Learners can engage with a micro-credential beyond being the recipients of training. This chapter explains how to leverage their participation to improve programs.

Chapter Audience:

  • program managers icon Program Managers
  • Faculty

What Are “Students as Partners”?

Learners are sometimes thought of as mere recipients of training. However, an increasing number of institutions are viewing them as partners rather than as just end-users. As a reflection of this, the term “students as partners” is now used extensively in the education literature (Cook-Sather et al., 2018; Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017), and McMaster University has created the International Journal for Students as Partners dedicated to exploring this topic.

In their book Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty, Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten describe the learner-staff partnership as “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (2014, pp. 6-7).

Why Collaborate with Learners

The many reasons for engaging learners as partners are described in the literature. Some are values-based, citing the desire to break down hierarchies and reduce power imbalances at the institution (Matthews et al., 2018). There is evidence that institutions that engage in the practice of “students as partners” can foster a greater sense of community, with increased trust between learners, and between learners and staff (Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017). While some have cautioned that the movement to view learners as partners is based on a neoliberal perspective on the role of post-secondary education (i.e., seeing learners as customers) (Matthews et al., 2019), research suggests that institutions that engage in this practice do so to reflect their democratic ideologies (i.e., learners’ and staff’s desire for more transparent communication and understanding) (Gravett et al., 2020).

Engaging learners as partners is also seen as a way to disrupt the system, bring about cultural reform, and facilitate change (Matthews et al., 2018). Indeed, there is evidence that engaging in “students as partners” practices can transform faculty thinking about teaching and learning, opening their understanding to the views of learners (Harrington et al., 2014).

Some institutions use a “students as partners” strategy to promote the growth of their learners. There is evidence that serving as partners can boost learners’ confidence, develop their sense of self-efficacy, and improve their motivation to learn as well as their learning outcomes (Harrington et al., 2014; Kuh, 2008).

Finally, learners are often consulted with a more pragmatic goal: To probe their perspectives and knowledge to improve a program. Learners’ perspectives can inform a wide range of topics, from improving the curriculum and/or teaching, to linking institutions with work and employers, to addressing diversity and inclusion issues in the program (Bovill, 2019; Bovill et al., 2011; Felten et al., 2014; Healey et al., 2016).

Consulting with learners to improve the design of a program reflects a design thinking approach, also known as human-centred design (Interaction Design Foundation, n.d.). Proponents of design thinking emphasize the importance of involving end-users throughout the design of new products and services. No matter how well intentioned they are, designers risk relying on erroneous assumptions in their work. Hence the need to collect data to understand the user perspective. Designers are encouraged to talk to prospective users to identify the pain points that lead them to seek the product or service. This approach helps designers prioritize what’s most important to users. Then, having identified and defined the problem from the user’s perspective, designers brainstorm different ways to address these pain points and prototype a few options. Finally, designers observe users engaging with a prototype to learn how users are engaging with the product or service, which may differ from the designers’ intended or anticipated interaction. Adopting a design thinking approach and involving users throughout the design and development stages maximizes the chances that the final product will match user needs and expectations, leading to a successful outcome.

What Roles Can Learners Play in a Micro-credential?

Prospective, current, and past learners can provide valuable information about their needs and expectations for the training, including their response to proposed curriculum or curriculum changes, the choice of employer partner, the learning management system, instructors, and the program’s marketing plan. Consulting with learners can ensure that the program meets their need.

Learners can also play a role in mentoring the next cohort, promoting the program, bridging relationships with new employer groups, educating employers about micro-credentials, and even serving as future instructors. Involving learners in various ways has the added benefit of creating a sense of community and establishing networks that can support the ongoing success of the program.

Here is a list of some of the roles to consider for learners during a micro-credential project.

Curriculum Design

  • Participate in focus groups to identify learning and employment needs.
  • Inform the design phase of the curriculum.
  • Provide feedback on a prototype course and its learning materials.
  • Run a survey or focus group during the evaluation stage.

Program Marketing

  • Survey prospective learners to identify an appropriate price point for the program.
  • Ask prospective learners about the channels that would be most likely to reach this audience and the messages that will capture their attention.
  • Solicit testimonials from past learners who find the micro-credential useful.
  • Create learner case studies that showcase the journey and success of past learners.

Community Development

  • Foster connections between past, present, and future cohorts. Create working spaces (virtual or physical) for making those connections.
  • Encourage past learners to introduce micro-credentials to their employer, serving to educate employers, and become advocates for the credential.
  • Ask learners to solicit feedback from their employers about how the training impacted their performance in the workplace, as well as areas where further improvement may be needed.
  • Ask learners whether anyone in their work environment might make a good instructor for the micro-credential.
  • Recruit instructors from past learners.

