Microcredentials, Open Learning and Transformative Ideas for Higher Education: An Interview with Mark Brown, Keynote Speaker at EdMedia2023

“The organizational culture and discipline sub-cultures influence the art of the possible”.


Professor Mark Brown is Ireland’s first Chair in Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL). The NIDL is a research institute at Dublin City University (DCU) that was founded in 2013. The NIDL’s mission is to lead the development of new digital learning technologies and practices that can transform lives and societies. The NIDL Digital Learning Research Network brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate on digital learning research. Professor Brown’s research is a deliberate effort to ensure his work has a critical edge, is globally connected and locally relevant, with a strong emphasis on transforming lives and societies.

The NIDL team has a number of research and development projects related to the use, implementation and evaluation of micro-credentials in higher education. Can you describe the focus and scope of NIDL’s research?

Our team is engaged in a wider range of externally funded projects that range from the macro policy level to more meso-level and micro-level initiatives. For example, at the macro-level, we recently completed a major report on different quality assurance approaches around the world to digital education on behalf of the OECD. In Ireland, we have a related contract with our National Quality Assurance Agency to lead the development of new quality assurance guidelines for digital education, applicable to both universities and private education providers. Another project called ENCORE+ funded by the European Commission and led by the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), involves the development of a European Network for harnessing the potential of Open Educational Resources (OER) for education and business. These are just three examples of projects we are currently actively engaged in researching. Another interesting project funded by the European Commission is called “Hacking Innovative Pedagogies (HIP), where we are trying to rewild traditional models of higher education. We have recently published our first report which conceptualizes the digital education ecosystem like an Atlas.

What fascinates you about micro-credentials and where do you see transformative potential as well as barriers?

The micro-credentialing movement is partly driven by the wider unbundling movement and has the potential to be highly disruptive and transformative. Depending on how educators respond to powerful change forces, micro-credentials potentially challenge the old 19th Century model of recognition and the even the traditional status of university qualifications. However, it’s much more likely that micro-credentials will be positioned as merely supplementary to existing macro-credentials (i.e., university degrees) and have minimal impact on the currency of what counts as a credible credential. So, the fascinating aspect of the micro-credentialing movement is this tension and the battle to redefine the traditional credential ecology. You can read more about what’s happening in this space at the Micro-credential Observatory that I personally maintain to track the latest policy developments and research publications in the area.

How should higher education institutions respond strategically to micro-credentials?

The first question that educational leaders need to ask is whether micro-credentials are a good fit for their institution. The answer to this question should not be taken for granted and it really depends on answering a related question of “why micro-credentials?”. What are the strategic drivers for your institution? Are they to expand access to lifelong learning, to help people upskill for the changing nature of work or to introduce a new revenue stream for your institution? Irrespective of your answer to these questions, the right leadership, institutional structures, and business models will be crucial. For this reason, I recently published an article with a couple of colleagues which alerts educational leaders to the types of questions they need to be asking in response to micro-credentials.

Do you remember your own first digital badge?

Yes, and it was dropped in my trash box within minutes of receiving the email with the attached badge. Why? Well, the digital badge had no currency. I was not required to undertake any assessment to earn the badge and it was simply awarded as recognition of my participation in a professional learning event. Compared to my macro-credentials completed over several years at reputable universities, the badge had no status.

The NIDL project OpenGame aims to contribute to the uptake of Open Education Resources and Open Education Practices among educators in Higher Education. What are some of the persistent barriers for the widespread adoption of OER and Open Pedagogy?

