32: Why Dr. Brown has never been a fan of the term ‘blended learning’

14:10: The importance of setting learning intentions

17:18: What the role of teachers and educators is

18:44: The difference between a transformative mindset and a growth mindset

27:04: How a hackathon focused on student assessments led to innovative testing solutions

32:48: How institutions can position themselves to take on micro-credentials

42:47: The difference between macro credentials and micro-credentials

Resources Discussed in the Episode

View Dr. Brown’s presentation: Blended Learning in Teacher Professional Development Contexts: Supporting Transformative Practice

Learn more about Teaching As a Subversive Activity

Visit the Micro-Credential Observatory

Learn more about Dr. Cristi Ford and the Teaching and Learning Studio.

About the Speakers

Dr Mark Brown is Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) based at Dublin City University (DCU). He was previously Director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University in New Zealand. At Massey he was also Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA).

Over the last decade he has played key leadership roles in the implementation of several major university-wide digital learning and teaching initiatives, including the enterprise-wide deployment of Moodle, the original design and development of the Mahara e-portfolio system, and the university-wide implementation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform [Open2Study].

Professor Brown’s main research interests are in Higher Education and in particular the areas of policy development, the societal benefits of university-level education, teaching and learning development, online, blended and digital learning, student success and engagement and the nature of the student learning experience. He serves on several international journal editorial boards and has published extensively in the areas of online, blended and digital learning. In total, he has produced overly 300 scholarly publications and presentations.

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

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Full Transcript

Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):

Welcome to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K through 20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s ed tech, personalised learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils, class is about to begin.

So thanks for joining us today for Teach and Learn. I’m so excited that you are going to be hearing this great episode. This is really a great way to start off the new year and new episodes after the holidays. So listeners, before I jump in, I just want to take a moment to introduce the guest and colleague we have today, Dr. Mark Brown. Dr. Mark Brown is director of the National Institute for Digital Learning, based in Dublin City University. And before taking up this position and Ireland’s first chair in digital learning in February of 2014, he was previously the director for the National Center for Teaching and Learning at Massey University in New Zealand. At Massey, he also was the director of the Distance Learning Futures Alliance Association there, at DELFA. Over the last few decades he’s played key leadership roles in implementing several major university-wide digital learning and teaching initiatives, including enterprise-wide development of Moodle, the original design and development of the Mahara ePortfolio System, and the university-wide implementation of a Massive Open Online Course, MOOC platform through Open to Study.

Professor Brown’s main research interests are in higher education and particularly in the areas of policy development, societal benefits of university-level education, teaching and learning development, online blended and digital learning, as well as student success and engagement and the nature of the student learning experience. He served on international journal editorial boards and is published extensively in the area of online, blended learning and digital learning. In total, he’s produced over 300 scholarly publications and presentations. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Mark Brown (02:23):
Well, thank you very much and I’m humbled by that introduction, I’m also nervous now that I have to live up for expectations.

Dr. Cristi Ford (02:31):

Well, listen, I do want to take just a moment of pause and I want to share with you, if you will just indulge me for a minute. We first met about 10 years ago during an ILOL leadership development training, and I just wanted to tell you that really having access to your work made such an impact on my career. I really didn’t think about the art of the possible and what it could mean in terms of the way that I could offer a contribution to online education. And really meeting you and hearing you speak was the first time I knew that global education was really something bigger that was of interest to me and you caused me to just widen my scope and viewpoint of how this work can happen. And so I want to thank you for that because it has been really a game changer in some of the opportunities I’ve pursued over the years.

Dr. Mark Brown (03:24):
Well, now I’m really humbled, I don’t know how I could respond to that, but it’s really rewarding to know that your work can have such an impact. So thank you for sharing that story.

Dr. Cristi Ford (03:35):
Absolutely, absolutely. And listeners, I think you’re going to be in for a treat today. I will tell you that as I reached out to Mark to ask him to record this episode, I kid you not, I had 10 different ideas for a conversation that we could have. And so I really hope, Mark, that this will be not the first time, the last time that you join us, but the first time you join us in this podcast episode. You’ve really truly offered some groundbreaking research around the area and disciplines that we both know and love. But what I really appreciate is your commitment and support of mentoring doctoral students who are creating a lot of this new knowledge. I think it’s really commendable to see your work in those spaces as well.

