4 Unwrapping Micro-credentials with the Chocolate Model of Change

By Lauren Acree

Introduction

Micro-credentials are an innovation that reflect one alternative to traditional sit-and-listen professional development workshops for teachers. Rather than awarding teachers credit for sitting through a set number of hours of professional development, micro-credentials award teachers for demonstrating a set number of skills. While teachers and school and district leaders across the country are showing interest in this latest innovation in professional learning, micro-credentialing at scale is still rare. This is, in part, because the shift from a credit-hour paradigm to a competency-based paradigm represents a major change.

This chapter will leverage two frameworks, The Chocolate Model (Dorman, 2011) and Diffusions of Innovation theory (Rogers, 2003), and try to understand the proposed shift in professional learning that micro-credentials require and the potential for micro-credentialing. In particular I address three key questions:

  • To what extent are micro-credentials an innovation?
  • Are micro-credentials a promising innovation?
  • What variables might affect the rate of adoption of micro-credentials?

In using the Chocolate Model (Dormant, 2011) and Diffusions of Innovation theory (Rogers, 2003) I show the potential levers and barriers micro-credentials might encounter as educators determine whether to adopt and use micro-credentials.

The Rationale for Micro-credentials

In the modern age of accountability for student learning, there is focused attention on student outcomes, particularly as measured by standardized assessments. As a result of these assessments greater attention has been given to the overall level of student achievement as well as the vast gaps in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students. While there are many factors that contribute to student learning, research has shown that having a high-quality teacher is the most important factor in predicting a child’s performance (as measured by standardized assessments) (Louis et al., 2010). Unfortunately, many of the most effective educators are concentrated in more affluent, advantaged districts leaving struggling students with inexperienced or less effective teachers.

Given this problem many policies have focused on how to ensure all students have a high-quality teacher. The natural solution is to invest in building teacher capacity through professional development. Traditionally, professional development consists of a series of one-day, sit-and-listen workshops that teachers attend during the school year. Schools and school districts spend millions annually on this professional development, but research has repeatedly shown that it is largely ineffective at changing teacher knowledge, skills or mindsets and therefore will not result in changes in student learning as measured by performance on the standardized tests (TNTP, 2016; Joyce & Showers, 2003).

Hammond et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis examining the current state of professional development activities and found that effective professional development focuses on developing teacher content knowledge, provides opportunities for active learning, and aligns with the other learning activities going on in the district or school. Further, professional development that lasted many days and engaged groups of participants collaboratively (by school, subject, or grade level) was more predictive of positive changes in teacher practice (Garet et al., 2001; Darling-Hammond, 2009). Additional research shows that instructional coaches play an important role in connecting the information learned in professional development to classroom practice (Joyce & Showers, 2003). However, coaches are not available in all schools and the need to build teacher capacity effectively has encouraged many to consider alternative, innovative models of professional development.

Micro-credentials represent a shift in the way we build teacher capacity, how we hold teachers accountable for professional development, and how we provide ongoing support in hard to staff places. They can provide coaching style feedback in schools where instructional coaches are otherwise unavailable and give teachers an opportunity to reflect on their classroom practice.

What are Micro-credentials?

A micro-credential is a competency-based measure of professional development. Where professional development traditionally awards credit for a set number of hours of learning, micro-credentials award credit based on the successful demonstration of a set skill. Micro-credentials challenge the assumption that “teaching is necessary for learning to occur” and instead enable teachers to learn in whatever way works best for them (Thomas & Brown, 2011, p.34).

Micro-credentials are part of an online ecosystem with issuers, earners, and recognizers. Issuers are the organizations who design, evaluate and award the micro-credential. Earners are the educators demonstrating the competency. Recognizers are the schools and district agencies that provide credit or value for earning a micro-credential and recognize them as part of the system of professional learning (The Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013; Acree, 2015).

A micro-credential has the following information on it: 1) a clearly and narrowly defined skill or competency, 2) information about the skill or avenues for the educator to learn more about the skill, 3) questions for the educator to answer and/or provide evidence of the skill in their context, and 4) a digital badge or icon that educators can display when they’ve successfully earned the micro-credential.

