Thursday 07 Dec 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 14, 2022 - March 20, 2022

Malcolm X, the prominent African-American civil rights leader, said: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Although he made this statement in the 1960s, it still rings true today.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the digital aspects of most industries, forcing professionals to upskill or reskill themselves to remain relevant in the workforce. Meanwhile, universities were left in a pickle, trying to keep their tertiary courses foundational, yet relevant and future-ready for graduates.

To fill this gap, companies and tertiary educators turned to micro-credentials.

Micro-credentials are not a new concept and were popular among those looking to stack up their tangible skills in their efforts to pursue career advancement or switch fields. But they have since become ubiquitous and increasingly expected when it comes to job hunting.

"The tertiary industry is increasingly starting to recognise the value of hybrid credentials.” - Gupta

The statistics speak for themselves. In 2019, a survey conducted by Wiley Education showed that 20% of employers were open to hiring those with digital badges tagged to micro-credentials. But in 2021, based on the same survey, demand and interest had risen to 54%.

Raghav Gupta, Coursera’s managing director for India and Asia-Pacific, says the online education platform saw an exponential increase in the number of global learners — from 50 million pre-pandemic to about 97 million currently.

According to Melanie Cook, Asia Pacific managing director of Hyper Island, an online learning platform headquartered in Stockholm, the platform saw a 125% increase in sign-ups for digital acceleration master classes in agile ways of working, business canvas modelling, growth hacking and human-centred design in the last three quarters of its 2021/22 intake.

But more significant than this increase in learners is the shift to people taking responsibility for their own learning journey, says Cook. “One of our biggest clients is a corporate conglomerate with 50,000 people across Asia-Pacific and they came to us to run their digital technology innovation academy. 

“Here, people can nominate themselves or their managers but, for me, the bigger story is the fact that people are stepping up and volunteering themselves for it. They’re not forced to do it and that says more about the impact of micro-credentials than the number of people doing it.”

"Micro-credentials fit the bill for the attainment of industry-specific requirements based on their uniqueness of study anytime, anywhere.” - Vinesh

More importantly, micro-credentials have democratised higher education, enabling access to lifelong learning. Cook says while most institutions tend to pair micro-credentials with other educational qualifications, she believes they should complement a person’s working experience. 

“Anybody can access courses like business innovation, business transformation, fintech or any area of technological interest. You don’t have to go to top-tier universities to learn this anymore because platforms like Coursera, Google and Microsoft offer micro-credentials too.

“This also means that the responsibility of reskilling or education is on the individual. These courses typically happen on a part-time basis outside of their day job. Micro-credentials help you become a polymath and instil the idea of cognitive flexibility and having transferable skills.

Prof Dr Vinesh Thiruchelvam, chief innovation officer and deputy vice-chancellor of Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU), tells Digital Edge that micro-credentials address three areas of learning — added knowledge or profiling, upskilling or reskilling, and stackable attainment towards a tertiary qualification.

The World Economic Forum reported in 2018 that 75 million job shifts will happen by 2025. Employers aligning themselves to business transformations will need to harness the correct sets of skills to undertake future business operations. Vinesh says they have two choices — hire a person fit for purpose, or upskill and reskill an existing employee from within the workforce.

“Organisations don’t simply want to dismiss old or hire new, hence a more productive in-house solution would be to upskill worthy individuals towards a potential higher grade or reskill existing staff who could be redundant.

"Cross-function and cross-industry micro-credentials are a great way for talents to demonstrate their added value to the organisation. - Natasha

“Rather than traditional training programmes, micro-credentials fit the bill for the attainment of industry-specific requirements based on their uniqueness of study anytime, anywhere. Since micro-credentials come in many forms, free ones could be planned out as per employee growth potential and paid ones tuned towards specific job requirements,” he elaborates.

Universities have also started to use platforms such as Coursera for their pre-recorded asynchronous learning. BAC Education Group is the first higher learning institution in the country to partner with Coursera to offer full-scale blended learning to its management, engineering, law and hospitality students to close curriculum gaps.

Raja Singham, chairman and founder of BAC, says that the group started embedding the Coursera courses in its curriculums through prescribed modules. Every month, depending on the course, students will need to complete a certain amount of online learning as part of the subject. 

“For example, law students for one month will focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and the law, and the following month on smart contracts. We curate the subjects like this to include Coursera because it has to be based on the skill sets students need,” explains. 