Dr. Mark Brown (04:21):
Well again, thank you. I think another dimension of my work is that there is a tendency, particularly in the post-pandemic era, for us to demonise the commercial dimension of big ed tech. I’ve always taken the view that if you’re not around the table, you’re more likely to be on the menu. So I like to work with commercial platforms and providers and when I was chair of the World Conference on Online Learning in November, 2019 here in Dublin, importantly, and we really valued the relationship we had with D2L as one of our gold sponsors.

Dr. Cristi Ford (05:02):
Well, I appreciate you saying that. I just came back from OLC a couple of months back and it was very interesting to be on the other side of the table. And so I really appreciate meeting and hearing from colleagues that understand. And I love the analogy you give, in terms of not being on the menu but being at the table. I think that this is a commitment that takes all of us to move this work forward.

Dr. Mark Brown (05:25):

Dr. Cristi Ford (05:27):
So let’s jump in a little bit. I mean, again, listeners, I really struggled to have restraint around what we covered today, but I wanted to kind of jump in on some of the research that you wrote around blended learning and particularly research in the teacher professional context. You’ve done some really great work in terms of supporting transformative practice. Can you tell us a little bit about how that research came about?

Dr. Mark Brown (05:53):
Well, in the teacher professional development context, to be honest, the very first motivation for me came from a paper, as well as a talk that Professor Diana Laurillard gave. Diana is very well known in the UK and in international circles, firstly for her work on the conversational framework, which is still one of the most robust and deepest frameworks for understanding teaching and learning. But Diana wrote a paper that challenged us because when we look at the parts of the developing world and growing population, we just simply do not have enough teachers, let alone the institutions to meet demand that we will have. So she was making a case that blended and online forms, but blended in particular had to be a solution to help us prepare the next generation of teachers. So that kind of resonated with me.

And then working with some colleagues in my own institution’s, Institute of Education, our teacher education entity, we have many teachers obviously spread around the country and not all of those teachers get the opportunities, particularly in the small rural areas, to take advantage of professional development in the same way as those based particularly say in a bigger city like Dublin. And then there’s also a cost associated with professional development.

Now raising questions of cost can be a dirty word, but there is a cost, it’s time-consuming. So those were the kind of motivations and with my colleagues in the Institute of Education who had more of a schooling focus and my focus tended to be more of higher education, what we found when we started talking is actually the principles of well-designed professional learning, and I’m using the word learning, not development, I guess I would say learning and development, are very similar regardless of whatever level we work at.

Dr. Cristi Ford (07:58):
I love that you offer that framing, Mark, and I will offer, while you focus only in, you work around higher education spaces, as I’ve talked to colleagues in K-12, they’re seeing similarly the same thing, not just on the cost perspective but the time. So really looking at the fact that we’ve seen such a huge turn and turn with teacher burnout and how do we make sure that we’re providing the opportunities for teachers to be able to have the kind of professional learning that’s needed. And so as I read your work, and started to look at some of your presentations, it really resonated with me with what I’m seeing that is really required and necessary today. And so one of the things I wanted to ask you to help us unpack a little bit more is to really talk about the different dimensions of blended learning that you talk about in your research.

Dr. Mark Brown (08:52):

Well, I need to be truthful and say I’ve never been a great fan of the term blended learning. I’ve always had to subvert it slightly, but I’ll explain what I mean. For me, we’ve been blending our learning and teaching experiences for students for dozens of years, if not a century or more, because the history of educational technology goes back further than that. So I think blending is not a new thing and there is a risk that the idea of blending, if I use a metaphor of the blender, you sometimes see people use the blender, that somehow by putting more things in the blender, it’s going to taste better. Actually sometimes it doesn’t taste better or more is not better. So I’m repeating something that’s pretty core to the literature in this area, intentional and purposeful blending is really important. But what many, I think, people fail to fully acknowledge is there are so many more dimensions to blending than just online, offline, if you like. And I’m happy to expand on those, just give listeners a bit of a better sense if you like.

Dr. Cristi Ford (10:10):
Yeah, that’d be great.

Dr. Mark Brown (10:12):
Well, the first thing is content comes in many different forms. We have static content, we have now rich media content. So the blend of the content is a dimension. We have an open world and we have a closed world, to what extent do you want to blend those worlds? Because personally, I don’t see them as sitting on two extremes, that we do need to harness the openness with the closed world.

