A Critical Article. Higher Education’s Microcredentialing Craze (Ralston, S.J., 2021)

Higher Education’s Microcredentialing Craze: a Postdigital-Deweyan Critique

Postdigital Science and Education volume 3, pages 83101 (2021)


As the value of a university degree plummets (Selingo 2017), the popularity of the digital microcredential has soared. Similar to calls for the early adoption of Blockchain technology (Ralston 2019), the so-called ‘microcredentialing craze’ could be no more than a fad, marketing hype, or another case of ‘learning innovation theater’ (Doran 2017; Maloney and Kim 2019). Alternatively, the introduction of these compact skills- and competency-based online certificate programs might augur the arrival of a legitimate successor to the four-year university diploma (Young 2017ab). As of 2018, 20% of colleges and universities offered for-credit and non-credit microcredentials, forecasted to be 30 to 40% within a decade (Gallagher 2018). The thesis of this article is that the craze for microcredentialing reflects (1) administrative urgency to unbundle higher education curricula and degree programs for greater efficiency and profitability and (2) a renascent movement among industry and higher education leaders to reorient the university curriculum towards vocational training.

The article is organized as follows. Part 1 defines the microcredential and explains its role in the neoliberal learning economy. Part 2 narrates the declining value of the university diploma relative to the microcredential. Part 3 presents the unbundled university and explores its relation to the postdigital perspective. Part 4 reveals how the surge in microcredentialing has sparked a critical response from some quarters. Many of these critics claim that the business partnerships between universities and third-party microcredentialing platform vendors undermine higher education’s traditional mission. Part 5 describes the debate in the 1910s between the American educational philosopher John Dewey and vocational education innovator David Snedden. The aim of this historical inquiry is to demonstrate that the microcredentialers’ campaign to repurpose higher education as a delivery mechanism for vocational training is a resurgent, not a new, movement. Part 6, the article’s conclusion, proposes a postdigital-Deweyan critique of the microcredentialing craze. Also, the conclusion presents a series of suggestions for alternatives, or third-ways, between a traditional degree-based higher education model and a microcredential-dominated system of vocational education.

Open Access

Ralston, S.J. Higher Education’s Microcredentialing Craze: a Postdigital-Deweyan Critique. Postdigit Sci Educ 3, 83–101 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00121-8

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