“We now have a global law faculty with live lectures from places like Oxford, Cambridge and University of London daily. Our partnership with Coursera also means that we don’t need to hire as many faculty members but our students have access to the best universities and colleges at the tip of their fingers.”

The Malaysian Qualifying Agency regulates micro-credentials offered by institutions of higher learning in the country, which are then accredited based on the standards they comply to.

APU’s Vinesh says these standards or guidelines are relative to the quality and learning outcomes of the micro-credential modules, depending on the duration of the study, method of delivery and assessment strategy.

In general, however, there are no regulations for micro-credentials offered by licensed training or tech companies.

“A lot of takeaways from a micro-credential’s completion are based on the content depth of the module and its outcomes’ direction towards a specific skill implementation. Micro-credentials from institutes of higher learning do carry more weight but the easy access has been with online learning platforms such as Coursera or directly with tech companies the likes of Microsoft,” Vinesh adds. 

"… people are stepping up and volunteering themselves for it. They’re not forced to do it and that says more about the impact of micro-credentials than the number of people doing it.” - Cook

Does it matter to employers?

Since micro-credentials are becoming increasingly common — allowing anyone to take a course online, be it a free module or paid — the question about their real-world impact has begun to emerge.

Hyper Island’s Cook points out that in her experience, tech micro-credentials do make a difference as the industry is fast-evolving and constant upskilling is important to remain relevant.

But then again, one can argue that the pandemic has pushed almost all industries to go through digital transformation, making any kind of tech upskilling important, especially when it comes to differentiating oneself in a pool of potential talents.

However, micro-credentials should not be industry-specific, says Natasha Ishak, business director of Hays Malaysia, as cross-function and cross-industry micro-credentials are a great way for talents to demonstrate their added value to the organisation. 

Currently, employers in Malaysia do not require candidates to have micro-credentials but those who take the initiative to arm themselves with the micro-qualifications would have an additional advantage over those who do not.

Micro-credentials can serve as a stepping stone towards completing bigger qualifications such as a diploma or degree, and potentially lead to a promotion or career change.

“Micro-credentials are crucial in our world of work as it encourages self-learning regardless of one’s background, and helps to develop a multi-skilled employment pool. For instance, lawyers who take up a coding course would be of more value to the business as they would have skills for work involving smart contracts and the blockchain technology ecosystem, beyond the typical scope of a legal role,” says Cook.

“If candidates can show how their micro-credentials could enhance the productivity, efficiency or scope of their day-to-day job, they could have an advantage over other candidates without micro-credentials. Not only will they be able to see the bigger picture or beyond what is required of their current scope, but they could also potentially be the bridge across different functions or teams within the organisation.” 

"I see this trend more commonly in the start-up world, where people rely on online learning, rather than having a traditional trainer coming in to train.” - Toh

APU’s Vinesh concurs. Micro-credential holders have a competitive edge over conventional degree holders. This is especially true within small and medium enterprises (SMEs) looking for a quick hire, a skill needed based on projects on the go, or large tech companies that drive their own micro-credentials or certification programmes, such as Google, Oracle, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.

“Mid to large organisations still have official requirements for hiring as they still want to ensure that the individuals coming into the organisation have ‘total expertise’. It’s the person they want to build on for growth, rather than utilise short-term routines like skills’ specific resources,” he says.

“People make the organisation, hence ‘total expertise’ provides that completeness in a professional person. The total embodiment here are characteristics, knowledge and experience outside the core qualification expertise, which then complete the individual as a professional.”

Meanwhile, Derek Toh, founder and CEO of Hiredly, says the importance of micro-credentials depends on the nature of the job. For example, if a person wanted to be an accountant, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants would be a more credible benchmark. However, if someone wants to do software development, the scenario is different because the course is creative in nature and can be applied across different roles. 

“If someone looks like they’re attending a lot of high-quality short courses, for example in software development, an employer will look at the CV and say that this person really loves software development, but that might [only] get them as far as landing an interview,” he adds.

Toh says an increasing number of employers are putting potential candidates with micro-credentials through a test or assessment to gauge their knowledge.

“For example, digital marketing courses are very common and if someone is trying to do it as a career and they have not done it before, the first impression the employer will have is that this person took the effort but they would probably give them a case study or test to see how good they really are.”