Then there’s the pace of learning. You can blend pace, a fast short learning, long thin learning, there are decisions to be made. Blending the spaces of learning, physical spaces and virtual spaces, there are different types of spaces, big lecture halls, small tutorial rooms in a physical sense. But in the virtual sense, we can blend the different types of rooms that we have, in the kind of environment that we’re in now we could blend that with a video-based environment.

Then there are other kind of ways in which we learn, there’s formal learning, non-formal learning, informal learning. So for me, blending those places and spaces and ways of learning, particularly in campus based or onsite learning, we understand how important what goes on outside of the classroom is to students learning, all those informal opportunities. And many institutions, schools, universities now understand to design places for students that can engage in informal ways. Recognition of learning, we tend to be thinking of formal recognition, but there’s all sorts of other ways of recognition we could blend. Perhaps most importantly that’s missing in a lot of the blended learning literature is blending of the pedagogies. Blending is not in itself, doesn’t really address different types of pedagogies. And we know if we have an instructional teacher, they will take that approach, if we have a more constructivist type teacher, they’ll blend in that way. Actually what we want to do is blend the pedagogies. One last comment, I know I’ve probably talked too much about this, but I’m quite passionate about it.

Dr. Cristi Ford (12:27):

No, this is good.

Dr. Mark Brown (12:30):
One big gap in the thinking about blending is at best what we do is blend the teaching, it is the learner that chooses the ultimate blend. And even before COVID, they were choosing, in higher education, not to come for lectures on many cases. So the learner is the one that ultimately makes the choice of what the blend will be like.

Dr. Cristi Ford (12:53):
So listeners, you see why Mark is on this episode. I have so many thoughts as I listen to you talk, Mark, a couple I want to just come back to. One, when you talked about the importance of blending of the pedagogy, of pedagogical approaches, it reminds me of talking with colleagues about the differences, just even the frameworks of pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy, and still talking to people who don’t understand that continuum. And then within each of those frames of discipline or frameworks, how we can start to think about a constructivist approach, as you mentioned. And so that really resonated with me. And then as I listen to you talk about blended learning, it made me think about maybe as educators, we thought about this as a linear process, when as I hear you talk, this is really about an ecosystem and it is multi-dimensional. So I don’t know, have you started to think about ways that we should be reframing the use of blended learning or are there new terminologies that really better capture really what we should be unpacking here?

Dr. Mark Brown (14:01):
Yes, we must be a bit careful we don’t get caught up with definition wars, I think that’s counterproductive and we’re having that problem now because internationally there is no common definition of what blended learning means. But even online learning in a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Distance Education, showed 46 different definitions of online learning. I like this ecological sort of approach because what it says is that there are … actually variety is a spice of life, in an ecology, diversity is a strength and we should embrace diversity.

The critical thing is to choose, know who your learners are, know what your learning intentions are. Some might call them learning outcomes or objectives, but they’re learning intentions when you’re designing them. And to ensure that you match the mode or the methodologies and the kind of content that you engage with according to those factors. And there’s never going to be a one size sock fits all, which I know is a bit of a cliche, but a rich ecology is what we should be focusing on, certainly not trying to present everyone with the same type of learning.

Dr. Cristi Ford (15:15):
Yeah. And so I’m going to jump around here a bit, but I wondered, so I was going to ask you a little bit later about something that you talk about in the digital learning ecology, and you use a term digital leakage. Does that relate to what you’re talking about now or is that a very, very different construct?

Dr. Mark Brown (15:34):
I do like using metaphors and sometimes metaphors don’t always quite work, but let me see if I could extend this a little bit. In my own education, a little context, I was very influenced by a book, if I remember correctly, published in 1973, some listener can correct me here, Neil Postman, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. And so leakage for me is if we want to extend this kind of metaphor, the last thing we would want is a large sewer pipe carrying big chunks of pre-digested digital content into a learning backwater or even a swamp where everyone’s stuck in the mud. So leakage could be me and teachers, subversive teachers putting holes in the pipe to divert the learning and the content elsewhere, maybe so it just dissipates.

But of course an ecology is more than a swamp, although swamps are breeding grounds for new life, so we shouldn’t deny those. But ultimately, this raises really big questions about what we understand the role of a teacher is, the role of educator and for me, the educator is not about delivering content to learners. If that is what it is in the future, AI will do that better than teachers.

