This chapter provides an overview of important concepts as well as global and local efforts to define micro-credentials.

Chapter Audience:

  • administrator icon Administrators
  • program managers icon Program Managers
  • Faculty

What Is a Micro-credential?

The first thing to note is that there is no universally agreed-on definition of micro-credentials (Colleges and Institutes Canada, 2021; Contact North, 2020; Duklas, 2020; Future Skills Centre, 2022; Nguyen et al., 2022; Oliver, 2019; Pichette et al., 2021). Because micro-credentials are new, many organizations and jurisdictions have defined them in a way that suits their needs and context (Chakroun & Keevy, 2018; Commonwealth of Australia, 2019; D’Orio, 2019; eCampus Ontario; European Commission, 2020; European Higher Education Area, 2022; European MOOC Consortium, 2019; International Council of Distance Education, 2019; Kato et al., 2020; Malaysian Qualifications Agency, 2020; MicroHE, 2019; Nova Scotia, n.d.; New Zealand Qualifications Authority, n.d.; Pichette, 2021; Saskatchewan, 2021; State University of New York, n.d.; The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2021). This can cause confusion since the term “micro-credential” can refer to different things in different documents. This lack of consensus also hampers efforts to raise awareness about micro-credentials, build trust, and move this new type of credential forward (Oliver 2019; 2022).

There are areas of commonality across definitions, however. Oliver (2022) identified these areas to create a consensus definition on behalf of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Her goal was to develop an authoritative international understanding of micro-credentials.

Oliver studied 15 definitions published in policy documents around the world (including Canada) and distilled common elements. She enlisted the help of 45 international experts (several of them Canadian) to discuss each element. Their conversations resulted in the following definition (Oliver, 2022, p. 20):

“A micro-credential:

  • Is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands, or can do.
  • Includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider.
  • Has standalone value and may also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning.
  • Meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance.”

The group was unable to agree on some issues. For example, the definition does not specify a duration for a micro-credential but describes it as “focused.” Many advocate that micro-credentials be aligned with the demonstration of competencies, irrespective of the time required to learn them. In this context, “focused” indicates a narrow scope for the learning, reflecting the “micro” nature of micro-credentials.

The expert panel also could not agree on whether prior learning should be recognized with a micro-credential (see NAIT Innovates with Direct Assessment to Offer Micro-credentials in the Educational Pathways chapter) or whether it should be awarded only on completion of training. There were conversations about the place of micro-credentials in the existing credential ecosystem and whether they supplement or replace existing credentials. The group also disagreed about trusted providers who could award micro-credentials, since some operate outside the regulated education sector (e.g., commercial entities, private providers, professional bodies, and community organizations).

Finally, there were conversations about the place of quality assurance in the definition of a micro-credential. This element is not included in the definition of other credentials. The group chose to include quality assurance in its definition. Oliver concluded, “Micro is the distinguishing feature of micro-credentials, but to be accepted and trusted, they must be seen to bear the quality hallmarks of credentials” (Oliver, 2022, p. 24). In other words, the distinction between micro- and macro-credentials (i.e., certificates, diplomas, and degrees) may be a matter only of scope and scale, and the inclusion of quality assurance in the definition is needed to build trust in this new type of credential.

The group’s definition outlined the core elements that make up a micro-credential, but practitioners may want more information about the logistics of putting it in practice: the where, who, and how of micro-credentials. These elements are addressed in Oliver (2019). Figure 1 is a visual overview of these elements of a micro-credential.

The expert panel discussed some of the options in Figure 1 (Oliver, 2022), but they did not agree on whether a micro-credential should include all of them. For example, the “what” options in Figure 1 suggest a micro-credential can be used to recognize new or existing knowledge and skills, but not everyone on the panel agreed.

Figure 1. The what, where, who, and how of micro-credentials. Each aspect of a micro-credential can take many forms, as shown in the options on the right-hand side. Source: Oliver (2019, p. 17). CC BY-ND. [Image description]

B.C. Micro-credential Definition and Framework

Adopting a shared understanding of micro-credentials is important to the B.C. post-secondary system. A consistent approach across institutions will ensure institutional efforts to develop micro-credentials align with funding opportunities. It will facilitate learner movement between institutions as they use micro-credentials to pursue their education, and it will reduce confusion among learners, employers, and Indigenous and community partners.

