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MSPnet Blog: “Micro-credentialing: In which I learn a new buzzword”

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posted March 14, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

Scanning the edublogosphere I visited Anthony Cody’s “Living in dialogue,” and found there his post (from last November!) on competency-based education.  When I’d heard this term before, I associated it with “minimum competency testing,” much in vogue in years past (the Google has plenty of references, but here’s an opinion piece from 1979, to bring you  back to yesteryear).

I was wrong, though.  In the current parlance, “competency-based education” has been combined with notions such as standards, accountability, big data, ‘personalized education,’  and ‘anytime, anywhere, any-pace learning.’  In this syndrome, “what students should know and be able to do”  is decomposed into discrete bits, or “competencies,” which perhaps are represented in a “competency map” which could be a re-representation of (say) the Next Gen Sci Standards.  The educational consumer decides what competency they want to gain next (see, personalized!), finds the appropriate curriculum module, and then demonstrates their acquisition of the competency.  This most likely will be done through an automated evaluation system, which may include some implementation of a portfolio assessment, probably in the form of an electronic portfolio, though not necessarily. This is the way to address the rising resistance to big, centralized, standardized tests.   Oh, there are so many avenues to explore here!  I will for the nonce restrain myself to the buzzword in my title.

Micro-credentialing. Naturally, some people see this “competency” approach as very promising for teacher education as well as for students.  Most thoughtful people recognize that “learning” is integral to “teaching,” so teacher PD can’t stop with graduation from ed school (or licensure by some alternative path).  But in-service as customarily conducted tends to be unsatisfactory, and high-quality in-service is so expensive and hard!  Well,then,  let’s create a competency map for teachers, and use it as the entry into a “micro-credentialing system.”  Then the busy teacher can decide on some new “competency” to acquire, then go to the micro-credential provider, “do” the module, submit the proof of mastery to the provider, and then receive the “micro-credential” — the description from Bloomboard and Getting Smart made me think back to Boy Scouts and merit badges, and in fact one can see such systems described as “badge-based.”

The advocates are clear that teachers suffer under “one-size fits all” workshops, have no chance to document their professional growth (defined as specific skills or competencies; need stimulus to improve their practice; don’t get the recognition they deserve for growth in “their craft” ( the scare-quotes will be motivated below);  and don’t have much time for learning in their busy schedules.

The more I read about this, the more it ramifies. The marketing opportunities are obvious, and make my antennae quiver in alarm, but the description of the niche being targeted is worth considering.  There is general agreement that teachers need to learn as they teach and  that teacher PD is rarely (never?) given the respect (in terms of time, investment, good design, etc.) that it should have.    Moreover, the increasing burden of state-mandated accountability is by all accounts a major source of distress and discouragement among teachers (made all the worse when combined as it so often is with irresponsible “austerity” policies).  (A relative of mine who teaches in a Florida high school, says that “teachers are just flooding out of the system.”)

So a fresh alternative that returns some control to the individual teacher, fits into their busy schedule, and enables them to bolster their qualifications, will of course be very attractive, at least as a concept. Indeed, the general approach receives support from serious scholars of education policy (see this paper from 2014 by Linda Darling-Hammond et al., which also uses the “badge” language).

But as I read the advocacy papers and “reports” and blog posts about micro-credentialing, it seems to me that this whole idea is firmly in the grip of The Market, which continues to be an object of near-universal reverence in this country. Take some quality, and quantify it by segmentation and differentiation, into many small pieces that can be differentiated and re-assembled as a product line. Describe the learning process as a matter of mastering “craft” skills and discrete “competencies” which are modular and particulate.

The product line is then made available, and constantly modified, by a “vendor,” whose only accountability is that of the market — differential success in competition, and growing market share and revenues, based in some part on the customer satisfaction (aka “self report” ) and in some part on evidence of actual positive results.  To the extent possible, automate the process,which itself opens a rich field for marketing and sales.

Perhaps I sound skeptical.  I’d love to hear from people who can set me right, especially with some personal experience of their benefiting from an approach like this.  Maybe I’m succumbing to the romance of Town Meeting season here in New England,* but I believe that even fairly bad ideas can be critiqued and improved by broad debate, and this is yet another area where democratic process could help clarify ends and means.

* NOT to be confused with “town hall meetings” that politicians so love to hold.