Dr. Cristi Ford (17:02):
So I would agree with you there. And so would you say in terms of teachers, really responsibility is to create new knowledge or to be able to help learners to be able to co-construct new knowledge with learners?

Dr. Mark Brown (17:18):
Well, co-construction is core to this. We all understand, I hope, contemporary understandings of learning, that the learner is not someone that’s being done too, but they’re a partner in this. But I think it goes a bit further than that. And I have the luxury because I work in a university and I’m respectful of teachers who are in the K-12 schooling system that have a curriculum that they are measured against and expected that students will perform. So we have to be conscious of how we work within the constraints. But ultimately when I’m asked what I understand to be the role of the teacher and it’s really about what the role of education is, it’s to prepare critical thinkers, critical consumers, and we desperately need more critical consumers and critical citizens. We won’t solve the problems that we have if we don’t do just that.

Dr. Cristi Ford (18:13):

I would completely agree there, and I think in the landscape of our world today, it is necessary more so than ever. And so as you talk about the role of an educator, I’ve watched and listened to some of your work where you talk about that it is our requirement, it’s our mandate to help educators develop an innovative mindset. And I would love to have you share with me a little bit more, is that the same, is that different from a growth mindset?

Dr. Mark Brown (18:44):
I do see it as different. Actually, if I had my time again, or if I’m talking, I would probably move it away from an innovative mindset to a transformative mindset, because no innovation is entirely benign. And following the kind of subversive teaching as a subversive activity, now, I don’t want to overplay this, but we are not apolitical as teachers. That’s a controversial comment in some areas. But we’re not just delivering a curriculum because the curriculum’s not neutral. So we have a role to play here and the whole purpose of what education is about is to provide a better society for all. So for me, a growth mindset is important, but that’s more about the individual. A transformative mindset has a criticality and a collective good to it, to challenge our false consciousness because there are many things in our lives that we take for granted that aren’t what they should be when we start probing a little more.

Dr. Cristi Ford (19:55):
Yeah, as I’m listening to you talk, it really has been really difficult here in the US context, in North America context given how politicised public education has become. And so as I’ve talked to deputy superintendents, just certain terminology is so, there’s so much value laden term given to that terminology that we’re really trying to find ways to be able to navigate around landmines, terminology landmines, to help teachers to effectively to do just that, and I’m a little concerned about how we continue to do that in such a politically charged era. And so hearing you talk about transformation and really thinking, moving beyond innovative mindset, I think the core tenet is the same, and I think that as I talk with educators, they share that philosophy. But Mark, it’s been really hard to do, it’s been really challenging to do.

Dr. Mark Brown (20:56):
And I’m very respectful of those constraints, but I think we can put this into a local context because it is a mindset or an ethos. So my current best example when someone challenges me about how you put this into practice, this is going to sound a little strange to listeners, but I refer to chewing gum. Chewing gum is the second biggest pollutant on our streets, arguably, that’s what the literature tells us, that our streets, our cities are littered in chewing gum. We take it for granted, we just see it as normal. That chewing gum is made from petroleum based products, so it’s not only not sustainable, it’s actually not good for us because it’s already been shown that the chewing gum has found its way or the petroleum base of the chewing gum has found its way into our waterways and into our food chain.

So we can do something about that if we have a will, and as young people, we would want young people to understand. And you know what, there are alternative chewing gums that don’t have petroleum base to them, except they just don’t get much coverage because there’s a big monopoly of those who produce the kind of chewing gum that we are all familiar with. I won’t name them. So there’s a real problem that we could localise and do something about and have a degree of social activism, and you know what, new technologies can be incredibly powerful for not only researching about this problem, but also taking that activism and doing something about it.

Dr. Cristi Ford (22:40):
I really appreciate that analogy, number one, and two, I learned something new about chewing gum today, so I realise I have a little bit more research to do on my end. And I would agree with you in terms of educational technology, I think that one of the things that I have shared with colleagues as we talk about some of the wicked problems we’re trying to solve in education more broadly, but in higher education is that really there’s room at the table for all of us. I think that I also noticed there are times when we stray away from being intentional in our practice and looking at the research and really trying to fill in the root cause of an issue, we miss the opportunity to work and have collectivism around a larger social issue and have some social agency around that. So I really appreciate you sharing that. I think that’s a great analogy, I won’t forget the chewing gum, Mark, for sure.

