On 1 December 2022, Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl, Markus Marti, Daniela Trani, and Thierry Koscielniak presented and discussed micro-credentials, modularization in study architecture, the European University, and metaversité at the 3rd discussion event hosted by the CACE think tank, which the University for Continuing Education Krems founded in December 2020.

Friedrich Faulhammer, Rector of the University for Continuing Education Krems and initiator of CACE, emphasized the current dynamics in the field of continuing education. On the one hand regarding the amendment of the University Act 2002, which adapts the continuing education system to the Bologna reform, and on the other hand, the result of an EU meeting of heads of state and government in Porto in May 2021, according to which at least 60 percent of adults should attend continuing education programs each year by 2030. Particularly when times are uncertain, Faulhammer believes that continuing education and science have an even more important role to play. By means of academic continuing education in particular, people can use and understand the increasingly complex systems and interrelationships in better ways.

Micro-Credentials: a new trend

Assoc.-Prof Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl, Dublin City University addressed in her keynote speech "Making Waves with Micro-Credentials" an important and relatively new element for the individualization of further education careers. The exact meaning of micro-credentials has not yet been standardized, and the literature offers numerous delimitations. For Mhichíl, the European Commission 2022 made an important contribution delivering the following description: "A 'micro-credential’ records learning outcomes students have acquired having spent only a small amount of time learning. Transparent and well-defined criteria are used to assess these learning outcomes."

While this broad definition brings to mind the at universities established ECTS points, it is also open to other systems, such as those from industry and business. It has become a global trend to deal with micro-credentials, yet not just an European one. The advantages of micro-credentials are obvious - for example, tailor-made continuing education units, low-cost entry, individual combination options. To balance economic interests and the demands of university teaching will be important, she said. Although people interested in learning will be pleased to see the great diversity of providers and programs, the fact remains that it is not yet clear how the various micro-credential systems fit into a broader learning ecology. At present, Mhichíl sees both areas well-balanced in Europe.

Micro credentials: Thinking ahead

To unbundle courses is seen as an attractive proposition for designing individualized careers in further education. This approach is novel and prompts questions about how we might think about the future of education. Given the variety of providers, micro-credentials themselves tend to have different purposes and approaches, including economic ones. Mhichíl recalled that the value and benefits of micro-credentials go beyond mere skill development. Evidently they benefit public good, the students’ flexibility, and a purposeful learning setting. Whether or how an institution should enter the topic of micro-credentials requires some preliminary considerations, she added: In what ways do micro-credentials make sense for the institution? Who are the drivers of this development? How can micro-credentials be integrated into the existing strategy? As an example, Mhichíl presented three multi-structured micro-credentials the University of Dublin has established, such as with or without ECTS-points to be awarded and at different levels of the European quality framework.

Stackable degrees - more than the sum of their parts

Following this in-depth analysis of individual micro-credentials, Markus Marti, Head of Continuing Education at the School of Engineering at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, addressed in his keynote speech "The power of Stackable Degrees and modularization - concept, examples and success factors" the next step in logical order namely how to combine micro-credentials. To begin with, he presented Switzerland's education and training system, which offers four options in continuing education: Master of Advanced Studies (MAS), Diploma of Advanced Studies (DAS), Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS) and Continuing Education Course (CEC). With zero to nine ECTS points, the CEC is the smallest unit in this system. CAS comprises ten to 15 ECTS credits, DAS 30 to 40, and the Master of Advanced Studies includes at least 60 ECTS credits and a Master's thesis. To demonstrate how these smaller units relate to the Master’s degree, Marti gave two examples. In the field of Data Science, five CAS are offered at twelve ECTS points each, three of which can be combined to form a Diploma of Advanced Studies. In turn, this can be expanded to an MAS in Data Science. Whereas five CAS with ten ECTS points each are offered in the field of Integrated Risk Management, three of which can be combined to form the DAS. If the remaining two CAS are completed and a Master's thesis - amounting to ten ECTS points - is written, the Master of Advanced Studies is achieved.

High demand for stackable programs

Currently, the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) runs five MAS, six DAS, 26 CAS and 23 CEC. Since 2012, the number of students in this area has been growing, demonstrating that these options are well received. While the figures for the MAS and the DAS are relatively constant with smaller variations, the CAS is growing significantly: from 168 students in 2012 to 870 in 2021. Five insights crystallized during the implementation: Before embarking, he said, it is necessary to consider the big picture when developing new stackable programs. Proper coordination, a well-defined set of modules, and the right amount of options contribute to success. It is better to start with small units such as CEC or CAS when there is uncertainty around a topic, he said. Offering discounts for booking the entire master's program does not achieve the goal, he added. ZHAW sees advantages in the modification of the programs and smoothly running cooperation with other departments or universities.

