Micro Credentials in Higher Education: A Systematic Review of the Literature


Micro credentials; including digital badges, are gaining momentum as a supplement to or alternative of a college degree. While these are becoming prevalent in higher education, comprehensive information about the benefits and best practices appears to be lacking. Therefore, this research aims to take a comprehensive approach to analyzing the research associated with micro credentials in higher education. Using the systematic literature review approach, all peer-reviewed micro credential articles available were reviewed in six education and research databases to answer nine research questions about the value, implementation and best practices related to micro credentials, and its three main stakeholders – the student, the provider, and the employer. The literature supports a conclusion that, when designed and implemented properly, micro credentials can be effectively used to highlight specific skills, providing value to all three stakeholders. However, many caveats and pitfalls remain, and additional studies are needed to explore this nascent area of education more fully.


Micro credentials, what are they and how can they enhance traditional programs in institutions of higher education? This is a common question facing many educators as there are a variety of terms used interchangeably, especially as educators are focusing efforts on ways to increase enrollment given the worsening decline during COVID-19. A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2022) noted a decrease of 4.1% in total postsecondary enrollment from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022. The largest decline is in undergraduate enrollment, which is down 9.4% from before the pandemic. Universities faced numerous changes during the pandemic, particularly changes in education delivery modalities to online and hybrid learning. 

The workplace faced similar shifts to online and remote work. Further, COVID-19 also brought about the “great resignation”, which changed how individuals viewed their professional growth. Individuals began focusing on upskilling and reskilling. which shifted the workplace toward competencies in a specific skill or knowledge (Pelletier et al., 2022). A study by Billing et al. (2021) found “Sixty-nine percent of respondents say that their organization is doing more skill building now than they did before the COVID-19 crisis (para. 3).” Subsequently, micro credentials and skill-based certifications have become a key focus to address the changing education landscape and meet the needs of industry. 

Micro credentials, also called alternative credentials, can be defined as a representation of specific skills and competencies assessed through a non-degree program. (Clements, 2020). The concept itself is not new. According to Levine and Van Pelt (2021), “Yale established the first certificate program more than two centuries ago in 1799 (p. 227).” The use of micro credentials allows for discrete and incremental skill development in a learning environment (Gish-Lieberman, 2021). One such more well-known form of micro credentials is the digital badge. Digital badges are images that include metadata. This metadata allows for verification of skill achievement for the badge earner (Clements, 2020). According to Cheng et al. (2020), “In higher education, digital badges have the potential for assisting students by promoting strategic management of the learning process, encouraging persistence and devoted behavior to learning tasks, and improving learning performance (p. 406)”. Badges have been used historically in the military, scouting and religious orders, and more recently in video gaming, as symbols of achievement. (Ellis et al., 2016; Halavais, 2012; Beattie, 2014; Ostashewski & Reid, 2015). The use of digital badges to represent educational achievement adds an element of gamification to the traditional educational path and encourages self-directed learning to advance skill development. (Ahn et al., 2014; Halavais, 2012; Ostashewski & Reid, 2015).

As the demand for skills-based learning grows (Gallagher, 2018), institutions of higher learning will need to design learning experiences that better meet the needs of prospective students and their future employers (Pelletier et al., 2022). Micro credentials, including digital badges and mini certificate programs, are emerging educational delivery models that could help higher education institutions address this gap. This systematic literature review was undertaken with the goals of (1) understanding the motivation for implementing micro credentials, (2) determining how micro credentials demonstrate assurance of learning, and (3) identifying the best practices for designing and implementing micro credentials in higher education. In order to address these goals, the following research questions (RQ) were developed:

  • RQ1: Do micro credentials help students obtain employment?
  • RQ2: Who values micro credentials?
  • RQ3:Which types of micro credentials are valued by employers?
  • RQ4: Do employers have a preference on who issues the credential?
  • RQ5: Do employers have a preference on the content?
  • RQ6: Do required micro credentials increase student mastery of learning outcomes?
  • RQ7: Do micro credentials add validity to the
    college degree?
  • RQ8: What are the benefits and drawbacks of
    micro credentialing?
  • RQ9: Do micro credentials motivate students?

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, the methodology used to conduct the systematic review is presented. The articles are then summarized by theme. Next, the key findings are presented as they relate to the research questions. Finally, overarching conclusions are provided along with recommendations for future research.

