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Teacher Micro-Credentials: PD Revolution, or Just Electronic Flair?

You've probably overheard the term "micro-credential" and wondered what the heck people are talking about. (Teeny tiny diplomas?)

In a recent edition of Education Week, I take a look at what they are—and what their implications might be for K-12 teacher professional development. 

The basic idea is to create bite-sized competencies teachers can master through any number of avenues: through their own book learning, via collaborative work groups with other teachers, or even by taking courses at a local university. They are "personalized," in that teachers have choice of which to pursue (and that they presumably address their individual instructional needs), and they are granted based on some demonstration of what a teacher's learned, rather than completion of continuing-education units. Among the biggest proponents is Digital Promise, a nonprofit that has corralled support for the concept from interested partners and made more than 100 micro-credentials available.

In other words, the credentials would seem to answer a lot of the complaints about teacher professional development—that it's often unfocused and ineffective. But, as I also report in the story, there are some challenges proponents have to face before they become a prime mover in the PD space. Here's a cheat sheet.

Currency: For a micro-credential to have value, there have to be agreed-upon issuers of those credentials and a broad cross-section of stakeholders who see the value in obtaining them. (This is why things like Carnegie credit hours for recertification are common, despite their limitations.) Will the Digital Promise credentials (or others) become recognized by a large swath of educators? 

Incentives: Only a few states currently give PD credit for micro-credentials. (BloomBoard, the for-profit company that works with Digital Promise to offer them, says it's working to secure similar arrangement with other states.) Even the most compelling micro-credential is going to have limited appeal if it doesn't ultimately dovetail with things like recertification requirements or salary increases.

Rigor: Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of professional-development group Learning Forward, thinks that the power of the credentials lies in the fact that teachers can work together to master a credential, and in that those who have earned one, in theory, become reviewers for successive teachers' submissions. One temptation policy folks should avoid is mandating that teachers complete a certain number of micro-credentials, she said, because then there will be pressure to lower standards for them.

Cost: Scoring a micro-credential rigorously (typically according to a rubric or framework) requires a significant investment of time. If and when micro-credentials take off, who will agree to score all these new submissions—and how will those reviewers be selected, trained, and compensated?

Technology: Micro-credentials are, incorrectly, used interchangeably with the term "digital badges." Badges are simply a form of electronic validation that a teacher has completed a micro-credential, and that teachers could theoretically display, via Mozilla Backpack or LinkedIn. Here, the question is whether badging will be seen as a transparent, useful way of displaying relevant skills—or merely electronic flair.

It's clear, also, that the idea is appealing in the lucrative ed-tech world. Groups like BloomBoard envision a future in which the credentials could be integrated into their products and services around PD management platforms. 

There's a lot to think through here, and I look forward to reading your feedback. Comments section is open!

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