Heading for European University

Stackable Programs are one possible way to personalize the (continuing) education experience. Daniela Trani, Director of Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE), gave a presentation on her approach to individualized curricula in the context of the European University. At the outset, Trani outlined the "European Universities" initiative, which stemmed from a 2017 summit in Gothenburg, where EU heads of state and government met, and subsequently became a flagship initiative of the European Higher Education Strategy. "European universities" are transnational alliances designed to map the path to the universities of the future, promote European values and identity, and revolutionize the quality and competitiveness of European higher education. Erasmus + supports various cooperation models for European Universities.

In 2019, YUFE was among the first 17 of these selected Erasmus+ submissions. The YUFE pilot project comprises ten universities and four non-academic organizations from 15 cities in 11 countries. YUFE's goals is directed towards the development of a student-centered, inclusive European University open to all. This should offer students, staff and citizens individualized, flexible pathways leading their lifelong learning and careers. Thereby, the focus lies on interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral knowledge and skills. Another goal is to break down barriers between science, business and society, taking into account the different contexts and cultures throughout Europe.

The YUFE Concept

The YUFE open programs include academic courses, language training, professional training focused on entrepreneurial and creative thinking, and societal engagement all in order to accomplish these goals. Furthermore, mobility is pivotal for the program. The concept consists of YUFE Minors, which bundle existing and new courses, and YUFE Bachelor(s), a result from combining YUFE Minors and leading to a joint degree or European degree. In response to the pandemic situation, YUFE successfully prioritized the Virtual Campus project, making progress that none of the partners could have made on their own. Bottom-Up co-creation at all stages and colleagues supporting peer exchange and learning were key to these successes. As such, teams were encouraged to work closely together and to foster mutual understanding. To identify multipliers at various levels proved to be effective in terms of structure. The plans for 2030 are to consolidate the results and sharpen the mission, and to make adjustments to the composition of the alliance.

Omnes docet ubique rethought

While YUFE also requires travelling the world when it comes to mobility, Thierry Koscielniak, Chief Digital Officer of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (Cnam), brought up the opportunities of metaversité, starting from the question "Is it possible to teach and learn as an avatar?" After sketching Cnam’s long history in brief, he referred to its motto, which takes on new relevance from a technological point of view: Omnes docet ubique, loosely translated as "Education for everyone, everywhere." It is a tradition at Cnam to use new technology; for example, the first recording and transmission of a lecture to lecture halls and the television program took place in 1965. Cnam counts 52,000 students worldwide, due to their focus on career-related studies.

Bridging the gap between VR and reality

Cnam France and partners from industry founded Immersive Learning. How virtual reality (VR) can be used in practical chemical laboratory work or in nuclear physics is one of the areas being researched. A possible application in the laboratory is, for example, "360° Vision," in which the researcher is walked through experimental setups along with text explaining the experiments. Learners have experienced a sense of déjà vu after such sessions, which speaks to the effectiveness of the experience. In the field of nuclear research, experiments such as measuring radioactivity at a nuclear reactor can be simulated that otherwise is impossible. The "JENII" project (short for Jumeaux d'Enseignement Numériques Immersifs et Interactifs), is researching to further develop such scenarios.

It aims to develop long-distance training over immersive and collaborative environments that work with digital twins of real industrial systems. This project seeks to create and enhance both physical and digital learning pathways. To match these, physical and digital training environments are planned to be created. Currently, VR is used as a platform for collaboration. When NASA's Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, at the same time the event was alike celebrated and discerned at the virtual Mars. The Métaversité’s concepts, which are being fleshed out, include open source, open exchange formats, and standards for interoperability of different systems. For the metaverse, the evolution is likely to be similar to the Internet: There will not be "the one" metaverse, but many in parallel, comparable to today's websites.

The exchange of ideas and information at a professional level was provided by the breakout sessions and the concluding discussion of the keynote speakers, which was chaired by Prof Stefan Oppl, Professor for Technology Enhanced Learning at the Department for Continuing Education Research and Educational Technologies at the University for Continuing Education Krems. The breakout sessions in the morning and afternoon were used to formulate and brainstorm questions in groups for the panel discussion - these development phases were supported by a graphic recording provided for the keynotes just heard. Additionally, Mentimeter tools were used to gather the audience’s experiences and opinions and to visualize them for everyone.

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