Research methodology

In order to address the research questions, a systematic literature review was conducted to examine the existing literature on the use of micro credentials in higher education. The systematic review for this research followed the stages proposed by Tranfield et al. (2003); which were further advocated and outlined by Brereton et al. (2007). This methodology has been widely used due to its transparency, repeatability, and ability to avoid the potential effects of research bias. These stages included (1) planning the review, (2) conducting the review, and (3) reporting and dissemination. Each stage and its respective steps are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Systematic review stages

Planning the reviewDevelop research goals and objectivesIdentify and review peer reviewed papers on micro credentials in higher education for trends and common themes.
Identify key search terms“microcredentials”, “micro-credentials”, “micro credentials” and “higher education”
Identify relevant databasesAcademic Search Complete, Business Source Premier, EBSCO, Education Full Text, ERIC, and ProQuest ABI/INFORM
Determine inclusion criteriaFull text articles
Peer reviewed articles
Articles published in English
No time restrictions
Conducting the reviewPerform electronic search of databases and review for duplicates182 articles identified
127 duplicate articles identified
55 articles remained
Review title and abstract based on inclusion/exclusion criteria21 abstracts did not meet inclusion criteria
Review full paper for inclusion/exclusion criteria34 papers remained
Reporting and disseminationReport on the key findings and trends

Planning the Review

The first step of the systematic review was to determine the research goals and objectives. In order to address the research questions, the goals were to identify and review peer reviewed papers on micro credentials in higher education for trends and common themes. The key search terms identified included “microcredentials”, “micro-credentials”, “micro credentials” and “higher education”. The literature was not consistent in the spelling of micro credentials; therefore, all possible combinations were searched. The review was limited to Academic Search Complete, Business Source Premier, EBSCO, Education Full Text, ERIC, and ProQuest ABI/INFORM as these are the relevant databases in the field of education. Recognizing micro credentials in higher education are relatively new, the search was not limited to a specific timeframe in order to ensure all relevant articles were included. However, the search was limited to full text, peer reviewed articles published in English.

Conducting the Review

Throughout the review, data was collected on the number of articles. The electronic search of the databases with the parameters outlined in the prior phase resulted in 182 articles. These articles were then reviewed for duplicates and 127 duplicate articles were identified. Additional information on the remaining articles were collected such as title, author, and year. The titles and abstracts of the 55 remaining articles were thoroughly reviewed based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Of these, 21 articles were removed from the study as they did not discuss micro credentials. The majority of these 21 articles had a cursory mention of micro credentials and did not study the use of micro credentials in higher education. As a result, 34 articles remained for full review. Each of these 34 articles were analyzed based on the research questions. Summaries of these articles are provided in the next section.

Literature review on micro credentials in higher education

As previously noted, the research consisted of addressing three goals, which include (1) understanding the motivation for implementing micro credentials, (2) determining how micro credentials demonstrate assurance of learning, and (3) identifying the best practices for designing and implementing micro credentials in higher education. Therefore, the summaries of the literature are organized with respect to these three themes.

Goal 1: What is the motivation for implementing micro credentials?

Motivation can be understood as the reasons that underlie behavior (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Ryan and Deci (2022) also classified motivation into two types: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. The difference between those is the purpose of engaging in an activity. Intrinsic focuses on its own sake, but extrinsic focuses on the instrumental reasons (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Learners, educators, and employers are some key stakeholders of micro credentials. Each stakeholder has different motivations in implementing micro credentials (Brown et al., 2021). 

With respect to the motivation of learners, McGeown et al. (2014) found digital badges may act as a form of extrinsic motivation for students that, in turn, can lead to intrinsic motivation for learning and to maintain engagement. Mah (2016) also found the gamification elements of digital badges may serve as a motivation for students to develop the requisite skills of the digital badge, while Shield and Chugh (2016) noted awarding a badge for work or skills also creates motivation to learn skills required. Rimland and Raish (2017) provide design principles for flexible, stackable badges grounded in learning theory and instructional design. The proposed scaffolding approach addresses best practices to increase intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The key design considerations include completion time, assessment of student work, activity design, and type of assessment. An analysis of Open Digital Badges in the context of goal setting was conducted by Cheng et al. (2018). They propose this relationship can improve the learning experience, increase learning autonomy and facilitate the achievement of intrinsic learning motivations. Initial findings of a three-year study by Iwata et al. (2019) suggest digital badges were a positive enhancement for 2/3 of the students. Evidence demonstrated a potential benefit of badges for a holistic view of learner achievement. However, a case study by Lexman et al. (2019) suggested lack of peer interaction impacted motivation. According to the case study, continuous reinforcement through evaluation and rewards may increase motivation. A study by Hartnett (2021) also found digital badges motivate learners. 

Several studies also addressed the motivation of educators. A study by Lindstrom and Dyjur (2017) on the impacts of digital badging suggests internally issued digital badges may result in the issuer (i.e., the university) placing more emphasis on competency of content. Recent research by Risquez et al. (2020) explored the intrinsic and extrinsic value of digital badges in faculty development motivation on the part of a transformational partnership. The evidence suggested high satisfaction rates and learning transfer. Further, a study by Perea (2020) suggested stacking smaller micro credentials throughout an associate degree program can provide benefits to the students in several ways. Stacking micro credentials (digital badges) early in the associate degree program may lead to increased retention rates and provides students with industry-specific skills that are easily and transparently measured. This may provide students with additional entry and exit points within a degree pathway as students can leave the program by utilizing their credentials to gain employment, and then jump back into the program when it fits with their life. In addition, Brown et al. (2021) found the benefits of educators for implementing micro-credentials include greater collaboration with industry, innovation in digital and online learning, and improve quality of course design.