This is a good question and is the focus of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Open Praxis, where I have a short opinion piece. Watch the journal for news of this special issue. I could talk at length but in many respects the major barriers are similar to those for other digital innovations in education. Firstly, the organizational culture and discipline sub-cultures influence the art of the possible. To quote Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Secondly, educators’ traditional mindsets and pedagogical beliefs play a crucial role in mediating how any new digital technology, including OER is used or not in their classrooms. A related point is that if instructors see education as merely delivering content to learners, then the easy default option is to adopt traditional resources such as [digital] textbooks as they often come with pre-packaged online tests and quizzes that make automated assessment easy for them. This example also reveals an inherent flaw in the OER movement as access to free content does not confer any transformative pedagogical advantage. Put another way, content alone does not transform pedagogy. Finally, we should not overlook the political economy of “EdTech” as the big commercial platforms and providers continue to dominate the development of many educational solutions. In this regard, the battle for openness is part of a much larger social practice.

NIDL is a formal editorial partner of the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, a top ranked open access journal. As someone with many decades of experience, how has open access scholarship changed and shaped the field of learning sciences and educational technology?

As someone with a personal commitment to open scholarship, I believe we now have many more places and spaces to disseminate our work. Indeed, one count of the publications in the field of EdTech, identified over 270 journals, with the majority now open access. However, this raises a problem of quality and also the reality that no one person could possibly stay abreast of everything that is being published weekly, monthly or yearly. A related concern is a difficulty of finding sufficient time for deep reading as we struggle to keep on top of the daily morass of emails whilst zooming between meetings and managing our busy schedules. Arguably, quick, hasty and casual modes of reading limit the opportunity to expose yourself to the limits of your own imaginings and to open yourself up to transformative possibilities that come through deep reading and critical reflection. Moreover, reading is arguably the foundation of being an author, which Van Petegem, et al. (2021) identify as one of the key dimensions of being an open scholar in the broadest conception of the term. It also helps to ensure that our practical actions and educational interventions are grounded in theory and contemporary research, crafted from the shared experiences of other educators.

This line of discussion raises the question of whether today’s educators are spending less time slow reading reputable peer-reviewed works? Instead of finding time to read and peruse through scholarly journal articles purposefully, are they now relying on and devoting more of their attention to short information bytes contained in tweets, popular blog posts and audio/video playlists? Currently, there is limited evidence to answer this question or substantiate whether there is reason for concern, and it should be noted that privileging only one source of scholarship and new knowledge runs the risk of academic elitism. After all, new channels of online professional learning available through social media are not mutually exclusive from traditional forms of scholarship. This point recognizes that today’s evolving open scholar needs to be “…agile or flexible enough to jump around, to find the right balance and maybe to combine different aspects together in… daily practice” (Van Petegem, et al., 2021, p.31).

To partly address some of the above concerns, for the past 7 years, our team has identified and curated an annual top 10 “good reads” in digital education published in open access journals. This selection arises from a review of several hundred articles. Our 2022 top 10 “good reads” deliberately contains a collection of papers that many educators may not have seen through their normal reading channels. We seek to profile open scholarship that presents alternative or contrasting viewpoints in response to the growth of digital education – for better and worse. For example, our No 1 article in 2021 was a critical analysis by Professor Neil Selwyn on the environmental impact of digital education.

Would you agree that open access journals are comparatively more accepted than open textbooks, and if yes, do you have an explanation about why that is?

I think some of my comments in response to the previous question apply but it depends on the context and your philosophy. I’m an educator who remains inspired by the famous scene in the movie “Dead Poets Society” where the students were challenged to rip out pages from the textbook. For me, Education is not something that can be pre-packaged in a textbook as it’s about exploring the unknown rather than the known. With so much open content available the challenge is to navigate a path that empowers learners to assess the quality of the information and to discern fake news from that which helps to develop more critical thinkers, critical consumers and critical citizens.

The NIDL Ideas Lab served as an innovation incubator for higher education. How do you think AI tools will impact creative and innovative spaces in higher education and innovative pedagogies?