Hyper Island’s Cook has a similar opinion, saying more important than the number of micro-credentials a person has is the impact of each of the certificates. Micro-credentials tend to measured by a pass or a fail, says Cook, which means that employers have no knowledge of the processes within the course. 

“Beyond that, what employers do is find ways to get you to prove the application of the micro-credential, whether you can solve problems or enhance the business or handle clients and customers,” she explains.

Developing cognitive flexibility

The ability of people to attain micro-­credentials also speaks of their character, says Cook, as online classes tend to be one-way and thus, require a lot of discipline, determination and motivation to complete.

“If you’re willing to do that little extra bit, it’s testament to the fact that you’re a lifelong learner and that you recognise the changes in the tech sector. The World Economic Forum said one of the key skills that is needed moving forward is something called cognitive flexibility, which means that a person is able to not only evolve in thinking but also learn something and apply it to something else. 

“For example, one of our units around cybersecurity is ‘How to Rob a Bank’ because if you understand how to rob a bank, you understand how to stop people from robbing the bank. What that is doing is applying cybersecurity theories while engaging in a problem. And it will also show employers that you have the ability to apply it,” she says.

This is why some organisations are already offering micro-credentials as part of their in-house upskilling and training. Hiredly’s Toh says although only a minority of employers are doing this at the moment, the trend is growing. 

He believes that external courses are easier to manage and can be curated to an employee’s job requirement and interest, as opposed to putting together a group of employees to undergo in-house training on the same topic.

In addition, employee training and development programmes are costly and rather risky, given that high-calibre employees are often headhunted. Micro-credentials are emerging as a solution to this quandary, as short competency-based industry-aligned units of learning are much more cost-effective and easier to acquire.

“With micro-credentials, employees can be sent anywhere to learn the skill whereas, in the past, the employer would have had to organise a class of 20 people, for example, and bring in a specific trainer. The ability to pick and choose skills for individual employees to learn is the appeal, especially if they’re lacking a specific skill for the job,” he explains.

“On top of that, employees are actually learning from someone, presumably, at the top of their field internationally. The quality of the courses is also very good. I see this trend more commonly in the start-up world, where people rely on online learning, rather than having a traditional trainer coming in to train.”

 

Will higher learning institutions still be relevant?

Opinion on the role of colleges and universities in the future of learning is mixed. 

The value of a diploma or degree will not be diminished. However, considering that almost everyone has a base qualification, the goal for graduates is to stand out from the crowd. 

As for the higher learning institutions, it is an effective way to be competitive and pivot to meet the changing demands of the job market. 

Derek Toh, founder and CEO of Hiredly, says in the past, not everyone had a degree and those who did almost always landed an interview. However, despite the ubiquity of degrees and diplomas today, he says employers are still likely to place importance on degrees.

“As someone who is in the recruitment space, I think most people see the purpose of university as a way to get a job because, unfortunately, most employers will see the lack of a degree as a negative. 

“Though having a degree doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, I think largely, employers want to know that the person went through university experiences and assessments, and the time spent completing the course demonstrates character.”

"With augmented reality, virtual reality and holograms, we see cross-country collaboration among online students, where a student in India and Japan can work together virtually and share knowledge.” - Raja Singham

Considering that remote working is becoming the norm, Raghav Gupta, Coursera’s managing director for India and Asia-Pacific, says he foresees hybrid learning continuing post-pandemic and hybrid credentials becoming the norm. He cites Coursera’s partnership with BAC Group, where 20% to 30% of a student’s university’s learning will come from online courses. 

“The tertiary industry is increasingly starting to recognise the value of hybrid credentials, which means that the degree is from the university you’re attending but you’ve also taken a micro-course from another international university,” he says.

Raja Singham, chairman and founder of BAC, concurs. BAC currently runs on a hybrid learning model, where students can choose whether to attend physical classes or not. He foresees technology playing a big role in the classroom, from AI to extended reality, as well as more global integration in the classroom.

“Typically, lecturers wouldn’t know exactly what their students grasped during online lessons but with AI, online tests can be administered so the lecturer can take the necessary steps to help them with it. This will be an important aspect when looking at mesh learning [which aims to encourage students’ social awareness and understanding by exploring and discussing real-world issues and their impact],” he says.

“With augmented reality, virtual reality and holograms, we see cross-country collaboration among online students, where a student in India and Japan can work together virtually and share knowledge.”

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