Few teachers receive individualized professional development, though many are expected to personalize learning for students. Microcredentials—digital badges that teachers earn by learning a skill and demonstrating mastery through student results—offer a PD pathway designed to be highly differentiated and engaging.
The microcredentialing process starts with teachers choosing a skill they want to develop. They take an online course from a company such as the nonprofit Digital Promise, which offers free skill development; or they can choose a course created within the district.
To earn the credential—often in the form of a digital badge that’s displayed on social platforms—teachers must perform self-assessments and show examples of student work.
“Microcredentials are a competency-based tool through which educators can be recognized for the learning they engage in throughout their careers” says Jennifer Kabaker, director of the microcredentials initiative at Digital Promise, which offers 140 lessons. “It takes the conversation around professional learning away from how long they spent learning something, and focuses it on their ability to apply that learning in the classroom.”
The rise of microcredentials also demonstrates the popularity of informal learning opportunities, which many teachers engage in via Twitter, YouTube and PLCs.
For example, in a Digital Promise microcredential course called “Productive Small Group Work” teachers study research and submit an overview of their learning—which could include lesson plans, recordings of their classrooms and a discussion of the new skill’s impact on students.
Other popular lessons include coding, design thinking (a process for problem-solving) and computer science. “These are things educators are often expected to be able to do that they rarely learn in their credentialing programs or through formal learning opportunities” Kabaker says.
However, microcredentials do not replace all professional learning experiences, says Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of the teacher membership association Learning Forward. “This fulfills one purpose of professional learning” Hirsh says. “But every need that professional learning addresses can’t be fulfilled in an individualized, isolated learning experience.”
A handful of school systems incorporate microcredentials at the district level—Tennessee is piloting them with some 40 teachers. “As they create new positions for teacher leaders, they can identify the skill set they want and distinguish who is ready for it on the basis of who has the microcredential” Hirsh says.
Kettle Morain School District in Wisconsin is the first to tie micro-credentials to teacher salary increases. Administrators began using the Digital Promise framework after they revamped compensation structures when the state eliminated collective bargaining in 2011.
“Microcredentials are a very powerful way of recognizing the professionalism of our educators and letting them engage in learning in a way that accomplishes the work of the district” says Superintendent Patricia Deklotz.
Kettle Morain piloted microcredentials in 2014-15, with teachers using Digital Promise to make lessons that involve personalized learning, supporting students with autism and close reading. A single microcredential can increase a teacher’s base salary by $200. Multiple credentials can earn them up to $600. Teachers have a year to complete each microcredential.
A team of Kettle Morain educators approves each teacher-created microcredential course. Two teachers review it to determine if they pass. Half of all teachers have completed one micro-credential. Deklotz recommends that interested districts launch credentials with a small group of teachers who can then spread the idea to their colleagues.