Dr. Mark Brown (23:36):
Well, I could give you other examples, but it’ll sound like I’m standing on a soapbox, if that extension resonates. The one thing I think we have to do though is we have to walk our own talk. So when it comes to professional development for teachers, what I would like to try to do, and in some respects I’m not as good at doing it as I am talking about it, but I’d like to use these problems as the context for the professional learning and development of teachers.

Dr. Cristi Ford (24:10):
So you actually bring me to the next area that I wanted to ask you about, in terms of what you’ve seen in terms of intentional professional development design for teachers in this blended learning ecology. And so can you speak a little bit more to that?

Dr. Mark Brown (24:28):
I wish I could because the truth is the kind of example I gave with the chewing gum as a problem that you could engage and have teachers collectively developing and doing their professional learning around that. Or whether it be shampoo, you want to google about the shampoo issues that you’re using in your hair, that is not sustainable or good for you. There is very little that I come across that really puts this into practice. Hence, I made the comment it’s easier to talk about than do, and it is easier to talk about than do.

I’ve got some experience in the higher education context, my own university had some sizable funding, which is a factor in why it’s happening, to develop eight new degree programs and the professional development, and those new degree programs are in areas that sort of challenge or built around the sustainable development goals. And so the teachers in designing these new degrees have had the professional development alongside and integrated into the learning design of the degree, so it’s kind of going hand in hand. In the schooling context, I have a few colleagues that do work in this area, but it tends to be more the exception than the norm, and I think that’s the big challenge, and I’m not unrealistic about how you would scale this up.

Dr. Cristi Ford (25:52):
Yeah. As you talk, I mean, so I really get a very clear picture of, as you talk about embedding challenge-based approaches and teacher professional learning. And so I’m thinking about things like learner loss, learning loss, and are there larger components, what we know from neuroscience and what we know from the research, that we could start to embed in the professional learning context. So it’s really great to hear that you’re doing the work around the sustainability goals because I’ve always found in my work when I was able to work internationally in Kigali, Rwanda, that a lot of the goals we could rally behind in theory and context, but then there were certain goals that we could easily identify to, in terms of growth education or thinking about some things that we could do that were tangible. But there were other places that I struggled with my faculty to help them to really be able to figure out how do we embed some of those core components. And so I definitely would love to stay in touch with you and follow up on this work, for sure.

Dr. Mark Brown (27:04):
Well just one last maybe example on this line is, and your talking there triggered me to it, because I felt the need to at least show we do more than just talk. You have to experience this, learning is something that’s experiential. So we recently, our team developed a hackathon around assessment and we had 50 of our colleagues come for the whole day to hack assessment. Because if we’re really pragmatic about it, if you change the assessment, you change the student learning experience. So having experienced a hackathon, then we would hope they’re going to, and the solutions they came up, they would put into practice. I say hope because the evidence of whether that happens, there’s not a lot of literature that supports whether it happens or not.

Dr. Cristi Ford (27:55):
So I hadn’t even considered that, thinking about a hackathon from the assessment approach. And so just before we move on here, can you talk a little bit more in terms of is it a deconstruction of assessment approaches? Talk to me about what really happened during the hackathon.

Dr. Mark Brown (28:11):
Well, people were challenged with, firstly a hackathon is based around a problem, you have to identify the problem. People would have different definitions of that problem, which is often one of the biggest problems we have in the first place with problem definition. But the fact that we tend to be assessing for memory recall rather than educating minds. This arose particularly out of COVID, where we were forced, in many cases, right around the world, to rethink assessment. And now we’re seeing our students, particularly in higher education institutions, going back to traditional exams, many cases still being asked to sit for three hours with pen and paper. The real world, that doesn’t really happen, I haven’t sat for three hours with pen for a very long time.

So those were the kind of problems we were trying to grapple with. They worked in interdisciplinary teams, so not just in one program, but working across faculties. Some amazingly innovative solutions in which technology was a powerful enabler because assessment is also something that takes a lot of time. So if technology can free us up with some time and include better feedback, then that’s a win-win. As I say though, to be truthful, I haven’t got evidence that much changed as a consequence, we had great plans, we will see.