Only two papers addressed the motivation of employers. Harmon and Copeland (2016) found micro credentials motivate employers if tied to employer recognition of skills or professional development. According to Brown et al. (2021), micro-credentials bring many benefits to motivate employers in implementing micro credentials such as new continuous professional development options, assist recruitment, address widening skills gaps, more fit for purpose professional learning, enhance collaboration with university, and improve employee retention.

Goal 2: How do micro credentials demonstrate assurance of learning addressed?

The majority of the research is empirical; therefore, the findings focused predominantly on perceived learning and achievement. For example, Mah (2016) noted the benefit of using micro credentials as a visualization method for students to understand their learning paths and learning progress. Reeves et al. (2017) found the certificates, whether free or paid, were consistently and positively related to perceived learning and course completion. They also noted the importance of ensuring the technical integrity of the assessment to prevent cheating. Similarly, Hensiek et al. (2017) reported statistically significant improvements in students’ handling lab equipment in a general chemistry class with badges. According to Carey and Stefaniak (2018), well-designed badges can provide a form of alternative assessment, which supports collaboration and engagement. However, Behney (2019) noted it can be difficult to measure the impact of micro credentials if they are fully integrated into a course. Iwata et al. (2019) measured students’ perceptions of learner achievement using digital badges in a terminology course and found a positive increase in two-thirds of students. In one of the few theoretical studies, Risquez et al. (2020) measured the use of digital badges on faculty development motivation among three higher education institutions and a national reform. The study employed a mixed-method approach in which the findings suggested an increase in learning transfer. Boud and de St. Jorre (2021) call for the separation of learning outcomes for macro and micro credentials but did not provide a framework or case study.

Goal 3: What are the best practices for designing and implementing micro credentials in higher education?

Broadly speaking, the best practices for using micro credentials fit into one of two categories, depending on how the credentials are going to be used. One category is internal to the educational institution with the aim of increasing pedagogical outcomes or effectiveness. The other is directed externally to the institution, preparing learners for opportunities such as employment or mobility within their existing careers.

Within the educational institution, credentials have been shown to favorably influence students’ completion of courses and to be a motivating factor, especially if the micro credentials are not overly complex to attain and are aligned with course learning objectives (Cheng et al., 2018; Newby & Cheng, 2020). Learners in massive open online course (MOOC) settings were shown to complete courses at a higher rate when credentials were associated with each course taken, versus those only given once a series of courses were completed (Reeves et al., 2017). Also, learners value these credentials when identifiable skills and tasks are required to obtain them, as opposed to cases when they are awarded simply for participation (Ashcroft et al., 2021). These findings suggest when micro credentials are used, designers should thoughtfully plan their alignment with instructor objectives/course outcomes, anchoring them upon identifiable skills and knowledge, and associate their completion with discrete tasks as a positive reinforcer (Behney, 2019; Cheng et al., 2019; Hensiek et al., 2017; Maina et al., 2017; Newby & Cheng, 2020; Reeves et al., 2017; Virkus, 2019). Though there are some potential drawbacks to using micro credentials, the literature suggests thoughtful implementation and usage has much more upsides to offer in improving student learning (Hartnett, 2021; Virkus, 2019; Abramovich, 2016), goal setting (Cheng et al., 2018; Mah, 2016), recruiting for new students, and improving the quality of course design (Brown et al., 2021). 

In terms of value to external stakeholders, research indicates micro credentials should be aligned with in-demand job skills and the entity granting the credentials should be seen as both recognizable and credible by employers (Selvaratnam & Sankey, 2020; Ashcroft et al., 2021). While some studies suggest both knowledge and skills can be represented by micro credentials, certain findings clearly suggest employers are more likely to see them as valid when they are associated with technical skills (Parea, 2020; Ashcroft et al., 2021). Another insight is employers saw micro credentials as an enhancer of a four-year college degree, not a replacement for it (Ashcroft et al., 2021). This last point suggests caution for educators’ expectations of “stackable” micro credentials, if the idea is they would eventually equate to an undergraduate degree. Parea (2020) also notes stackable credentials bring value when aligned with employers’ needs for technical skills. Further, these were community college students more acutely pursuing education in hopes of immediate job placement versus having their broader development as an included focus.

Principal findings

The synthesis of the analysis started at a high level to understand the pattern and source of publications. Therefore, aspects such as year of publication and country of publication were analyzed. The analysis then focuses on the specific research questions. 

While the concept of micro credentials is not relatively new, research in the area of micro credentials is nascent, particularly in higher education. The literature review search was not limited with respect to publication date, yet only 34 published research studies existed in the literature. The first publications were in 2016. While there was a drop in 2018, the number of publications has remained consistent as illustrated in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Publications by year 

As noted in Figure 2, the majority of the research was conducted in the United States (52.9%), with the next highest publications (11.8%) coming from Australia. Research on micro credentials was not limited to a specific geographic region; however, most studies were performed in only one country. Only three studies (8.8%) were executed across multiple countries.