Educators earn a micro-credential by learning about the skill described in the micro-credential, demonstrating the skill in their classroom and gathering artifacts that demonstrate the skill (photos, videos, student work), and then submitting the artifacts to the issuer who provides feedback and either awards or denies the micro-credential based on a rubric. Educators who earn the micro-credential receive a digital badge they can display on their website, in their digital portfolios, or in their email signatures, for example.

Micro-credentials could improve opportunities for continuous improvement and professional growth for educators. Additionally, there is a long-term hope that micro-credentials will improve hiring practices so that principals can know more about the skills and mindsets of potential teachers before they are hired (Sykes & Wilson, 2018). However, micro-credentials are still in the early phase of their adoption and much of their potential has yet to be realized.

Analysis: Unwrapping Micro-credentials

To what extent are Micro-credentials an innovation?

Micro-credentials differ from traditional models of professional development in a number of ways. First, rather than measuring learning time, micro-credentials measure skills demonstrated. At best, traditional modes of professional development could tell what was taught, but not what teachers are able to do in their classrooms. Micro-credentials can provide evidence that a teacher demonstrated a competency or skill at least once in their classroom. Second, micro-credentials can act as a digital portfolio of all of the skills and professional learning an educator has accrued. Because micro-credentials are digital, they store metadata, including digital artifacts and videos, that can be shared with supervisors, hiring managers, and licensure agencies.

In short, micro-credentials are innovative both in format (being a digital vehicle for storing professional development artifacts) and in terms of how we frame professional development (from hours-based to skills-based). For the purposes of this chapter the teachers are the adopters and the change agents are the school/district leaders as well as the organizations that are creating the micro-credentials and using them for professional development.

Understanding the Change Micro-credentials Represent

In her book, The Chocolate Model of Change, Dormant (2011) proposes a way to understand the extent to which a proposed change is “ideal.” She focuses on five characteristics of change:

  1. Relative Advantage: to what extent does the proposed change offer an advantage to users?
  2. Simplicity: to what extent is the change easy to understand?
  3. Compatibility: to what extent is the change compatible with the adopter’s existing practices?
  4. Adaptability: to what extent can the change be adapted to fit local needs?
  5. Social Impact: to what extent will the change impact social relations? (Dormant, 2011, p.16)

Similarly, Rogers (2003) describes five characteristics of an innovation: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability (p.222). These models overlap on many characteristics so I use a mixture of these characteristics to better understand the extent to which micro-credentials are ideal: relative advantage, simplicity, compatibility, adaptability, triability, and observability. I combined these characteristics to avoid overlap.

These frameworks provide a useful tool for analyzing the change micro-credentials represent. In this analysis I focus on teachers as the primary adopters of this change, though principals and district leaders charged with leading professional learning should also be considered separately.

Relative Advantage

Micro-credentials offer both advantages and disadvantages to teachers. In my experience working with teachers I have heard them articulate that they appreciated the fact that micro-credentials allowed them to express choice in their professional learning opportunities. Where sit-and-listen sessions are limited to what is offered in the school or district, micro-credentials are open and online and there are hundreds available online for educators to pursue based on their needs and interests. For example, if an educator is interested in exploring Project Based Learning (PBL) but there isn’t any professional development available for him, he can look up the relevant micro-credentials, review resources and videos online, and start using PBL in his classroom and submit materials related to the micro-credential for feedback. Through the micro-credentials there is a clearly articulated approach to follow with resources and rubrics a teacher can use. Further, the educator receives feedback as part of this process enabling him to make improvements in his classroom based on the artifacts he submits.

Teachers also appreciate that micro-credentials offered credit (both in terms of certification hours and in terms of acknowledgement) for things they already do in their classroom. Rather than assume teachers don’t know how to do a skill until they’ve sat through a session, micro-credentials allow educators to submit evidence and receive the micro-credential as soon as they feel ready. This might be helpful in particular for an experienced teacher who wants to pursue the micro-credential immediately. Teachers appreciate that they can both challenge themselves with new skills and receive credit for the things they already do in their classrooms.