Dr. Cristi Ford (29:40):
Yeah, I have some great hope and promise there. In my role at D2L, it’s been interesting to work with institutions as they’ve been able to think about reconceptualising the assessment approach and to your point, the feedback mechanisms that are involved. Because moving away from teaching to the test, or being able to think about how memorisation happens and really thinking about, as [inaudible 00:30:08] talks about, deep versus surface learning, it’s I’m really hopeful that as I continue to work with these institutions, that we’ll be able to get something out there. But you’re right, the literature is very thin around some of this work. And I’ve also found that as I’ve talked to some of my colleagues who are psychometricians, there’s a very different framing and thoughtfulness around this work and how it has to be constructed, that we, as educators, just have not had all of the adequate training and approach to understand that assessment development, as you mentioned, it is a very laborious and detailed process to build, for sure.

Dr. Mark Brown (30:48):
And educators, whether they’re operating in a schooling environment or a university, college, there are cultural constraints. What the institution allows, what the traditional norms are, and that’s in where that subversion comes. So for me, part of my job in subversion as an educator, sometimes little tweaks to the policies, challenging the sacred cows. Sometimes people don’t see those policy changes, but policy can be a very powerful lever for change.

Dr. Cristi Ford (31:20):
Absolutely, absolutely. And it can allow us to be able to open up channels that have historically been closed, and to move the conversation forward, so I would really agree with that. I am very conscious of our time and I want to shift our conversation just a little because one of the other things besides this context around the teacher preparation and teacher professional learning that I’ve been seeing a lot, is a continuous conversation, it almost feels like we have moved into echo chambers and I think that something about the pandemic caused people to take a stop and to notice and to really think about the importance of the skills gap conversation. And I see some of this playing out, the skills gap conversation being the larger umbrella, but I see some of this playing out in micro-credentialing.

And I remember back in 2014, 2015 when several micro-credentialing pilots were really taking off and providing valuable support and valuable opportunities for institutions. But you’ve done one step further, instead of just not being able to look and to highlight these, but you’ve been really doing some research in this space. And so I just want to take a moment for our listeners to really kind of unpack and talk a little bit about micro-credentialing research. And so I’d love to start with, can you talk about how institutions can strategically position themselves to really take on this charge?

Dr. Mark Brown (32:48):
That’s funny you asked that question because even though I needed a break, last weekend I spent a lot of time writing a journal article, an Educational Leader’s Guide to Implementing Micro-Credentials. So that’ll come out, I hope, in the new year. I’m doing a lot of work in this space and I mentioned about policy being an important lever. So before I give you a direct answer, I need to put a bit of context. In Europe, the European Commission has made a huge commitment to micro-credentialing right across all European member states. So we now have a common definition right across Europe of micro-credentials. And I contributed to, I had the privilege to contribute to that policy development, serving on one of their high level committees. So what we have is the architecture that perhaps in North America, whether that be Canada or the United States, is a little bit more challenging because you don’t have so much of a federal approach, if you like.

Institutional level, so having that architecture nationally in a pan-European sense really helps, is the first thing I’d say. At the institutional level, the very first thing I say in this journal article is institutional leaders or educational leaders need to understand why. Why are they interested in micro-credentials? It’s sort of like the latest shiny new thing and the fear of missing out in a similar way to MOOCs, kind of appears to be part of the discourse, but it needs to be more than that. So there are different drivers, actually the drivers are different from Europe than they are in say North America. In Europe, it’s a lot more linked to lifelong learning and employability. In the United States in particular, where I know it’s more about employability and a little bit of lifelong learning. Now some of that’s linked to who’s paying for their education, which is different across the Atlantic.

So institutional leaders need to know why, and then one of the most important things, micro-credentials aren’t exactly new, and nor is educational innovation. So what I try to do in this paper is just remind people about what we know about successful educational innovations. They require leaders who adopt a distributed approach. It requires a whole team, I’m going to quote the late Clayton Christensen here who made the comment, I think he borrowed it from the business literature. You have to decide which way you want the bus to be going, then get the right people on the bus, but also get them in the right seats. This can’t be a lone ranger approach. Sadly. I’m seeing a lot of lone ranges leading the charge with micro-credentials right now.

Dr. Cristi Ford (35:45):
Gosh, there’s so much to be said about that. I appreciate the focus on understanding the why and not allowing this to be another shiny object. I would agree with you in the North American context, that it is more so driven by the employability factor. But I think as I talk to leaders who have figured out the criticality of it for their institutions, to your point, they are the lone rangers, they are trying to build capacity and move people along. But as we think about the types of leadership and instructional structures that are required to do this well, beyond the lone ranger, so to speak, what else do you think is required in that space?