Credential Ownership

  • Ask learners to share their micro-credential on LinkedIn and other social media.
  • Show learners how to curate the presentation of the micro-credential record so it tells a compelling story to employers who may not be familiar with micro-credentials.

How to Collaborate with Learners

The literature seems in agreement with Cook-Sather, Bovill, and Felten’s (2014)’s proposal that three values should underpin the development of learner-staff partnerships:

  • Respect;
  • Responsibility;
  • Reciprocity[1].

Matthews (2017) used past research to guide her proposal of best practices in treating “students as partners.” According to her work, practitioners should espouse the following principles:

  1. Foster inclusive partnerships;
  2. Nurture power-sharing relationships through dialogue and reflection;
  3. Accept partnership as a process with uncertain outcomes;
  4. Engage in ethical partnerships;
  5. Enact partnership for transformation.

To plan learner partnerships and make clear the roles and responsibilities, Bovill (2017) suggests developing a participation matrix to summarize the nature of learner engagement in each phase of a project. Drawing from a scale of participant engagement used in international development, Bovill categorizes participation in one of four categories: Inform, Consult, Participate, and Partnership. These engagement levels are defined in the following manner (adapted from Last, 2019):

  • Inform. Provide learners with balanced and objective information about the project, the problem, and possible solutions. (There is no opportunity for learner input or decision-making.)
  • Consult. Gather feedback on the information provided. Level of input can range from minimal interaction (such as online surveys) to more extensive. Engagement can be a one-time opportunity or an ongoing/iterative process in which learners’ input is incorporated into the decision-making process.)
  • Participate. Work directly with learners during the process to ensure that their concerns and desired outcomes are fully understood and factored in at each stage. Final decisions are still made by the institution, but input from learners is carefully considered.
  • Partnership. Partner with learners at each stage of the decision-making, including developing alternative solutions and choosing the preferred solution together. Goal is to achieve consensus regarding decisions.

Bovill then creates a table that lists each phase of a project and clarifies learner involvement at each stage, with a final column specifying who has control of each phase. An example is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Example of how the Bovill (2017) framework can be used to plan learner participation in a micro-credential. Modified from Bovill (2017), CC BY.
Stages of Micro-credential Project Level of Involvement
Inform Consult Participate Partnership Control
Needs Assessment Focus group (n=6)
Curriculum Design Member of design team (n=2)
Curriculum Development Pilot testers (n=2)
Marketing and Promotion Surveys (n=25) Institution
Learning Recognition Focus group (n=6)
Alumni Community All learners Alumni and institution design and administer an alumni community together Co-led

Bovill has also created a learner participation framework that is specific to learner engagement in curriculum design (Bovill & Bulley, 2011). This model proposes levels of participation based on Arnstein’s “eight rungs on a ladder of participation” (1969), which range from having no voice in the curriculum (bottom levels) to taking ownership of the curriculum (top levels). Using this model, instructional designers can choose the appropriate level of involvement of learners, employers, and others in curriculum design for their context. The eight levels are:

  1. Learners in control of the curriculum.
  2. Learners co-create the curriculum in partnership with instructor.
  3. Learners control some areas of choice.
  4. Learners control prescribed areas of choice.
  5. Learners have many choices from a set of prescribed options.
  6. Learners have limited choice from a set of prescribed options.
  7. Participation is claimed, but the instructor is in control.
  8. The curriculum is dictated by the instructor (i.e., no interaction).

Often, learners are consulted as part of a group process with other stakeholders. The methods used to involve learners will depend on the goals of the engagement (Bovill, 2019). Some utilize large groups, others use small groups, some may be a one-time consultation, while others may put learners in charge of making decisions.

Several toolkits can guide the process of soliciting input from diverse stakeholder groups. These toolkits provide structure for the engagement. Two are suggested below (additional resources for these two toolkits are provided in the Suggested Resources section).

  • Liberating Structures is a popular, open-access collection of 33 techniques for engaging groups of people. It values distributed control of the conversation and ensures that all the voices are heard and considered.
  • The design thinking community is very active in creating and sharing techniques to engage end-users and collect their feedback throughout the design of a new product or service. Two such toolkits are shared in the Suggested Resources section, including the freely accessible DesignKit by IDEO.org.

Suggested Resources

Learner Perspectives on Micro-credentials

This short article provides a glimpse into learners’ perspectives on micro-credentials – what they hope the sector will provide to meet their needs.