Figure 2. Publications by country

Research Question 1: Do micro credentials help students obtain employment?

Connections between micro credentials and obtaining employment ranged in the literature from not being addressed (Harmon & Copeland, 2016; Cheng et al., 2018; Behney, 2019), to being a suggestion for future research (Carey & Stefaniak, 2018; Roy & Clark, 2019) to a few studies that explicitly uncovered a connection, but notably under prescribed circumstances (Maina et al., 2017; Perea, 2020; Ashcroft et al., 2021; Wheelahan & Moodie, 2021). Further, a few scholars critically questioned if micro credentials are simply a faddish bandwagon in higher education (Roy & Clark, 2019) to others (already noted) that caution higher education should not be confined to only meeting the immediate employment needs of industry (Wheelahan & Moodie, 2021).

The most relevant evidence was provided by Maina et al. (2017), Perea (2020), and Wheelahan and Moodie (2021). In the case of Maina et al. (2017), employers found micro credentials of some value when included within an e-portfolio as part of the hiring process. In both the cases of Perea (2020) and Wheelahan and Moodie (2021), research was conducted at community colleges in Tennessee and Colorado with students pursuing associate degrees. The significance of the context is two-fold: students pursuing two-year degrees as a pool were more interested in obtaining readily employable skills. On the other hand, employers in both Colorado and Tennessee identified a list of skills gaps in their workforces that were hindering hiring and consequently impacted each state’s economic growth. In this context, micro credentials were introduced to purposely meet employers’ needs. Therefore, it is not surprising these employers in the end found micro credentials valuable. Yet, it is important to note the dialogue between higher education institutions and industry resulted in mutual benefit.

Research Question 2: Who values micro credentials?

From a holistic perspective, there are multiple stakeholders of micro credentials in higher education including the student, instructor, institution, and employer. Therefore, the literature was analyzed to understand the value with respect to each of these stakeholders. A review of the literature suggests students and higher education institutions value micro credentials slightly more than the other stakeholders researched. There are, however, some studies that support professional development for staff and the role micro credentials play with gamification, in addition to their importance in industry. For example, Risquez et al. (2020) state visible identifiers are being sought out more than ever in higher education settings, which is why micro credentials are trending up in that sector. Lexman et al. (2018) suggest the quantity of courses historically offered to instructors have been voluminous, but the face-to-face requirement has been a barrier to which only half of instructors can typically take advantage. Concerning employers, Chugh and Shields (2016) argue the ability industry has to view, obtain, and verify micro skills assists with the transparency of employment and is much more efficient. Ultimately, the combination of students being motivated, coupled with a tool that showcases accredited learning has micro credentials on the minds of many. Figure 3 outlines the multiple stakeholders involved with micro credentialing and the number of articles researched by the authors that mention their value to a specific stakeholder group.

Figure 3. Analysis of the stakeholders who value micro credentials

Research Question 3: Which types of micro credentials are valued by employers?

Several types of micro credentials exist such as badges, certificates, and certifications. However, micro credentials are a relatively new method of presenting skills qualifications, limited literature exists regarding the types valued by employers. Selvaratnam and Sankey (2020) suggest when an institution is creating a micro credential program, it should work directly with employers to determine what would be valuable to them. Ashcroft et al. (2021) found employers are somewhat skeptical of the validity of micro credentials and see them as a complement, rather than a replacement for a degree. Ashcroft et al. (2021) also found employers value micro credentials earned for technical skills more highly than those earned for soft skills and are conferred by a reliable issuing institution. As part of a study of students, lecturers, and employers, Maina et al. (2017) reported employers indicated digital badges as part of an ePortfolio were useful in gauging the qualifications of potential employees.

Research Question 4: Do employers have a preference on who issues the credential?

Micro credentials are available from a variety of sources such as  universities, LinkedIn learning, and professional societies. Yet, of the 34 papers included in the final review, only one paper discussed a preference. Ashcroft et al. (2021) discussed the importance of a micro credential being issued by a credible and exclusive source. The study found students agreed more strongly than employers that micro credentials are valuable for demonstrating competence in a technical skill. However, employers agreed more strongly than students that the value of a micro credential is dependent on what needs to be done to earn it and is based on knowledge acquisition and demonstrated competence in a particular skill within a work environment, and that it is dependent on the credibility of the organization that granted it. Further, particularly from the student’s perspective, exclusivity is important to set them apart from other students and job candidates. 

Research Question 5: Do employers have a preference on the content?

