Lego my Metaphor

The problem with how we think about stackability of microcredentials

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Alternative credentials or microcredentials are currently attracting a lot of interest in higher education, but one of the key promises - stackability - is just not happening the way that advocates envisioned. There are a number of reasons for this situation, but a key and overlooked reason is that too often we are thinking about stackability in terms of a Lego metaphor, and that is a bad choice.

The promise of stackability

A key aspect of microcredentials promise is that they are small and have fewer barriers to entry in terms of time and cost than for degrees. But given that microcredentials are small, they can only take a learner so far. This is where stackability comes in. By stacking these microcredentials (i.e., adding multiple credentials, each building on the other) they can be combined to make a more meaningful overall set of qualifications or to create an entryway into a new career. Microcredential stackability is a key assumption underlying many higher education institutions microcredential efforts, as well as a central thread in how they are speaking about and marketing the microcredentials.

Slow growth

Essentially, microcredential programs are expanding more slowly than some of the hype would suggest. For example, the State University of New York System (SUNY) has received a lot of attention for their system-wide microcredential policy announced in 2018. However, by 2023 only 51 of 64 campuses had programs up and running. At SUNY Oswego by Fall 2022 there were 42 undergraduates enrolled in microcredentials. In June of that year Rockland Community College, also part of SUNY, graduated five students with microcredentials.

Challenges facing stackability

Despite the way that stackability is core to how much of higher ed has conceived of and offers microcredentails, it is largely unproven in practice, especially outside of Western Governors University and outside of stacking credentials on top of degrees.

A 2017 study by the Community College Research Center found that fewer than 3% of college graduates and 2% of all workers had stacked credentials. A more recent study by the Rand Corporation in two states found rates of stacking of certificates to vary a lot by state and by area of study, ranging from 20% to 63%. However, the data should be seen in light of the fact that the research tracked whether students earned more than one certificate in a similar field and not whether stacking was intentional. The study was also looking at Ohio which, as a state, has done a lot to promote microcredentials and stacking. In a different context Arizona State University’s abandoned effort at creating a stackable route into a bachelor’s degree in the Global Freshman Academy via edX is another illustration of low student incidence of stacking. Only 2% of students enrolled in a course and 0.028% of students went on to enroll at ASU proper.

Solving the problem of stackability is going to be a complex and multifaceted task, but it is one that higher education needs to take on. Many of the problems identified above stem in part from the fact that in thinking about and devising stacks of microcredentials higher education leaders either explicitly or implicitly think in terms of a Lego metaphor.

For example, an administrator at Penn State compares stacking credentials to having a basket of Lego bricks in your portfolio.

“There are almost endless ways to put them together,” he says. “Students want that ability to customize at least part of their educational journey — one size doesn’t fit all anymore.”

Anant Agarwal, founding CEO of edX which pioneered MicroMasters and MicroBachelors, exhorts higher education to “Think Lego Towers, Not Ivory.”

let’s give learners Lego-like building blocks to empower them to erect their own towers to success. I’m talking about incremental, easy-to-access, career-relevant learning that forges direct links between education and work [SNIP]

break down degrees into modular and stackable Lego-like parts, each providing more flexibility and their own credentials and skills outcomes.

As George Lakoff argues, metaphors shape how we see things. They highlight certain aspects and blind us to other aspects. The Lego metaphor for microcredential stackability is tempting (Lego is pretty darn cool), but from what I have seen it is the wrong metaphor, and gets in the way of our thinking clearly about stackability and addressing the challenges posed by stackability.

Why is Lego the wrong metaphor for stackability?

  1. Potentially you can build anything with a pile of Lego blocks, but in practice most people start with a kit) of say the Millenium Falcon or the house from “Up”. There is a specific end in mind, and it is what you make first. Anything you make after that is great, but it is a secondary purpose.  This is contrary to the intention of microcredentials. They shouldn’t be and don’t work well when they are just small parts of larger degrees without their own value.

  2. Lego bricks interlock with each other, but not necessarily with other types of blocks. It is a closed proprietary system. Students need a more open and flexible system for stackability to work, especially across different institutions, since we cannot assume that students will stay within one institution. We need to design this interoperability intentionally and pay attention to challenges of transfer and the work that must be done to facilitate building across programs and institutions. Alex Usher has written some good analyses of the problems of transfer in microcredentials in the Canadian context as well as suggesting some potential solutions.

  3. There aren’t a lot of things you can make with a small number of Lego blocks. The Millenium Falcon for example uses 7,500 bricks. That is far more commitment than we need for a stack of credentials. To make stackability meaningful and attractive for students, stacks should be short but meaningful (i.e. not just a collection of 3-4 different certificates).

  4. While big Lego sets come with assembly instructions, that is not the case in the microcredential world. Degrees come with instructions (think the course catalog, requirements etc.), but we should also be providing students with ideas about stacking credentials. It is not necessarily obvious to students how to combine things into meaningful collections, but if stackability is going to succeed we need more support. I am a big fan, for example, of Singapore’s Skills Frameworks that help people identify skills required in particular paths, and short-term training opportunities to acquire these. We need to scaffold student stacking by providing examples and maps to help them make linkages between credentials. This kind of guidance could be provided at the program level, at the institution level, or by bodies such as professional organizations, preferably all three.

  5. Lego bricks are standard and reliable, and everyone knows what they mean. This is not true of credentials leading again to confusion and distrust. We need to do the work of making the value of individual microcredentials explicit – the kind of skills and competencies they cover as well as how they relate to jobs and other forms of training.

Parting thoughts

In the coming months I want to explore more about microcredentials, as I think they are going to be a key part of higher education in the future.  Right now, in higher education I see a lot of talk about microcredentials but less execution and less success than most people would like. Microcredentials are difficult to get right, but we need to start by talking about them in the right way.

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