Meditations on Micro-Credentials

I recently stumbled upon micro-credentials, an interesting new approach to professional development. One thing that has stood out to me before about professional development is the lack of follow-up; to have, say, two days of workshops on holding reading conferences and using mentor texts, but never returning to that idea again. How can a school ensure that teachers get the most out of professional development? That money spent on PD is worth the opportunity cost? That teacher time spent listening to presentations improves student learning more than that same time being spent on designing instruction and reviewing assessments?

My PD Experience
I think it is too early in my career to have adopted an attitude of cynicism towards PD, but that is what I find I have. I have sat through PD that targeted teachers from preschool to high school, with little clear application to my subject area. I spent the time doodling in my notebook and writing out poems from memory, to avoid going squirrelly; I certainly had a lot more sympathy for my restless students afterwards, though I don’t think that was the intended learning outcome.

I’ve certainly had better PD than those two days I am obliquely referring to. I attended an EARCOS weekend conference on assessment. Took notes. Listened attentively. Participated in discussions. But I am hardpressed to think of an example of where and when I used what I learned in my classroom. Perhaps subconsciously (I say optimistically). I attended the workshop with two other people. We were selected to work on a committee to create a philosophy of assessment at our school, but beyond that we did not disseminate our experience among the other staff nor follow-up with each other.

Lifelong Learning
Reading through the two articles linked above, these two paragraphs in particular stand out to me:

“Within our own profession, teachers are engaging in continued learning through personal learning networks, websites like Edutopia and MOOCs. Anyone has the ability to self-construct curriculum and gain the skills once exclusive to those able to pay for a traditional education.
Despite the vast shift in how we pursue knowledge, little has changed with how we credential those who acquire knowledge. We still primarily credential learners based on seat time and credit hours, and often only recognize learning pursued through traditional pathways.”
Krista Moroder, Edutopia

I find this compelling because that is me, right there, paragraph 1. I follow more education blogs than I care to count right now, because I don’t want to acknowledge my main hobby is my job. I read education books, and carefully take notes. My internet browser fills with tabs as I plan lessons and seek new strategies. And, yet, there is very little evidence I can produce for this growth. Beyond all those notebooks, filled with pink and purple bullet points.

I was looking, one day, at the Honour Specialist History Additional Qualification, offered by my alma mater Queen’s University. Despite my general desire to keep all the courses I take on the same transcript, I’d be tempted to take the course through another provider, because I’ve already read, or at least skimmed, both of the required texts. Silly, right? I’d save money on books, and gain recognition for learning already partially completed.

So, what can fix PD?

Teacher choice: Teachers can select the PD that best suits their subject area, teaching style, and areas of growth.

Follow-up: Teachers are encouraged to experiment with what they have learned, and reflect on the success and failures of implementation of the ideas in their classroom. More than encouraged; teachers are held accountable for doing so.

Recognition for self-directed learning: A system where widely-recognized credentials are earned for learning teachers do of their own initiative.

Micro-credentials: A step in a positive direction
Micro-credentials target a specific teaching skill: say, writing rubrics, or moderating whole-class discussion. They are conducive to each teacher customizing their PD. They demand evidence that the lessons have been applied in the classroom. And, with the support of platforms such as Bloomboard, they hold the potential for wider recognition.

First impressions
Without having completed any micro-credential, here are my first impressions of the Bloomboard site.

Admittedly, my initial experience was not good. I tried to set up an account, but I couldn’t add the school I work for, because the country I live in (Myanmar) was not listed as an option. Cruise ships? Yes. Myanmar? No. Burma wasn’t either. After e-mailing the website, the solution found was for me to register as a non-teacher. Not a promising start.

Beyond that, I have found the website navigation to not always be intuitive. Micro-credentials can only be saved off of the list of micro-credentials, and not from the credential descriptions. Once I figured that out, I saved a long list for later consideration.

I also spent a fare amount of time hunting for the cost. Evidence for credentials is reviewed by a real human being. That, plus the cost of developing each credential and running the website, meant money had to exchange hands at some point. Right? As far as I can tell, they have some kind of sponsor. No money needs to be paid by the teachers completing the credentials.

I hope schools won’t view this as a cost-saving alternative to current PD practices. Some districts offer financial incentives for completing the credentials. I’m not saying I need to be bribed to do these; I’m saying that it is nice for my hard work and time spent to be recognized by a little salary boost.

The only credential I’ve really looked at closely is the one on designing multiple choice items. A couple resources are linked, providing guidelines on how to design multiple choice questions. Teachers are to use the guidelines to design their own multiple choice items and to evaluate questions from an outside source. If their submission meets standards, the credential is earned. Other credentials likely require other evidence of application to classroom practice.

Micro-credentials: A Solution for Teacher Education?
I don’t think it is any secret that I feel my teacher education was insufficient for the demands of the job. Admittedly, Ontario has switched to a two-year program since I completed my B.Ed. (not just to improve teacher training, but also to cut the number of graduates). Even then, I think more could have been done to prepare us during that one year. I certainly wasn’t a slacker. I visited our well-stocked Faculty of Education library for additional books to read. I was fortunate enough to participate in a focus group for improving teacher training at the faculty; our regular cathartic sessions added to my experience in the program. I worked hard during my practicums, designing original lesson-plans and assessments, and received positive evaluations. And, yet, the experience still feels lacking, even considering the length of the program and the unavoidable challenges all first-year teachers face.

Teacher education has been a recurring topic on the education-blog circuit as well.

Micro-credentials are not a solution. Teacher candidates are at an early stage in developing their skills as a teacher, and are not aware of where they might be lacking in their skills. Like our own students, it makes sense to target what they have in common rather than try to customize their education. Micro-credentials are also too narrow in their focus to build a teacher training program around them. They are best for teachers who have already accumulated some experience.

Next steps
I’ll be trying the multiple choice credential first. It seems straightforward to complete, and I’ve experienced a shift in my attitude towards multiple choice questions over the course of this year, that has driven me to get better at writing them. Keep an eye out for that blog post in the future.

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