A review of the empirical literature suggests micro credentials can include a wide variety of content from soft skills to technical skills. As noted in Figure 4, multiple micro credentials studied within the empirical literature were related to building information literacy (Behney, 2019; Harmon & Copeland, 2016; Virkus, 2019), developing faculty (Lexman et al., 2019; Risquez et al., 2020), and preparing students for employment (Ashcroft et al., 2021; Copenhaver & Pritchard, 2017; Maina et al., 2017; Perea, 2020). Micro credentials focused on building technology/computing skills (Newby & Cheng, 2020), training students on the proper use of chemistry lab equipment (Hensiek et al., 2017), teaching English terminology (Iwata et al., 2019), and facilitating goal setting (Cheng et al., 2019) were also studied in the empirical literature. In terms of employer preference for the type of content covered by micro credentials, a review of the literature revealed students can use micro credentials to build and signal both soft and technical skills to future employers, but the findings did not indicate a preference for one over the other. Harmen and Copeland (2016) concluded micro credentials work best to teach skills rather than knowledge, while Ashcroft et al. (2017) suggested students felt more strongly than employers that micro credentials were valuable for demonstrating competence in a technical skill.

Figure 4. Content focus of micro credentials

Research Question 6: Do required micro credentials increase student mastery of learning outcomes?

A key aspect of using micro credentials in higher education is linking them to learning outcomes. As reported in Table 2, the findings from many of the empirical studies reviewed suggest the inclusion of micro credentials as required elements of higher education courses can increase mastery of course learning outcomes (Behney, 2019; Cheng et al., 2019; Hensiek et al., 2017; Maina et al., 2017; Newby & Cheng, 2020; Reeves et al., 2017; Virkus, 2019). Moreover, the results from two studies revealed some learner characteristics related to learning gains from micro credentials. Specifically, Reeves et al. (2017) found older participants reported higher perceived learning from a micro credential, as did Asian participants when compared to White participants. Further, Cheng et al. (2019) suggested students with high self-efficacy for self-regulated learning (SESR) perceived higher mastery of learning outcomes than students with lower SESR.

It should be noted that most of the studies considered in this review used a subjective measurement that relied on student or instructor perception of learning gains (Behney, 2019; Cheng et al., 2019; Maina et al., 2017; Reeves et al., 2017; Virkus, 2019). However, two studies introduced objective measures to capture this data. Newby and Cheng (2020) used a combination of student perception, assignment scores, and course grades to conclude technology/computing skills were increased as a result of the micro credential. Hensiek et al. (2017) used a combination of pre- and post-badge surveys to measure improvement in student knowledge, confidence, and experience in the use of common lab equipment and were also able to quantify the amount saved by the department directly resulting from student mastery of these concepts.

Regarding the assessments that led to the achievement of the micro credentials, the majority of the micro credentials were measured through the successful completion of instructor-graded assignments or challenges (Cheng et al., 2019; Hensiek et al., 2017; Maina et al., 2017; Newby & Cheng, 2020; Virkus, 2019), while one micro credential was awarded based on the successful completion of task-based challenges (Behney, 2019) and another (Reeves et al., 2017) was achieved purely based on the completion of a MOOC.

Table 2. Impact of micro credentials on the mastery of course learning outcomes

Mastery of Learning OutcomesMastery MeasurementMicro Credential AssessmentCourseSource
Improved knowledge, confidence, and experience in how to use common lab equipment; $3,200 savings in equipment replacement costsPre- and post-badge survey measuring student perception of knowledge, experience, and confidence with using lab equipmentInstructor-graded video of student demonstrating correct use of equipmentYesHensiek et al. (2017)
87.5% of instructors and 94% of students agreed the program fostered outcomes assessment and noted the program provided them with a “clear view of their skills development”Student and instructor perceptionEmployer and instructor-reviewed assignmentsYesMaina et al. (2017)
Older participants reported higher perceived learning; Asian participants perceived higher learning than White participantsStudent perception MOOC completionYesReeves et al. (2017)
Increased confidence in completing coursework and preparing for graduate schoolStudent and faculty perceptionTask-based challengesYesBehney (2019)
Students with high SESR perceived higher mastery of learning outcomes than those with low SESRSemi-structured interviewsInstructor-graded challengesYesCheng et al. (2019)
Increased contribution to class discussion and group workStudent perceptionInstructor-graded individual assignments, group work, discussions, and presentations.YesVirkus (2019)
Increased technology/computing skills

Increased assignment scores

Increased overall course performanceStudent perception

Assignment score

Course gradeInstructor-graded challengesYesNewby and Cheng (2020)

Research Question 7: Do micro credentials add validity to the college degree?

Several of the studies within the literature explored the idea that micro credentials could add validity to the college degree. Iwata et al. (2019) and Brown et al. (2021) suggested the inclusion of micro credentials within the college degree program provided a more holistic view of learned achievement than the degree itself. Others cautioned micro credentials could add validity to the college degree only when the criteria for earning it was set by a professional organization (Behney, 2019) and there was integrity within the micro credential’s assessment process (Reeves et al., 2017). Ashcroft et al. (2021) concluded micro credentials could add value to the college degree depending on several factors: 1) what needed to be done to earn it; 2) the knowledge acquisition and demonstrated competence in a particular skill within a work environment; and 3) the credibility of the granting organization. Maina et al. (2017) noted the addition of micro credentials to the academic program supported student transition to the workplace; fostered employability skills awareness; increased skills visibility, transparency, and credibility; and enriched the traditional job application materials (resume and transcripts) for faster and more-targeted student recruiting experiences.

