Studying Microcredentials

The Microcredentials Research Group at Arizona State University examines ways in which people use the new emergent microcredentials on the social web, with a particular interest in the use across contexts.

What are microcredentials? A credential is a way of certifying that an individuals has gained a specific skill or knowledge, or engaged in a particular experience. Microcredentials are credentials that extend this to the social web, and provide new pathways for moving between epistemic communities online and off. They differ from traditional credentials in three main ways.

First, they tend to be more granular. Just as scouting merit badges allowed for the acquisition and demonstration of specific skills, microcredentials allow the individual to be more detailed in describing their abilities. The college diploma, a classic and highly desirable credential, conflates a broad and sometimes impossible to define set of experiences and abilities. A collection of microcredentials provides higher fidelity, indicating precisely the kinds of abilities the holder has demonstrated.

Second, they are presented as a microformat. Rather than standing in for the collection of knowledge and assessment that led to the earning of the credential, microcredentials act as a pointer to the criteria, endorsement, and ideally the demonstration of the skills or experience represented by the microcredential. Because the credentials are presented in digital format, and can be parsed automatically, they allow for rapid exchange and verification over the web. This is in stark contrast to transcripts, professional certifications, and the like, which often require cumbersome and costly verification processes.

Finally, because the construction and distribution of a microcredential is fairly simple, anyone can create them. At present, the creation of a credential often requires significant symbolic capital, since the credential must rely on the reputation of its issuer. When micrecredentials are backed by explicit evidence, it removes some of the nessessity for external validation. Microcredentials can be, in some sense, self-validating. As a result, the barriers to entry are low, and communities that are not well-funded or long established can collaboratively create their own systems of recognition and endorsement.

Are Microcredentials Badges?

The term microcredential is far less common than the term “digital badge.” One of the most significant influences in growth and success of microcredentials is Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure, an evolving set of standards for forming, exchanging, and displaying badges.

The use of the term “badge,” however, too easily conflates microcredentials with a long history of badges, reaching back for centuries. When someone mentions digital badges today, the first examples that come to mind are often scouting badges, police badges, or gamer badges. While microcredentials do have much in common with each of these (and the dozens of other earlier uses of badges), they are also significantly different. The metaphor here often hurts more than it helps.

Microcredentials also suffers from difficulties of association with the term “certification,” but the baggage here is newer and much more easily disrupted.

The space of “badges” and “microcredentials” is largely coterminous, but there are some significant ways in which they do not intersect. Badges must present an iconographic or visual symbolism. A text “badge” makes little sense. Microcredentials often include an iconographic representation, but it is not essential. This is important for spaces like Twitter (where the visualization of the badge is less important than, say, a shortcode) or in cases where the microcredential is passed without any visual representation at all.

Venn diagram of badges and microcredentials.

Microcredentials must include open links back to the issuer that provide verification, detailed specifications, and evidence of earning. While these are certainly required for the digital badges used in the Open Badge Infrastructure, for example, we still have badges–online and off–that require none of these. Moreover, the term “web badges” has been used to also describe sharing icons for major social networking platforms (e.g., the “like” button for Facebook or the official Google Plus badge). This confusion is not impossible to overcome, but represents an area of ambiguity that we have chosen to avoid by using the term “microcredentials” in our work, despite the excess number of syllables.

Microcredentials as Boundary Objects

While we are interested in a range of social issues surrounding the use of microcredentials, our initial research revolves around charting their public use and the reasons people use them. This includes finding ways of discovering and measuring the public use of badges in various contexts. It also means talking to those who earn and display microcredentials to see why they do this and what they hope will be the outcome, as well as those who observe the use of these microcredentials and may make decisions (including hiring decisions, admissions decisions, or simply orientation to a field, group, or path of learning) based on observing these decisions.

Our work is intended to be empirical and focused on research, but throughout we hope to make connections with practitioners, provide data for making strong design decisions, and tools that will enable others to leverage our work effectively. We also hope to act purposefully in building a research community beyond our own specific projects.

Keeping the “Alternative” in AltCred

Social scientists tend to pay a great deal of attention to the average, but there is no such thing as a “typical” or “best” badge. The badge ecosystem, like all ecosystems, thrives on diversity.

Keep digital badges weird.

Because of this, while we are interested in the social effects of badges (do they, on average, provide a way of increasing traffic between epistemic communities), we are also interested in uncovering and highlighting badges that do something interesting and different.


The work of the MRG is supported by a grant through the Digital Media and Learning Competition. This material is based on work supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation under Prime Award no. OPP1049826 and The Regents of the University of California.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or The Regents of the University of California.