To support the development of micro-credentials in B.C., the province consulted post-secondary institutions and other stakeholders. The resulting Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System (2021) proposed a shared definition of micro-credentials:

Micro-credentials recognize standalone, short-duration learning experiences that are competency-based; align with industry, employer, community and/or Indigenous community needs; and can be assessed and recognized for employment or learning purposes. (p. 6)

The framework defines terms like short duration. While the duration of a micro-credential is not set, the program should be less than 288 hours.

The framework indicates that assessment is a necessary component of a micro-credential to ensure competencies are achieved.

It also says micro-credentials may be credit-bearing or not credit-bearing and that they should be assessed using the institution’s relevant quality assurance processes for credit- and non-credit programs.

The framework encourages collaboration with relevant partners such as employers and community or Indigenous organizations to develop curriculum and assess program quality. It encourages institutions to build connections between micro-credentials and their credential ecosystems to create pathways for learners that increase educational opportunities.

Toolkit Alignment with the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021)

This toolkit covers several aspects of the principles described in the Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System. Table 1 outlines the connections between the framework and this toolkit.

Table 1. Connections between the Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System and this toolkit.
Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System Toolkit Chapter
Duration Institutional Governance
Delivery Design Considerations
Collaboration and coordination Financial Matters
Campus Collaborations
Employers, Indigenous and Community Partners
Inter-institutional Collaborations
Quality assurance Institutional Governance
Quality Assurance
Assessment Design Considerations
Educational Pathways
Recognition of Learning
Registry Educational Pathways
Learning pathways Educational Pathways
Prior learning assessment and recognition Educational Pathways
Post-secondary system recognition and transfer Educational Pathways
Recognition of Learning
Guiding Principles
Access Financial Matters
Educational Pathways
Quality Institutional Governance
Quality Assurance
Relevance Marketing and Launch
Employers, Indigenous and Community Partners
Collaboration and coordination Financial Matters
Campus Collaborations
Employers, Indigenous and Community Partners
Inter-institutional Collaborations
Employer and industry engagement Employers, Indigenous and Community Partners
Clarity and transparency Marketing and Launch
Institutional Governance
Quality Assurance


As an emerging credential, some of the terms associated with micro-credentials are in flux. In a B.C. context, most confusion can be resolved by referring to the definition of a micro-credential in the Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System. Additional disambiguation of terms and concepts are provided below.

Micro-credentials and Digital Badges

The terms micro-credential and digital badge are sometimes used interchangeably (Duklas, 2020; Weaver, 2021). In other contexts, digital badges are seen as a “micro” micro-credential (i.e., digital badges are envisioned as tiny programs that can be stacked towards a micro-credential) (Presant, 2023).

However, a distinction is emerging, with micro-credential used to refer to the program and digital badge to the recognition of learning awarded to learners (Galindo, 2023; University at Buffalo, n.d.). In other words, a digital badge is to a micro-credential what a transcript is to a degree. The chapter Recognition of Learning provides more details about this distinction. You can also read about two B.C. post-secondary institutions’ definition of these terms – which aligns with this distinction – in the chapter Institutional Governance: Stories from the B.C. Post-secondary Sector (see UBCO’s Development of a New Micro-credential Policy and the UFV’s Development of a New Micro-credential Policy).

Credit and Non-credit Micro-credentials

The Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System defines micro-credentials as either credit-bearing or non-credit-bearing. This is not unique to B.C. Many definitions of micro-credentials include both credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing options (see Bigelow et al., 2002; McGreal & Olcott, 2022).

This can pose a challenge, since most institutions have different systems, policies, and procedures for administering the two types of programs. Quality assurance and approval processes, the responsibility for managing them, and who is allowed to teach each type of program can differ substantially. Institutions should be aware of this element when developing policies and procedures for micro-credentials. Some institutions have different policies for credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing micro-credentials (see the chapter Institutional Governance: Practical Guide).

Using one term — micro-credentials — to refer to programs that bear credits and some that do not can creates confusion, especially for institutions where different governance processes apply. With time, the language may evolve to differentiate the two types of programs. For now, both are called micro-credentials.