Although the inclusion of micro credentials in academic programs appears to add validity to the college degree by providing a signal of competence to future employers, results from the literature suggest there is some concern micro credentials could undermine the value of the college degree itself (Ahmat et al., 2021; Boud & St. Jorre, 2021; Wheelahan & Moodie, 2021) with some authors concluding students could put the skills and knowledge gained via the micro credential to immediate use and bypass the degree completely. Virkus (2019) noted a traditional college degree may not be necessary in the future because people who earn badges can show employers the skills and knowledge they possess regardless of a college degree, while Perea (2020) concluded stacking micro credentials could provide students with industry-specific skills that would allow them to leave their academic programs and immediately gain employment.

Research Question 8: What are the benefits and drawbacks of micro credentialing?

The benefits and challenges associated with micro credentialing were also analyzed. Within the existing literature, numerous benefits were identified relating to the student/learner, institution, and employers as shown in Table 3. The most noted benefits for students were the recognition and increased motivation. Several studies found micro credentials increased student motivation (Hartnett, 2021; Reeves et al., 2017; Shields & Chugh, 2016; Mah, 2016). The digital recognition students receive from a micro credential highlights a granular accomplishment or skill obtained to an external audience, which is typically a potential employer (Carey & Stefaniak, 2018; Cheng et al., 2018; Lindstrom & Dyjur, 2017; Brown et al., 2021). This also relates to the benefit of improving employability (Selvaratnam & Sankey, 2020). Several studies found micro credentials aided students in enhancing their skills (Ghasia et al., 2019; Brown et al., 2021), improving student learning (Hartnett, 2021; Virkus, 2019; Abramovich, 2016), supporting goal setting (Cheng et al., 2018; Mah, 2016), and providing flexible and personalized student learning (Ryken, 2006; Virkus, 2019; Brown et al., 2021). The study by Brown et al. (2021) identified a comprehensive list of institutional benefits including opportunities for new business models, innovative digital and online learning, potential marketing for new students, while increasing outreach and collaboration with industry and improving the quality of course design. In addition, Reeves et al. (2017) found micro credentials increase student retention. Interestingly, Hensiek et al. (2017) noted a decreased lab equipment costs from student training. The most comprehensive list of benefits for employers was identified again by Brown et al. (2021), who noted micro credentials benefit employers by assisting in recruitment, addressing skill gaps, providing professional development, improving employee retention, and providing opportunities to collaborate with universities. Harmon and Copeland (2016) also found micro credentials were a motivator for employees if they were linked to recognition or professional development.

Table 3. Micro credential benefits identified in the literature

Student BenefitsSource
Content is more currentBrown et al. (2021)
Cost of study reducedBrown et al. (2021)
Digital recognition of granular accomplishments/skills to an external audienceLindstrom and Dyjur (2017); Carey and Stefaniak (2018); Cheng et al. (2018); Brown et al. (2021)
EmployabilitySelvaratnam and Sankey (2020)
Goal settingMah (2016); Cheng et al. (2018)
Personalized/flexible student learning; flexibility in pursuing a degree and workforce credentials; credit-bearing pathwayRyken (2006); Virkus (2019); Brown et al. (2021)
Skills, re-skill, up-skillGhasia et al. (2019); Brown et al. (2021)
Student learning and achievement of learning outcomesAbramovich (2016); Virkus (2019); Hartnett (2021)
Student motivationMah (2016); Shields and Chugh (2016); Reeves et al. (2017); Hartnett (2021);
Institution BenefitsSource
Business modelsBrown et al. (2021)
Collaboration with industryBrown et al. (2021)
Course design qualityBrown et al. (2021)
Digital and online learning innovationBrown et al. (2021)
Lab equipment costs from student trainingHensiek et al. (2017)
Marketing for new studentsBrown et al. (2021)
OutreachBrown et al. (2021)
Student retentionReeves et al. (2017)
Employer BenefitsSource
Collaboration with universitiesBrown et al. (2021)
Employee retentionBrown et al. (2021)
Professional learning opportunitiesBrown et al. (2021)
Motivation if tied to employer recognition or professional developmentHarmon and Copeland (2016)
RecruitingBrown et al. (2021)
Skill gapsBrown et al. (2021)

The literature also identified several drawbacks with respect to students, the institution, and employers as noted in Table 4. The lack of intrinsic engagement and focus on real learning was noted in several studies (Cheng et al., 2018; Harmon & Copeland, 2016; Virkus, 2019; Cantwell & Rose, 2018; Abramovich, 2016; Iwata et al., 2019). Harmon and Copeland (2016) also found students had difficulty maneuvering micro credentialing systems. One of the key institutional drawbacks is related to cost, both from the perspective of the time and labor necessary to create micro credentials and the continuous maintenance required to ensure the content remained relevant and current. Additional institutional drawbacks included difficulty gaining faculty buy-in, concerns around commodifying education, negative association with completing a micro credential versus completing a course, and difficulty working with external organizations on badges. Finally, two key drawbacks were identified for employers, including the transferability and quality of badges.

