Eduvation Blog

Dreams of Microgravity and Microcredit

Good morning, and happy hump day!

Today you might want to spare a thought for Black Cats (who have it rough this week), perhaps to wear purple for Dress Purple Day (to raise awareness for Children’s Aid Societies, in Ontario at least), or even to observe “Cranky Co-Workers Day” (which is apparently best celebrated “through inaction,” although you can also share angry cat memes in their honour).

This is also “Open Access Week,” and while I could fittingly explore OERs, open access journals, and much else – I’ve been meaning to revisit the subject of microcredentials since February. But as a higher ed futurist, I can’t ignore a whole new kind of “open access” announced earlier this week…



Orbital Business Park

Perhaps you remember the incredible April 1 2014 announcement of SFU’s “Semester in Space” program, which invited applications to its new “satellite campus… in orbit.” (I featured SFU’s “launch” video in my 2016 roundup, “Ten Kinds of April Foolery,” and it’s definitely worth a watch, ICYMI.) SFU’s announcement was of course intended to be quite literally “incredible,” but this one appears to be serious…



Blue Origin’s “Orbital Reef”

The 20-year-old, $100B International Space Station will be retired by 2030 (in case your institution is looking for a real estate bargain), when NASA will start outsourcing to private industry. Axiom Space is already on it, and Lockheed Martin announced its own commercial space station, “StarLab,” last week. On Monday, Blue Origin (the space tourism company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos that sent Captain Kirk into orbit for a few minutes this month) announced its “Orbital Reef” project, which will put a “mixed-use business park” and “space hotel” in orbit by “the second half of this decade.” Blue Origin will partner with Boeing, Sierra Space and others – and Arizona State U, who is heading an international consortium of 15 universities, to guide the scientific research agenda, likely including microgravity manufacturing, agriculture, and pharmaceuticals. (Their first task: research ethics guidelines.) So far, the Orbital Reef University Advisory Council includes just 2 non-US institutions: Oxford and the International Space University. Orbital Reef will start out 90% the size of the ISS, accommodating 10 crew in 3 inflatable modules with “public/private zoning.” The overly spacious renders are still very much at the early concept stage (drawing plenty of criticism from skeptics), but the idea certainly does suggest an inspiring new frontier for university research parks. (The 4-min announcement videois only slightly more credible than SFU’s, but has some striking CGI.)  Arizona State U  |  Blue Origin  |  New York Times  |  Forbes  |  CBC  |  YouTube  |


“The microgravity environment presents an entirely new arena for commercial and scientific development, making Orbital Reef the platform that will launch new technologies and capabilities, dramatically improving life on Earth while enabling humanity’s journey to the stars.”Mike Gold, Executive VP for Civil Space and External Affairs, Redwire Space



MicroCred Dreams

In some ways, the dream of a universal system of transferable, stackable, competency-based microcredentials is just as much an unattainable “moon shot” as an orbital research park. I’ve returned several times to the subject of Microcredentials since this newsletter began, and you can check out the Microcredentials Recap for all of it in one place. But since the last time (in February), a few things have started to crystallize for me, and I want to take a couple of days to explore them…


Learning as Play

The elusive “final frontier” of competency-based credentialing would be a system of stackable “nanocredits” that learners could acquire at their own pace, in whatever sequence answers their own personal curiosity, à la carte from a whole range of college, university, K-12 or commercial sources. These electronic (likely blockchain) badges would indicate mastery of specific skills, competencies or content, at a much more granular level than the traditional academic course, and cloud-based learning portfolios would consist of literally thousands of badges. Instead of focusing students on (sometimes demotivating) summative assessments, this modular approach to credentialing learning would gamify education, bringing a self-directed “growth mindset” to academic transcripts, and focusing learners instead on the steady exploration of new material. (Personally, I spent years of my childhood playing with Lego blocks, back in the days before licensed playsets that came with prescriptive assembly instructions. That’s the difference between inquiry-based, self-directed, lifelong learning and our traditional curricular models.)