However, many teachers also find that there are disadvantages. Micro-credentials reflect more work for teachers than the traditional model of professional learning. They require the time to learn the skill, time to plan to integrate the skill into the classroom, time to record evidence of the skill in use, time to write up and submit the narrative/reflection components, and then waiting time while waiting for feedback from the micro-credential issuer. Then, if the submission is unsuccessful, there is additional time to do the process all over again. This is all during a time when teachers report feeling overworked and underappreciated (Herman, Rosa, & Reinke, 2017).

Simplicity

Perhaps the barrier is the fact that micro-credentials are so complicated. While the initial idea is easy to explain (many liken micro-credentials to Girl Scout badges), once teachers start interacting with the system surrounding badges it gets very complicated very quickly. The actual process of logging into the system, navigating the resources, curating artifacts, uploading artifacts, and submitting the appropriate documentation is not simple. For many teachers that first submission is very difficult. However, once they have navigated the process one time they tend to have an easier time in the future. That said, the first experience can be quite complex and might deter teachers from adopting micro-credentials in the future.

Compatibility

For some teachers, micro-credentials will be fairly consistent with their past practice whereas for others they will reflect a major shift. The teachers I have interacted with who felt that micro-credentials were compatible with their practice tended to be teachers who led their own professional learning even without receiving recognition. They identified a skill they were interested in learning more about, identified resources and learn about the skill, and created a plan to use that skill in their classroom if it felt like an effective use of instructional time. Micro-credentials add in the need to create a narrative, provide artifacts, and submit evidence of this learning/implementation but the process of self-guided learning is largely the same for these teachers.

There are, however, teachers who rely exclusively on school- and district-provided professional development sessions for their own professional learning. This is, in my experience, a much smaller group. However, they should not be ignored in understanding the extent to which micro-credentials are compatible with current educator practice.

Adaptability

One of the greatest strengths of micro-credentials is that they can be used in a number of different ways. One school may give educators freedom to choose any micro-credential they wish to pursue whereas another school may elect to focus on one or two sets of skills collectively. Micro-credentials can be entirely self-taught or they can be used to support in-person/traditional professional development workshops. A teacher doesn’t have to be in a school doing micro-credentials in order to pursue them, either.

Social Impact

The introduction of micro-credentials does not involve any shifts in school social dynamics or relationships among teachers. It does introduce a new role into the ecosystem: the micro-credential issuer. However, many schools and districts contract with outside professional development providers frequently so, while the issuer exists only virtually, this does not represent a shift in the social structure for most teachers.

Trialability

The ability to try out micro-credentials without consequence is a major advantage of this innovation. Teachers can explore and attempt a micro-credential at any time, in any subject area, with no cost to them other than the time it takes to pull together their materials. Many express that once they’ve done one, they have interest in doing more. However, this feature is an advantage of micro-credentials as individuals determine whether to adopt them.

Observability

Micro-credentials can be quite visible. They are as visible as the educator who earned them chooses. Some teachers collect micro-credentials and do not share them anywhere – they stay in the teacher’s account. Most put the icons representing the micro-credential in their email signature, on their twitter profiles, or even print the icons off and put them on the door to the teacher’s classroom. There isn’t yet a standard practice for how to share micro-credentials. As more teachers choose to display these micro-credentials (essentially endorsing them as an innovation), other teachers will become interested.

Using the Chocolate Model of Change and Diffusions of Innovation as a framework reveals that the shift to micro-credentials is a very complex, multi-layered change for educators. The table below summarizes the characteristics that should expedite/slow down the adoption and then diffusion process. In short, simplicity and compatibility seem to be the biggest barriers to adoption of micro-credentials while adaptability, trialability, and observability are the biggest levers moving forward.

Table 1

Micro-credentials according to the Chocolate Model.

Characteristic Lever (+) or Barrier (-)?
Relative Advantage +/-
Simplicity
Compatibility
Adaptability +
Trialability +
Observability +

 

Using Dormant’s scoring guide reveals that this will be a relatively difficult change to implement (to score the innovation, Dormant suggests using a + symbol to indicate whether something is a lever and a – sign to indicate if it is a barrier. A net positive suggests the innovation will be relatively easy to implement).However, with careful planning and a smart application of scale research and improvement science (Dede, Honan, & Peters, 2005; The Health Foundation, 2011), I believe that micro-credentials can be successfully adopted.

