Online learning microcredentials / the #OLS23 challenges

In July 2023 the University of Leeds hosted an online learning summit which brought together experts from across the world to examine key challenges and opportunities. This series highlights some of those issues and explores how investment in structured semantic learning content can be part of the solution.

I must confess that I was slightly surprised at the extent of the focus on online learning microcredentials at #OLS23. It had felt, from my vantage point of the higher education landscape, that the “accredited short courses” model had suffered several blows in recent times, especially given the challenges faced by FutureLearn and other providers.

But you live and learn. It became clear over the two days that there is significant investment being made directly by HE institutions into online learning microcredential development, and there was a wide-ranging discussion of the opportunities and pitfalls, and the varied approaches being taken.

A regulatory tangle

The challenge that cuts to the heart of the microcredentials issue is regulation, and the seemingly still far-off aim of enabling a system by which UK universities can safely and reliably integrate accredited short course certificates from other institutions into their diploma and degree programmes.

There are of course some very thorny issues associated with that, not least around how you would agree the awarding body if a student has built a pick-and-mix of courses from a number of institutions. Higher education institutions are, after all, often in competition with one another. 

But the central challenge really is consistency: of standards, of regulation, of access and of value.

Visual summary of the OLS session on creating a manifesto for online learning microcredentials regulation
The #OLS23 session on creating a manifesto for microcredential regulation

In my experience many institutions have already chosen to build degree programmes in a modular structure; this is often the most attractive option for students in terms of online learning. Not only does it allow the university to offer intermediate awards – a certificate after the equivalent of the first year of study, a diploma after the second, and a degree after the third – it also enables flexible entry requirements.

One postgraduate programme that we helped to build, for example, had no explicit requirement for entry beyond the possession of an undergraduate degree, and entry was achieved on the basis of studying and passing two of the core modules of the programme. This effectively turned every course in the programme into a microcredential, as well as an entry qualification.

Central to the ability to offer online learning microcredentials is the creation of learning in the form of reusable elements. This makes the investment in learning content more worthwhile, since the institution is more able as a result to adapt to changing markets and needs. But it also helps our old friends accessibility and consistent student experience. It’s a win win win.

In many ways the terms “microcredential”, “accredited short course” and “CPD” have become if not interchangeable then certainly hard to distinguish from each other. And that highlights another challenge for universities. Commercial CPD providers have been delivering this sort of learning, or training, for many years. Their access to the market of potential students, and their ability to deliver to their needs, is already well developed. Universities have the extra heft of brand and accreditation to offer, but often need to up their game on quality and delivery.

Can structured semantic learning help?

Adopting a structured semantic learning approach to content can help an institution’s to deliver online learning microcredentials more rapidly and more consistently. 

To begin with, structured semantic learning means building your content around learning objectives in a modular reusable form – this is a core enabler for effective microcredentials as it ensures that both self-assessment and formal assessment is modular and does not need to be replicated for different levels of awards, as the assessment for each element can just be combined when building bigger courses.

Choosing the appropriate level of granularity for building your content is key. Choosing too small a unit can result in a fragmented feel for the student, while choosing one too large can limit your ability to reuse and repurpose materials effectively.

Lower cost, shorter timeframes

Secondly, we have the cost advantage. Traditional online course-building creates content for a specific delivery platform and therefore a specific set of available features, meaning that the same cost is incurred per course however many you create. Microcredentials mean you are likely to be building multiple courses of the same type, and a structured semantic learning approach means each time you reuse the templates and approaches you originally developed you are saving time and money.

No matter what solutions are found for the regulatory challenges described above, any higher education institution building microcredentials today needs to make their courses stand out from the crowd. Investment in structured semantic learning content gives a university a strategic advantage in the marketplace, with flexibility and high quality built in.

What do we mean by structured semantic learning content?

  • Building and cherishing your learning materials consistently in a way which captures both structure and meaning.
  • Creating learning independent of your current delivery environment, focusing on your pedagogy not your VLE’s features.
  • Using efficient publishing techniques to enable your content to be delivered rapidly into your current VLE, your next VLE, in print and in a range of other formats.
  • Cleanly and seamlessly combining your unique intellectual property with publishers’ textbook content as required.
  • Courseworker by CAPDM is based on structured semantic learning content.Courseworker by CAPDM Crown Commercial Services Supplier

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