Elusive Nanocredits

This idea, of stackable nanocredits for learning at the sub-course level, has been floated many times, but has seldom made it past the drawing board. York’s Tracey Taylor O’Reilly helpfully distinguishes between “endogenous” microcredit (which constitute building blocks towards traditional certificates, diplomas or degrees) and “exogenous” ones (which are often merely non-credit add-ons, like co-curricular records or some postgraduate certificates). Exogenous examples are few and far between. About a decade ago, Algonquin College was discussing “Provincial Learning Units” as a much more granular way to improve credit transfer between institutions than course equivalencies, to save students wasted time and effort retaking material, and hence to save government money. (I first read about the idea in one of Algonquin’s earliest Strategic Mandate Agreements, but it seems to have changed significantly by the time a pilot project was funded in 2014.) Arizona State U (yes, the same innovator leaping into orbit with Blue Origin) is trying to drive a national system of competency-based, stackable credentials that could be recorded in a learner-owned blockchain. So far perhaps the best example is Otago Polytechnic’s system of EduBits, a stackable approach to microcredit that can be laddered into formal academic credit at OER U, Thompson Rivers U, and elsewhere.


Growing Demand?

US colleges and particularly universities have been steadily awarding more sub-year certifications over the past two decades, but until recently stackable microcredentials have largely been the domain of non-traditional learning providers, whether MOOCs like edX or FutureLearn, or competency-based online institutions like Western Governors’ U or Southern New Hampshire U. The advent of the COVID19 pandemic turned 2020 into “the second year of the MOOC,” as some 60M more MOOC learners enrolled and almost 400 new MOOC microcredentials were launched. Several recent surveys suggest that displaced workers and adult learners are increasingly interested in non-degree, non-credit courses and certificates, and an Athabasca U study found that 61% of Canadians would now consider microcredentials in order to advance in their careers.


“This looks to be a catalytic moment. Like what’s happened with the rapid digitization of so many other areas of our daily lives, we’ve probably gained in a few months a level of interest and participation in online education that would have steadily played out over years.” – Sean Gallagher, Executive Director, Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, Northeastern U



Catnip for Politicians

In the face of a massive global recession and unprecedented urgency to pivot businesses into ecommerce, politicians worldwide have found the idea of microcredentials irresistible (like “catnip,” as Alex Ushermemorably quipped). The promise of inexpensive online short courses that could quickly upskill or reskill workers and fix the economy before the next election cycle was too good to be true.

Almost a dozen Australian universities rolled out at least 64 short government-funded online courses in early 2020. Education minister Dan Tehan said the 12-week courses were an opportunity “for universities to lead globally with a pivot towards a new shape of higher education for a transformed economy.” 344 for-credit “undergraduate certificates” were launched at 54 institutions, at a subsidized, 90% tuition discount.

The European Commission wants to “democratize knowledge and to sustain lifelong learning through microcredentials,” and a microcredentials consultation group issued its report last December. To facilitate transnational validation, recognition and portability of microcredentials, the report proposes a “roadmap of actions” to develop common and transparent definitions, explore the alignment of microcredentials with the EU qualifications frameworks and credit transfer system, ensure quality assurance standards, develop interoperable storage for digital credentials, prepare national regulatory frameworks, and encourage uptake by PSE institutions, “with a special focus on academia-business cooperation in their development.”

British Columbia announced a “first wave” of 24 microcredentials in Feb 2021, again emphasizing their ability to deliver education and skills for high-demand jobs as part of its COVID19 recovery plan. $4M funded more than 2,000 student places in the programs, at 15 public colleges and universities. Courses were related to essential workplace skills, CleanBC and climate action, technology and emerging economies, health and human services, and construction maintenance. Many programs would be credited or “recognized as a launching pad” toward longer programs, and “over time” microcredentials could become stackable into certificates or diplomas.


