Digital and micro-credentials

In this month’s edition of Edubytes newsletter, we explore the emerging field of digital credentials, with a look at the broader higher education landscape as well as activity at UBC.

Our guest editors are Michelle Lamberson, Director, Flexible Learning Special Projects in the Office of the Provost, UBC Okanagan, & Larry Bouthillier, Executive Director, UBC Extended Learning.


An introduction to digital credentials

Digital credentials, also called badges or micro-credentials, have emerged as a means of recognizing short-duration, primarily non-credit-based learning achievements. These take place in a range of contexts, from inside of traditional degree programs through to workplace and community settings.

At UBC, increased attention is being paid to this programming, and both UBC Senates have either passed (UBC Okanagan) or are considering (UBC Vancouver) non-credit credential policies.

Here, we discuss digital credentials with specific reference to non-credit programming developed for current students and professional/life-long learners. We plan to further explore examples of digital credentials at UBC in future editions of Edubytes.


7 digital credential FAQs

1. What is a digital credential?

A digital credential is a digital object which carries information (metadata) about a learning achievement earned by a person.

The most common form of digital credential is an open badge, which comprises an image with ‘baked-in’ metadata that specify the recipient’s identity (hashed for security), the issuer (program provider), the issuance date, the program’s description (e.g., the content, learning outcomes, level), and the award criteria (assessment standard). Badges are hyperlinked back to the issuer’s badge system, so both the content and identity of the badge holder can be verified.

Learn more in this three-minute video overview of digital badges/credentials from the Metaliteracy Learning Collaborative.



2. Why do learners choose digital credentials?

Digital credentials are transparent, shareable, portable, personalized, granular and secure.

To learners, a badge serves as an easily shareable digital transcript that outlines what was learned, assessed and earned. The badge is unique to the learner and verifiable back to the issuer.

For issuing organizations, a new relationship is formed with both the credential earners and employers with whom they are shared. Issuing organizations can also work directly with employers to create programs that the employer can then endorse.

The reputation of a badge relies not only on the issuer’s qualifications (that is one metadata field), but also on the value perceived by learners and the employers who hire them. Evaluation of digital credentials is critical.


3. Do digital credential badges represent any specific credential?

No. The characteristics of any learning achievement, from attendance at a seminar to a full degree, can be described and included as metadata in an open badge. A digital badge simply serves as the credential’s ‘shipping container’, and information about the credential type is carried in the badge.

As a UBC example, the UBC Okanagan School of Engineering Letter of Proficiency program offers a Skills in Industrial Automation — Programmable Logic Controllers badge. In this program, credential earners receive both an official paper document from the university as well as a digital badge. The badge includes a description and earning criteria for what was learned, as well as the assessments administered.


4. So what are micro-credentials?

Good question! Digital credentials are most commonly, though not exclusively, issued following the successful completion of shorter, largely non-credit, programs — which may or may not be part of a larger credential program.

The term ‘micro-credential’ refers to these types of programs, and sometimes the form of the credential issued as well (note that some micro-credential programs only offer paper-based credentials). The term ‘badge’ suffers the same fate.

At this stage, there is no agreement across organizations on the content type (credit or non-credit), length, or assessment standard — meaning there is no common definition — for micro-credentials. However, recent frameworks are narrowing the micro-credential’s reference scope to programs that are assessed, competency-based, and arguably, have an employment context.

At UBC, the micro-credential category would likely fall within non-credit programs that are assessed to a proficiency standard and require a substantive time investment. Stay tuned!


5. Who’s using digital credentials?

Use of digital credentialling ranges across industry and higher education. Here are a few sample initiatives:


6. What technology is behind digital credentials?

The technical standard that underlies almost all badging platforms is the Open Badge standard, originally developed by Mozilla in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation and HASTAC, and now maintained by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. Twenty-seven vendors certified as supporting the Open Badge standard are currently listed on IMS Global’s website.

Badges are produced using a badge software platform (such as Accredible, Badgr, CanCred, and Credly). An issuer (e.g., UBC) supplies the metadata and image, and the software produces a unique image for each person who is awarded a badge. Where a badge system is integrated into a learning management system, a badge can be issued automatically when requirements are satisfied — for example, for completing a Canvas module. Badges can also be issued manually. (Badgr is the native badging system of Canvas, and at UBC can be activated with a request through the LT Hub).

The technology and standards continue to evolve, including efforts to increase the security and portability of digital badges using blockchain.


7. What’s happening with digital credentials at UBC?

UBC has been involved with digital credentials, particularly open badges, since at least 2015, with early UBC badge pilots involving Faculties, UBC Library and the CTLT.

A digital credentials working group, co-chaired by an Associate Provost from each campus, is currently exploring the implications of digital credentials from an opportunities, policy and resource perspective.

Several recent examples from UBC Vancouver and UBC Okanagan are included through this editorial and below, including badging within degree programs, skills and competencies earned within learning and research spaces, and micro-credentials. However, there are many more UBC examples — look for updates in spring 2022!


Further examples and resources:

Enjoyed reading about digital and micro-credentials? Learn about other topics we covered in the September 2021 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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