Diffusion of Micro-credentials

Given that micro-credentials reflect a somewhat difficult change, I expect there to be a somewhat slow diffusion and adoption process. There are a number of theoretical frameworks that can be used to understand adoption of innovations (Straub, 2009). Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation (2003) is the seminal work explaining why and how practices diffuse through social systems. Innovation Diffusion Theory (IDT) considers individual adoption as a sub-process of diffusion and describes the five stages individuals go through when they evaluate whether to adopt an innovation (Straub, 2009; Rogers, 2003). The five stages are awareness, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. Awareness occurs when you learn of the innovation, but do not have enough information to make a decision one way or another. You know what micro-credentials are, but not enough to gauge whether or not to pursue them. Persuasion occurs when you learn more about the innovation such that you can better determine whether you stand to benefit from adoption. Decisions are made when you have enough information to accept or reject the innovation and either adopt it or continue with your current process. Implementation occurs only after you’ve decided to accept the innovation and describes the process of incorporating the innovation into your practice. Finally, confirmation occurs after you’ve experimented with the innovation and you either observe evidence that the innovation is worthwhile and sustain the innovation or opt out.

Rogers (2003) also outlines five variables that determine the rate of adoption: perceived attributes of innovations, type of innovation-decision, communication channels, nature of the social system, and the extent of change agents’ promotion efforts. I consider each of these characteristics in turn in the following section to better understand if and how quickly micro-credentials will be adopted and diffused by educators.

As of January 2016, one survey found that roughly one-third of teachers knew what micro-credentials are. However, once teachers were introduced to the idea, 31% said they are extremely or very likely to try micro-credentials and another 34% reported they are “somewhat interested” (Center for Teaching Quality & Digital Promise, 2016). This suggests that most people are between the awareness and persuasion stages of adoption when it comes to choosing to pursue micro-credentials. Thus, micro-credentials are still early in the diffusion process meaning that they could still either become widespread or fade away. Using Rogers’ variables that determine the rate of adoption can help better understand the potential for this innovation and I explain more in the following section (Rogers, 2003).

There are three types of innovation decision processes: optional, collective and authority. Optional decisions are voluntary decisions made by the individual. Collective decisions are optional decisions made by a group. Authoritative decisions are top-down decisions made on behalf of the adopters wherein they receive a mandate to adopt the innovation (Rogers, 2003). Rogers points out that “innovations requiring an individual-optional innovation-decision are generally adopted more rapidly than when an innovation is adopted by an organization” (Rogers, 2003, p.221). Digital Promise, perhaps the leading organization in the field and one of the most prominent change agents, has surveyed both educators and state/local agencies about how they’re using micro-credentials. They find that there is a mix of adoption models currently in the micro-credential space. In many cases, educators are coming to micro-credentials on their own, having heard about them through word of mouth. These are the early adopters who are opting into the innovation. However, there are many cases where principals and district administrators are leading teachers to the micro-credentials, in some cases mandating teachers to complete one or more micro-credentials. In my work with teachers who have been required to complete micro-credentials I have seen a mix of reactions. Some immediately take to micro-credentials, finding the new approach to professional development refreshing, the feedback useful, and they are proud to display their micro-credentials. Others find it frustrating; one purpose of micro-credentials is to allow educators to choose – so why tell them they are mandatory? The success of micro-credentials may depend on who is determining whether to pursue micro-credentials and which to pursue.