Dr. Mark Brown (36:27):
So in this particular publication, I go on to talk about internal or institutional structures, as well as business models. If anyone wants to follow up on any of this, this is a little bit of blatant self-publicity, but we maintain a website called the Micro-Credential Observatory, which has all the literature you could want in this space. I say that quite confidently because last year I led a major state-of-the-art literature review in this space, funded by the European Commission. So when we talk about structures and the why is linked to structures, what we’re seeing coming through is most institutional providers seeing micro-credentials as supplementary or complimentary to macro credentials. A macro credential being a degree. Actually they don’t have to be supplementary, they can be infused or embedded into the credential ecology. I’m going to use that metaphor again. And if you see them in a different way, a of establishing partnerships with industry stakeholders, not just short courses that don’t compete with macro credentials, then your structures will look actually quite different.

I talk about different structures using existing structures, sometimes a successful innovation will pilot initially and it will work off something you’ve already done. So your institution may already have a center for continuing education, maybe a center for lifelong learning or a history of online education, that might be where you start. But I also link it to literature that comes out of business and engineering around innovation. And there’s a distinction between H one, H two and H three innovation. H one innovation is essentially innovation around the edges of your core business of what you already do. It’s very hard to do transformative disruptive innovation in your core business. When I use the word business inverted comma’s. H two innovation is where you set up structures intentionally to challenge the way you’ve done things in the past. And then H three innovation, to give you an example, this is really more radical, probably certainly for Europe, not so much in North America, but would be to treat this almost like a business, that you would set it up completely independently and run it like a business.

So these are choices that institutional leaders have, and it depends on what you see the micro-credential as. Is it a Trojan horse for truly disrupting the 19th century credentialing model that we have, where degrees are not necessarily, to quote some of the literature, the sheepskin that gives us life chances in the way it used to. It’s called the sheepskin effect, that actually completing a degree is no longer necessarily what it is that will ensure you have a good job and a good life. And in North America, that’s certainly a driver because of the cost of degrees and also the change that we’ve seen going on in the US around people hiring on skills rather than degrees and so forth.

Dr. Cristi Ford (39:41):
So I’m hoping that we can link to this research consortium, the observatory that you talked about, so that we can make sure our listeners have access to it. And as you talk about H one, H two, H three, I wonder, as I listen to you talk, I think we have some examples of institutions or organisations who have focused in the H three realm, but I don’t think that that is even normal place for us here in North America. And then as I listen to you talk about H one and H two, all varied approaches, I wonder in terms of the sustainability component of really being able to not only just set up but sustain the micro-credentialing initiatives. Can you share with us a little bit about what you’ve seen in those three areas?

Dr. Mark Brown (40:36):
I can, because the last part of this article, I just wish it was out so I could point you to it, the last part asks the question, what could possibly go wrong?

Dr. Cristi Ford (40:46):

Dr. Mark Brown (40:47):
I refer to the three Rs, that usually university presidents take note of. First is revenue, or actually I’ll put it, reputation, recruitment and revenue. So what could go wrong is we don’t get the students that we think we might or the learners, because at the moment most institutions are so busy trying to develop the supply of micro-credentials, they don’t actually understand the demand side, is the demand truly there. In terms of then reputation, you may have to shut this whole new operation down, you also risk the reputation of your macro credentials by unbundling in some form. Ultimately this could all lead to loss of revenue costs, nowhere in the literature at the moment is there really a good analysis of the business models and the genuine costs that come with that. And in time, we’re going to have thousands of micro-credentials, so supply and demand here, and I’m not an economist, but the more supply, normally the lower the price.

So we haven’t done good costing, although universities in particular are not good at necessarily costing what a degree program costs in the first place. But there are many risks around, as you use the word sustainability here, I say that risk management practices should be your good friend, these are the things that help you mitigate risk. But it is a little bit of cowgirl and cowboy land at the moment with micro credentials.

Dr. Cristi Ford (42:27):
So Mark, as you’re talking, one of the things I realise as I’m talking because you’re so steeped in the research and we’ve had so much fluency around micro-credentialing for several years, can you unpack, just for listeners, a little bit of differentiation between macro credentials and micro-credentials, just so we make sure that we’re orienting our listeners?