Table 4. Micro credential challenges identified in the literature

Student DrawbacksSource
Encourages students to focus more on badge than learningVirkus (2019)
Extrinsic motivators risk lack of real learningCantwell and Rose (2018)
Focuses on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivationCheng et al. (2018)
Lack of engagement and motivation for micro-credentialsAbramovich (2016)
Micro-credentialing systems hard to maneuverHarmon and Copeland (2016)
Not a motivator for studentsIwata et al. (2019)
Not as meaningful as grades, felt like extra workHarmon and Copeland (2016)
Institution DrawbacksSource
Associating badges with external organizations is difficultHorstman et al. (2020)
Continuous maintenance/update for relevant technologyCarey and Stefaniak (2018)
Faculty buy-inCarey and Stefaniak (2018)
Micro-credential completion negatively associated with course completionReeves et al. (2017)
Potential to ‘commodify’ educationBehney (2019)
Time consuming and labor intensive to create (cost)Carey and Stefaniak (2018)
Employer DrawbacksSource
Lack of clear standardization hinders external transferabilityCarey and Stefaniak (2018)
Quality and status of badges vary from one to anotherVirkus (2019)

Research Question 9: Do micro credentials motivate students? 

A key aspect of integrating any new educational tool or technique is understanding if and how it will motivate students. The existing literature indicates micro credentials can be a motivating factor for learners within specific guidelines. The findings are summarized in Table 5. Studies generally relied on self-reporting from the credential earner. A study by Reeves et al. (2017) reported survey data from 779 participants in a MOOC and found “free and paid certificates are consistently and positively related to course completion.” However, in a relatively small subgroup, if the learner intended to receive a micro credential after a series of courses this was negatively associated with course completion. This finding was also found in a study by Lexman et al. (2019) in a case study of teachers enrolled in a professional development course. The course in that study required completion of multiple components in order to achieve the digital badge. The participants were motivated to complete the initial module of the course; however, the ultimate completion rate was less than 10% of those enrolled. Carey and Stefanik (2018) found skills-based credentials create motivation, while simple participation credentials are not motivating. Lyndstrom and Dyjur (2017) found micro credentials did not increase motivation to initially take a course; however, they do seem to motivate learners to complete the course. In contrast, a larger study by Risquez et al. (2020) reported almost half of respondents indicated the micro credential was an extrinsic motivator to participate in the course. Studies by Iwata et al. (2019) and Ashcroft et al. (2021) found approximately two thirds of students surveyed indicated the ability to earn a micro credential served as a motivating factor in their level of effort in the course. The findings from these papers reveal micro credentials can be motivating for learners but should be structured in a way that is not overly complex.

Table 5. Methodologies for measuring the impact of micro credentials on student motivation

Case for Increasing MotivationCase for Decreasing MotivationMethodologyMeasurement ToolSource

Students indicated low levels of increased motivationSurveys of 35 students (23 responded)Self-assessment surveysHarmon and Copeland (2016)
-Motivation toward completing the tasks required in the course 

– Added benefit of taking the course and is perceived to be better than a certificateDid not affect initial motivation to take the courseReflections by one recipient and one facilitatorDescriptiveLyndstrom and Dyjur (2017)
Micro credentials 

consistently and positively related to course completionIntending to receive a credential based on a series of courses negatively associated with course completionAnalytic sample from 779 participantsSurveyReeves et al. (2017)
If attached to skill-based credentialIf attached to participation credential onlyInterviews with 10 participantsAnecdotal evidenceCarey and Stefanik (2018)
Two thirds indicated earning badges motivated students toward autonomous study
Three-year study of student perceptionsLikert scale questionnaireIwata et al. (2019)

Participants completed the initial module, but completion of the ultimate credential was only 10%Case study of teacher professional development coursesCourse completion rates and Interviews with participantsLexman et al. (2019)
In Tennessee, rates for students hitting key benchmarks doubledResults in Oregon were not as successful

Results in Colorado unclearCase studiesResults of benchmark testingPerea (2020)
Almost half of respondents indicated the digital badge provided an extrinsic motivator to participate in the course
Survey and focus group interviews with participants in an open coursePre/post Surveys of 37 staff members from 9 institutions Focus Group responsesRisquez et al. (2020)
Two thirds responded they would exert more effort in the course if they could earn a micro credential
1,016 student and 124 employer responsesLikert scale surveys and open-ended interviewsAshcroft et al. (2021)
60% indicated badges are a motivational aid
Survey and interviews with 110 educatorsSurvey and interview resultsHartnett (2021)

Conclusions, Limitations, and Future Research

Digital badges have risen as the most common form of micro credential utilized to recognize an achievement and often present the greatest ability to provide efficiency, reliability, and legitimacy in the minds of students. The literature indicates micro credentials have a significant place within higher education and, furthermore, its propensity to influence stakeholders provides a platform for future variations in enhancing traditional programs. Although several types of micro credentials are present in both public and private institutions currently, it would be wise to involve employers in this dialogue to understand which type is more beneficial for the organization. For micro credentials used for external outcomes (i.e., to validate skills sought after by employers), the more valuable credential would be from a source widely recognized and respected by these external stakeholders. Institutions wishing to get the highest return on these micro credentials, especially community colleges, would be advised to partner with employers and align the credentials with the most in-demand and yet under-supplied skills in the job market. The literature suggests such an alignment can create immediate value for numerous stakeholders. Further, there is no preference in terms of issuing authority among employers, as long as that authority has industry recognition and credibility. 