I guess this is the $64,000 dollar question. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the impact of generative AI. I’m trying to be a little more circumspect in my commentary since the emergence of ChatGPT. The history of EdTech is littered with false promises and overinflated hype and hope. It’s easy to be seduced by the claims about AI but we need to peel back the technologically deterministic language. Transformation never happens in a straight-line. I fear that we will attempt to tame AI rather than seek to harness its transformative potential. After all, the traditional exam remains a strong feature of the education landscape, despite what we know about the importance of Assessment for Learning. There are also very serious ethical and moral questions arising from what might be possible with AI in the future. The crucial issue is that educators must be around the table in shaping future developments, which is an important gap found in a major literature review on AI in education.  So, I don’t have a crystal ball that can predict the future but if we are not around the table trying to shape it, then we may find ourselves on the menu!

You recently co-authored an article on ‘Hacking Innovative Pedagogy’. Can you explain how higher education can move away from industry-driven solutions towards ‘rewilding’ online education – and why is this a good idea or even an imperative?

The concept of ‘rewilding’ borrows from ecology where there is a worldwide movement to return or repopulate endangered species (plants and animals) to the wild and their natural environment. While we need to be a little cautious about borrowing ecological concepts and applying them to education, the idea is that traditional educational models, with and without technology, need to be uncaged if we truly wish to achieve the goal of developing more creative, innovative and imaginative learners. In higher education, metaphorically speaking the Learning Management System (LMS) has become the cage. How can we encourage educators to explore and push new boundaries at the edge of innovation? How do our institutions enable this type of learning innovation at the edge whilst ensuring our digital platforms are safe, secure and reliable? We don’t have the answer to this question, but the project has been designed to explore some of these edge innovations and their potential to scale up without caging them in institutional rules, regulations, and requirements. There is an implicit tension underlying this project, which we see akin to searching for the light through the gaps.

Your work centers the experiences of faculty and students in digital learning environments – during the Covid Emergency shift towards online and beyond. What advice do you have for digital delivery programming in higher education that balances digital well-being for students and instructors?

The importance of the ‘Pedagogy of Care’ as it is sometimes referred to is one of the legacies of the COVID crisis. In the case of faculty, my advice is that we need systemic strategies and solutions that address the intensification of workload amplified by our practices and expectations surrounding new digital technologies. How many universities have adapted or developed new academic workload models that reflect the new reality of our digital work lives? We have to grapple with and define the nature of academic work for the digital era. Tinkering around the edges is insufficient. On a personal note, my email signature asks readers when sending messages outside of normal working hours to respect the “right to disconnect” principles and related code of practice for employers and employees.

My single piece of advice concerning learners, is to ensure that we ask them and engage them around the table, so their voice is heard. This is precisely what we did when we developed a free online course on learning how to be an effective online learner. Indeed, the course, “A Digital Edge: Essentials for the Online Learner” was even co-facilitated by learners for learners. We should not assume that we have all the answers to supporting their digital wellbeing as there is much we can learn from students.


Mark Brown, National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University, Ireland

Bio: Professor Mark Brown is Ireland’s first Chair of Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University, Ireland. Mark is a Senior Fellow of the European Distance and eLearning Network (EDEN) and also serves on the Management Board of EDEN Digital Learning Europe. Additionally, Professor Brown serves on the Supervisory Board of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU). Originally from New Zealand, Mark continues to maintain strong “down under” links and, until recently, was Vice-President of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA). In 2017, the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) recognised Mark as a world leader in the Open, Distance and Digital Education field. Shortly before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Brown was Chair of the 2019 ICDE World Conference on Online Learning in Dublin. In 2020, Mark contributed to the European Commission’s Higher Education Consultation Group on developing a EU-wide policy response to the growth of micro-credentials. In 2021, Mark completed a state-of-the-art literature review on the global development of micro-credentials on contract with the European Commission. In 2022, the OECD commissioned Professor Brown to review quality assurance processes for new blended, hybrid and online learning models worldwide. Mark also has a similar contract with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) to develop new Statutory Quality Assurance Guidelines in this area. Mark offers a unique international perspective and has over 800 scholarly publications in his fields of interest. For more information, see: https://www.dcu.ie/nidl/director-nidl




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