“Microcredentials are a new way to learn in BC. They are focused on in-demand jobs so that British Columbians can access opportunities that put their new skills to work.” – Anne Kang, BC Advanced Education minister


Alberta’s 2030 strategy promised 56 microcredentials at 19 institutions by Fall 2021, to offer “specialized, job-ready skills” in “priority industry sectors,” to help learners “quickly re-skill or upskill to pivot in their careers or re-enter the workforce.” (Key partner industries include energy, agriculture, forestry, tourism, hospitality, culture, technology, aviation, aerospace, logistics, finance and fintech.)

The Quebec government has provided $1.9M in funding to 11 CEGEPs to offer short-term training courses to upskill workers displaced by the pandemic.

In 2020, Ontario announced a 3-year, $59.5M commitment to establish an online microcredential portal and virtual learning passport, create new microcredentials, extend OSAP, and raise awareness among learners and employers. The $3M Rapidskills pilot program encouraged 13 short-duration, “industry-sensitive” microcredentials at colleges across the province, with particular focus on automotive and advanced manufacturing skills. Through eCampus Ontario, 36 pilot microcredentials were launched at colleges and universities with employer partners, to address identified skills gaps. In early 2021, Ontario mounted a $15M Microcredentials Challenge Fund, to invite proposals from approved public and private institutions working with local industry employers to develop new or expand existing microcredentials that lead directly to local or regional jobs.


OSAP for Microcredentials

Ontario’s 2021 Budget even expanded OSAP to include loans and grants for students taking microcredentials at colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes – making Ontario “the first province in Canada” to offer financial aid for microcredentials. As of Oct 2021, about 600 OSAP-eligible microcredentials are offered by 17 colleges, 14 universities, and 2 Indigenous institutes. Many are college certificates, pre-training or continuing education courses, ranging in duration from 3.5 to 196 hours. Some focus on basic computer literacy, ESL, executive education or “core success skills,” while many offer additional qualifications for healthcare professionals, truck drivers, manufacturing and construction workers, teachers, and PSE staff or faculty. Particularly broad selections of approved microcredentials are offered by Western (80), Lambton (96), Waterloo (202) and York (263).


Disruptive Potential

If traditional transcripts and credentials are the “currency” of the academic world, some outspoken punditspredict that blockchain badges, nanocredits and microcredentials could emerge as a parallel, even underground “academic economy,” much as Bitcoin and cybercurrencies have done in financial markets. Critics observe that traditional credentials have limitations that are becoming increasingly obvious to students and employers: they seldom capture details about skills, competencies, or valuable experiences, frequently aren’t machine-readable or internally verifiable, and often don’t transfer between programs or institutions. Perhaps ARUCC’s MyCreds platform, powered by Digitary, is a first step to bring CdnPSE into a global microcredentials exchange and transfer system – but I don’t get the sense it poses a disruptive challenge to traditional transcripts and credentials, so much as it reflects an attempt to modernize and digitize them.



There’s been plenty of exciting action in CdnPSE microcredentials – from thousands of new offerings to new branded platforms – but somehow I’m growing discouraged about their near-term likelihood of reaching “escape velocity” in order to realize much of the transformative impact outlined above.

More on that next time!




Yesterday, this branding video hit the interwebs…


Leading with Purpose

uAlberta has launched its new “One University” master brand strategy, and this 4-min “brand story” video, to describe an institution full of people who seek out challenges, question and test the status quo, overcome barriers, collaborate and together “create new purpose.” uAlberta “will never be satisfied with the now,” but will “always be seeking, always be challenging and, most of all, always be leading.” The video features some silent, engaging, almost ASMR-like scenes of students and researchers working late (or maybe early). “Where will you be when the future shows up? Tomorrow is too late.” It’s a well-produced spot that generates a sense of optimism, as we “feel the hum of energy created by those discovering their purpose.”  YouTube  |  Brand Toolkit




As always, thanks for reading!

This week, I’m collecting early examples for a Higher Ed Hallowe’en edition – so please drop me a line if you’ve seen (or are planning) a video, event, news story or activity that I ought to include.

Stay safe and be well!


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