Several research questions were addressed in this study centering around who values micro credentials the most, does it ultimately help students obtain employment, and what kind of value does it provide to a traditional degree. To that end, institutions and students value micro credentials the most, especially when it aligns to specific employer skill needs. There is no substantial correlation between students obtaining employment in a macro level sense, but there is an obvious draw when explicit employer needs are made public, and a specific micro credential can fill that gap. Academic administrators and executive corporate leaders will need to communicate effectively what the needs are to appropriately create micro credentials satisfying that need. Although micro credentials can be linked to academic degrees, many variations of them will need to be specialized and not necessarily in line with formal processes for credit. 

Higher education is increasingly seen as an expanding ecosystem of products that meet various needs. The traditional degree forms a central hub of long-term value for most learners with micro credentials being enhancers to this standing process for its students, institutions, and faculty. For other learners not pursuing a four-year degree, micro credentials, stacked or otherwise, can be a more targeted and lower cost option to secure meaningful employment. However, higher education institutions should also pay close attention to views among the administration that strictly support micro credentials because of the perceived monetary value. Although it is understood new revenue streams will always remain a priority within academic institutions as they navigate fluctuations in enrollment and maintaining academic integrity. Assigning micro credentials as a “cash cow” would set unfair expectations in an already challenging market for educators and possibly alienate students who want specific training at low cost.

Though not explicitly stated in the literature, a best practice synthesized from it is educational institutions might consider outsourcing micro credentials as a sensible option, especially if they are being used to open doors of external opportunity. Given the value employers place upon the recognizability and credibility of the institution granting the credentials (Selvaratnam & Sankey, 2020; Ashcroft et al., 2021), as well as the time investment needed to maintain their integrity and keep its content updated (Carey & Stefaniak, 2018), it is hard to say that higher education institutions should automatically choose to create their own micro credentials and the accompanying systems to maintain them. Under the right conditions, a vendor-supplied product may offer significant value and quality, particularly if the institution is an informed consumer. Part of achieving this is understanding the industry’s current state.

The value of micro credentials noted in the literature cannot be extrapolated to mean micro credentials are generally valuable or make sense in other contexts, mainly due to the lack of theoretical research. The majority of the existing literature is empirical, and the existing theoretical research focuses considerably on opinions and narratives. However, a general takeaway is that micro credentials can have clear currency when they are aligned with high demand skills employers seek, especially when the shortage is acutely felt. On the other hand, it is reasonable to surmise that skill gaps that are less acutely felt will attract correspondingly less intense interest from employers. Further still on this spectrum, if we conclude micro credentials derive their value to employers from meeting their skills gaps, higher educational professionals should also not expect that simply creating their own micro credentials or adding them to a program means they have value external to the granting institution. Within the walls of a higher education institution, micro credentials may have pedagogical value in affecting student learning and motivation, but this is a separate consideration. And while some scholars may rightfully assert higher education is more than meeting employment needs of industry, it should also be acknowledged a common accreditation metric applied to the industry is employment outcomes of an institution’s graduates.

As with any research study, there are inherent limitations. First, this study only included peer reviewed papers. No grey literature was included. The intent of the research limitation was to include studies in which micro credentials were introduced as an intervention in higher education, rather than anecdotal evidence, in order to ensure results were based on assessments. However, it is possible a few conference proceedings could exist. Further, only papers published in English were included. Additional papers could exist in the literature that were published in other languages.

Based on the key findings, there is considerable research that could be conducted to further fill the gaps in the literature. Most prominently is the lack of theoretical research to measure the impact and benefits of micro credentials. In addition, there is also a lack of a framework for implementing micro credentials in higher education. Many studies discussed the potential for scaffolding multiple micro credentials, yet they lacked detail on the best practices for implementation. Likewise, strategies for measuring learning gains and/or outcome mastery was mostly subjective and opinion based. Further studies should be conducted to provide a more standardized approach to measuring the impact of micro credentials on learning and knowledge retention. Existing studies were also conducted with very small sample sizes without control groups. Larger studies, perhaps in foundational courses where enrollment is higher, would provide stronger evidence of the impact of micro credentials. Finally, several studies mentioned the importance of creating a portfolio of micro credentials without providing a framework or best practices. Future research should also be conducted to determine best practices that would be preferred by employers.


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