Dr. Mark Brown (42:47):
Sure. I deliberately use the term macro credential when I’m talking with people who may not really understand what this micro-credentialing movement is about. So I want to establish a baseline, so a macro credential, let’s just say that’s a traditional kind of degree. micro-credentials, of course, there are decisions here because a micro-credential could be credit bearing and stackable to contribute towards a macro credential. Now at the moment, we’re seeing a mixture at best, and maybe institutions are not being as intentional as they could be. There are some great exceptions, SUNY in New York is one of those beacons that can show what’s going on, and they’re an early pioneer. But in terms of the micro-credentialing, we’ve got to be careful we just call it what’s on the tin, if it’s just a short course and there’s no credit-bearing earning potential stackability about this, what’s particularly unique.

And the best example I give of this, in 1833 in Canada, the St. John’s Ambulance first introduced a first aid certificate, that’s quality assured, it has high currency, all the things that people like to see that a micro credential has, every year in Canada, 500,000 people do the St. John’s first aid certificate. In, I’m quoting research here, 2019, 10,000 jobs in Toronto required that first aid certificate. So there’s an example that micro-credentials had been around for quite a while, a long time, no university required to be involved in that.

Dr. Cristi Ford (44:31):
Yeah. And it gets me back to the three Rs, the revenue, reputation, recognition, and to your point, it really is going to be incumbent upon us as we move forward in this work, to be able to address and be prepared for each of those three areas. So we will keep our listeners attuned and let them know when this article is out. But as you talked about the macro credential being more of the traditional space in the credit bearing space, I do know that as you co-led the global strategic partnership with Future Learn and then as that work evolved, you did see some traction in some success in creating credit bearing micro-credentialing. So as a final piece here for listeners, I’d really love to hear a little bit more about this work.

Dr. Mark Brown (45:16):
Well, to be honest, we’ve kind of moved on from that, so I’ll tell you how that’s evolved. We did offer, at my own institution, a credit bearing micro-credential in February, 2020, just before the pandemic, in the field of FinTech. And this is a European context where we want to do things differently with the micro-credential, not just unbundle the macro credential and just have the same sort of small module experience. So what we’re doing is we’re working with a consortium of 12 partner universities across Europe, as well as Tec de Monterey in Mexico. And we’re sharing our micro-learning courses across the institutions so that our students can have a true European qualification, one in which they grow in terms of intercultural competence and understanding, and in terms of added value from the macro credential, which would just come from one institution. So that’s a work in progress right now, and it’s fair to say that work wouldn’t be happening if the European Commission wasn’t funding these consortiums quite handsomely. So that particular project has about, I think we’re up to over 20 million in Euro [inaudible 00:46:30] consortium.

Dr. Cristi Ford (46:31):
Wow. So suffice to say, as my grandmother would say, you don’t let any grass grow under your feet. But to your point, it is important to understand the financial support, to be able to make this work happen. And just hearing from you, that in two years this has evolved so vastly, it’s really, really excited. And so listen, Mark, I could talk to you for another two hours, there are so many things that you are contributing to the field that I really hope that we can come back and have a follow-up conversation. But I really wanted to thank you for taking the time today to spend with us and to have such an important conversation. It was really great to spend this time with you.

Dr. Mark Brown (47:13):
Well thanks very much for having me. And if I could just indulge with one last comment, or it might be a bit of a slogan, but for listeners, I often end a talk about micro-credentials by using this expression that micro-credentials are not the big idea, they should be in the service of the big idea. So we should be talking about the big ideas, not just micro-credentials

Dr. Cristi Ford (47:38):
Agree. Agree. And so you will leave us with that as our call to action and thinking about the big ideas as a larger umbrella. And that micro-credentialing is one avenue to be able to think about the digital leakage, to your earlier point. So Mark, thank you so much for joining us. Listeners, I hope that you have had a great conversation, had a great time listening, as I’ve enjoyed hearing from you, and we will be in touch. Thanks so much again.

Dr. Mark Brown (48:08):
Thanks very much.

Dr. Cristi Ford (48:11):
You’ve been listening to Teach and Learn, a podcast for curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company, helping organisations reshape the future of educational work. To learn more about our solutions for both K through 20 and corporate institutions, please visit You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us and until next time, school’s out.

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