Continuing Education and Micro-credentials

Another point of confusion is the distinction between continuing education or contract training programs and micro-credentials. In some cases, there is no distinction. Recent surveys of Canadian post-secondary institutions found that more than half of micro-credentials are offered through schools of continuing education (Colleges and Institutes Canada, 2021; Duklas, 2020; Pichette et al., 2021).

In these cases, micro-credentials are a subset of the programs offered through continuing education. To be a micro-credential, a continuing education program must conform to the definition of a micro-credential. According to the Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System, the program should be competency-based, aligned with external stakeholders, and formally assess learners. The latter element is not a component of every continuing education program.

Micro-credentials are meant to create educational pathways for learners. Providing laddering opportunities between micro-credentials and macro-credentials may require tighter collaboration between continuing education and the rest of an institution. This is one of the ways in which micro-credentials differ from traditional continuing education programs. Figure 1 in the chapter Educational Pathways provides an overview of different learning opportunities, including continuing education courses and micro-credentials, and explains how one type of program may connect learners to larger educational opportunities.

Micro-credential Providers

Post-secondary institutions are not the only providers of micro-credentials (Contact North, 2020). Micro-credential programs are also offered by companies, non-profit organizations, private educational organizations, professional bodies, and licensing organizations.

Some are offered in partnership with post-secondary institutions; others are offered independently. Some faculty include micro-credentials offered by outside providers as a requirement for completing an undergraduate or graduate course to help learners gain work-ready skills (Bell, 2017; McCaffery et al., 2020). Often, these training opportunities are not recognized by the institution, so it can be difficult to report on the adoption of micro-credentials.

When we talk about micro-credentials in this toolkit, we refer to programs that are developed and offered by post-secondary institutions. It’s important to recognize these are not the only type of micro-credential available. Sometimes micro-credentials offered by other organizations make their way into academic coursework.

Micro-credential Typology

Micro-credentials vary in their purpose, or in why learners register to complete them.

Pichette et al. (2021) recognizes four purposes for micro-credentials:

  • As pathways toward a formal qualification (e.g., a bridging program);
  • To update previous qualifications (e.g., incorporate emerging practice or knowledge into professional practice);
  • To gain a technical skill (e.g., how to use a software program);
  • To develop transferable skills (e.g., communication skills).

Micro-credentials serve other purposes, too. Based a recent analysis of micro-credentials in Canada, Contact North (2023) identified 10 kinds of micro-credentials. Some additional categories are:

  • “Teaser” micro-credentials, which serve a recruitment purpose and showcase larger programs offered by an institution;
  • Assessment-only microcredentials, which are not concerned with where and when a learner picks up a competency but only with their ability to demonstrate proficiency (see NAIT Innovates with Direct Assessment to Offer Micro-credentials in the chapter Educational Pathways);
  • Pick-n-choose micro-credentials that give learners flexibility in creating a custom program to address their individual needs.

It is important to recognize this diversity because it impacts how people in the field think about micro-credentials. The type of micro-credential influences how it is designed and administered. For example, for a micro-credential designed as a pathway toward a formal qualification, the institution must ensure that the program is credit-bearing, recorded on a formal transcript, and can ladder into larger learning opportunities. Micro-credentials that are focused on gaining a technical skill may not include laddering opportunities; it may be more important to provide authentic, work-aligned assessments, and a digital badge that the learner owns and can share with employers.

Micro-credentials are not homogenous. They are short-term, work- or community-aligned, competency-based, assessed trainings that vary in their goals and how they are constructed.

Suggested Resources

Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021)

The Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System is an essential reference when engaging in micro-credential work in the province. It provides a consistent approach to the development and evolution of micro-credentials in B.C.:

B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training. (2021). Micro-credential Framework for B.C.’s Public Post-secondary Education System.

International Efforts to Define Micro-Credentials

Although there are many definitions for micro-credentials, the authority in this field is Beverley Oliver. Two of her reports are described in some depth in this chapter:

Oliver, B. (2019). Making Micro-credentials Work for Learners, Employers, and Providers. Deakin University.

Oliver, B. (2022). Towards a Common Definition of Micro-credentials. UNESCO.

Works Cited

Bell III, T. J. (2017). Integrating third party-certification with traditional MBA curriculum, defining value and encouraging innovative programs — A theoretical study. International Journal of Higher Education Management, 4(1), 19–25.