Oxley, K., & van Rooyen, T. (2021). Making micro-credentials work: A student perspective. Journal of Teaching and Learning for Graduate Employability,12(1), 44–47. https://ojs.deakin.edu.au/index.php/jtlge/article/view/1321/1376

Liberating Structures

The Liberating Structures toolkit is a widely used repository of 33 techniques for engaging groups in conversation and tapping into their collective expertise to solve problems. The toolkit is available as a hard copy, but all of the techniques are also described online as an open-access, user-friendly website.

Lipmanowicz, H., & McCandless, K. (2014). The surprising power of Liberating Structures: Simple rules to unleash a culture of innovation. Liberating Structures Press. https://www.liberatingstructures.com/

This article provides a thorough overview of Liberating Structures. It can serve as a good introduction to their use.

Gill, L. (2017). What are Liberating Structures? Medium. https://reimaginaire.medium.com/what-are-liberating-structures-de6f6d14c2c8

Design Thinking

This easy-to-read book uses storytelling from years of experience implementing design thinking to demonstrate how to apply the approach and its benefits. The two authors cofounded IDEO and the d.school at Stanford University and are experts in the practice of design thinking.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2015). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. William Collins.

The following article in Slate magazine is an abbreviated version of the book, written by the authors.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Kids were terrified of getting MRIs. Then one man figured out a better way. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/10/creative-confidence-a-new-book-from-ideo-s-tom-and-david-kelley.html

Written by the leading institution of design thinking, the DesignKit toolkit of over 50 techniques that can be applied to all five phases of design thinking. Each technique is described briefly in a single page. The book can be purchased in hard copy format, but can also be downloaded for free in PDF format from the IDEO website.

IDEO.org (2015). The field guide to human centered design: A step-by-step guide that will get you solving problems like a designer. DesignKit. https://www.designkit.org/resources/1.html

This well-structured book provides over 100 methods that can be used when adopting a design thinking approach. Each is described in one to two pages in a step-by-step fashion.

Kumar, V. (2013). 101 design methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Works Cited

Arnstein, S. R. (1969), A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944366908977225

Bovill, C. (2017). A framework to explore roles within student-staff partnerships in higher education: Which students are partners, when, and in what ways? International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1). https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/ijsap/article/view/3062

Bovill, C. (2019). Student-staff partnerships in learning and teaching: An overview of current practices and discourse. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 43(4), 385–398. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2019.1660628

Bovill, C., & Bulley, C. J. (2011). A model of active student participation in curriculum design: Exploring desirability and possibility. In: Rust, C. (ed.) Improving Student Learning (ISL) 18: Global Theories and Local Practices: Institutional, Disciplinary and Cultural Variations (Improving Student Learning, 18). Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 176-188. https://eprints.gla.ac.uk/57709/

Bovill, C., Cook‐Sather, A., & Felten, P. (2011). Students as co‐creators of teaching approaches, course design, and curricula: Implications for academic developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 16(2), 133–145, https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2011.568690.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. Jossey-Bass.

Cook-Sather, A., Matthews, K. E., Ntem, A., & Leathwick, S. (2018). What we talk about when we talk about students as partners. International Journal for Students as Partners, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v2i2.3790

Felten, Peter, et al. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ubc/detail.action?docID=1650837.

Gravett, K., Kinchin, I. M., and Winstone, N. E. (2020). ‘More than customers’: Conceptions of students as partners held by students, staff, and institutional leaders. Studies in Higher Education, 45(12), 2574–2587, https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1623769.

Harrington, K., Flint, A., & Healey, M. (2014). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. Higher Education Academy, University of York. http://repository.londonmet.ac.uk/5176/

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. (2016). Students as partners: Reflections on a conceptual model. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(2):8–20. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.3.

Interaction Design Foundation (n.d.). What is design thinking. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Last, S. (2019). Stakeholder engagement and consultation. Ch. 5.5 in Technical writing essentials. BCcampus. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/

Matthews, K. E. (2017). Five propositions for genuine students as partners practice. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.15173/ijsap.v1i2.3315

Matthews, K. E., Dwyer, A., Hine, L., & Turner, J. (2018). Conceptions of students as partners. Higher Education, 76(6), 957–971. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-018-0257-y

Matthews, K. E., Dwyer, A., Russell, S., & Enright, E. (2019). It is a complicated thing: Leaders’ conceptions of students as partners in the neoliberal university. Studies in Higher Education, 44(12), 2196–2207. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2018.1482268.

Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, L. S., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., & Swaim, K. (2017). A systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1). https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/handle/10453/162694

  1. Bovill (2017) later revised this and argued that reciprocity is not always possible or even desirable in a learner-staff partnership.


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