Digital Promise hosts more than 250 micro-credentials from prestigious and well-respected organizations across the nation. As a result, Digital Promise has controlled much of the dialogue around micro-credentials. They have employed a variety of communication channels in spreading the word about this innovation. Using the hashtag #love2learn, Digital Promise encourages teachers to share their micro-credential experience via social media. They also use blogs, research, and other types of publication to share micro-credentials. Recently, they’ve shifted to communicating about micro-credentials to school and district leaders, in addition to individual teachers. This could be problematic for two reasons. First, using more of a targeted marketing strategy rather than spreading via word of mouth has been shown to slow the rate of adoption (Rogers, 2003). Further, by advertising to the school/district administrators the Digital Promise team has added a layer to the decision-making process. Research has shown that the further away from the adopter the decision is made, the slower the rate of adoption (Rogers, 2003, p. 221). However, there has been substantial communication about micro-credentials. Indeed, Digital Promise has partnered with some of the biggest names in the field of education to get the word out. Both of the national teachers’ unions, the National Board of Certified Teachers, and others have joined in promoting micro-credentials. These organizations are able to target their members effectively and give credibility to the movement as well as provide additional sources of communication. While the communication strategy leverages mass media which is less effective, it also involves interpersonal communication and trusted organizations that teachers turn to for recommendations.

The social system micro-credentials are trying to spread into is very diffuse. While teachers within schools are very interconnected, teachers across schools, districts, and states are less connected and are inconsistently organized. There are some organizations that connect educators across schools although it appears that the school is the organizational unit micro-credentials need to infiltrate. There are exceptions to this rule, however. The National Board for Certified Teachers has a fairly substantial number of member teachers who are engaging in micro-credentials and sharing their work nationwide; still, this organization is only one and it already has a great deal of social capital across state lines.

Finally, Rogers’s (2003) model considers the extent of the change agents’ promotion efforts as it affects the rate of adoption. If Digital Promise is the change agent in this model then the effort they have put in is tremendous. They have received major grants from the Hewlett Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation to build this work and effectively disseminate it. In just two years they have created and/or curated more than 250 micro-credentials and gotten thousands of educators from across the nation to engage with their platform. This is a major asset for increasing the rate of adoption.

The analysis above reveals that micro-credentials exhibit some characteristics that will expedite the rate of adoption by individual teachers (and, therefore diffusion nationwide) and others that will slow it down. Levers include relative advantage, adaptability, trialability, and observability and barriers include relative advantage, simplicity, and compatibility. However, most of the variables described in Rogers’s model highlight the fact that micro-credentials will likely continue to spread at a somewhat rapid pace. There are some elements that may result in some moderate slowing, including the type of innovation decision being pushed up to school/district administrators and the nature of the social system. However other variables suggest that there will be a quicker adoption process.

Conclusion

Micro-credentials reflect a major change for educators, the adopters, in how they engage with professional learning. Not only are they a new format for teacher professional development, they also reflect a major shift in philosophy of professional development from rewarding teachers for time and toward rewarding teachers for demonstrated skill.

  • To what extent are micro-credentials an innovation?
  • Are micro-credentials a promising innovation?
  • What variables might affect the rate of adoption of micro-credentials?

The Chocolate Model of Change and IDT help illustrate that micro-credentials are an innovation that reflect a complex change that is somewhat promising. There are some major relative advantages for teachers: micro-credentials are highly adaptable, triable, and observable but micro-credentials are also very complex and somewhat incompatible with current professional development approaches.

Still, the research shows that the rate of adoption may be somewhat fast for micro-credentials. The type of innovation-decision process is widely varied and the social system is very diffuse but the communication channels and the extent of change agents’ promotion efforts are strengths for micro-credentials.

Some of the biggest, most prominent names in the field are promoting and exploring micro-credentials. These groups should consider the various factors that can speed up or slow down adoption of this innovation as they strive to diffuse micro-credentials. Notably, moving the decision to adopt as close to the adopter as possible is critical. Aligning the communication channels and supports to reflect that is a major area of improvement organizations should consider.

Currently many educators are in the persuasion phase of adopting micro-credentials. This would suggest that there is still much potential growth for micro-credentials. Research into their effectiveness and continuing to better understand if and how they spread would be a worthwhile investment of time and resources for those pursuing this work.

References

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Sykes, G. & Wilson, S. (forthcoming). Micro-credentials for educator: Research to inform and interrogate an innovation.

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Correspondence concerning this chapter should be addressed to Lauren Acree at acree.15@buckeyemail.osu.edu

 

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