Bigelow, A., Booth, C., Brockerhoff-Macdonald, B., Cormier, D., Dinsmore, C., Grey, S., … & Zahedi, E. (2022). What are, aren’t and might be micro-credentials? In eCampusOntario’s Micro-credential Toolkit.

Chakroun, B., & J. Keevy. (2018). Digital credentialing: Implications for the recognition of learning across borders. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Colleges and Institutes Canada. (2021). The status of microcredentials in Canadian colleges and institutes: Environmental scan report.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2019). Review of the Australian Qualifications Framework final report 2019. Commonwealth of Australia.

Contact North. (2020). Ten facts you need to know about micro-credentials.

Contact North. (2023). 10 kinds of micro-credentials.

D’Orio, W. (2019). What’s in a microcredential? EducationDive, Credential Engine.

Duklas, J. (2020). Micro-credentials: Trends in credit transfer and credentialing. Report prepared for the British Columbia Council on Admissions & Transfer.

European Commission. (2020). A European approach to micro-credentials: Output of the Micro-credentials Higher Education Consultation Group. Final Report.

European Higher Education Area. (2022). European Project MICROBOL: Micro-credentials linked to the Bologna Key Commitments. Common Framework for Micro-credentials in the EHEA, European University Association.

European MOOC Consortium. (2019). The European MOOC Consortium (EMC) launches a common micro-credential framework (CMF) to create portable credentials for lifelong learners.

Future Skills Centre. (2022). Microcredentials in flux: Challenges, opportunities and insights from the FSC’s portfolio. Learning Bulletin.

Galindo, M. (2023). The Relationship Between Digital Badges and Micro-credentials. Digital Promise.

International Council of Distance Education. (2019). Report of the ICDE Working Group on the present and future of alternative digital credentials (ADCs). International Council of Distance Education.

Kato, S., Galán-Muros, V., & Weko, T. (2020). The emergence of alternative credentials. OECD Publishing.

Malaysian Qualifications Agency. (2020). Guidelines to good practices: Micro-credentials in Malaysia. Malaysian Qualifications Agency.

McCaffery, R. N., Backus, L., & Maxwell, N. (2020). Embedding industry certifications into community college programs. New Directions for Community Colleges, 189, 53–66.

McGreal, R., & Olcott, D. Jr. (2022). A strategic reset: Micro-credentials for higher education leaders. Smart Learning Environments, 9, 9.

MicroHE. (2019). Challenges and opportunities of micro-credentials in Europe: Briefing paper on the award, recognition, portability and accreditation of micro-credentials: An investigation through interviews with key stakeholders & decision makers (6th ed.).

New Zealand Qualifications Authority. (n.d.). Micro-credentials.

Nguyen, T. N. H., Spittle, M., Watt, A., & Van Dyke, N. (2022). A systematic literature review of micro-credentials in higher education: A non-zero-sum game. Higher Education Research & Development.

Nova Scotia. (n.d.) Microcredentials.

Pichette, J., Brumwell, S., Rizk, J., & Han, S. (2021). Making sense of micro-credentials. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Presant. D. (2023). Credential Stacking Hint: Programs Aren’t Courses. Littoraly Don.

Saskatchewan. (2021). Saskatchewan’s guide to micro-credentials.

State University of New York. (n.d.). Our story: Building SUNY’s microcredential program and initial lessons learned.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. (2021). Which way for micro-credentials? Quality Compass. London, Quality Assurance Agency.

Weaver, K. (2021). 6 common misconceptions about microcredentials and stackable credentialing. The Evolllution.

Image Description

Figure 1. The what, where, who, and how of micro-credentials.

Types and Brands: MOOCs, short courses, bootcamps, intensives, masterclasses, nano degrees and more…

  • What: validate new knowledge and skills, validate prior knowledge and skills
  • Where: online, onsite, onsite and online
  • By: traditional education providers, industry providers, private providers
  • With: paper certificate, digital certificate, digital badge
  • As: stand-alone validation, or validation that interacts with a formal qualification
    • Before: admission, preparation, credit pathway
    • During: additional certifications, adding distinctions
    • After: last mile services to secure employment

[Return to Figure 1]

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