The lure of micro credentials: implications for the African Continental Qualifications Framework

Micro-credentials. The lure of micro credentials: implications for the African Continental Qualifications Framework by James Keevy

The concept of micro credentials has been popularised in the last few years. This is a trend that was undoubtedly accelerated during the Covid-19 period, as smaller chunks of learning that could be digitally captured and undertaken through remote learning became more accessible due in part to the restrictions imposed on societies across the globe. This was also true also across Africa, where connectivity is more limited, but where cell phone penetration is very high[1], with the added potential of a younger and more digitally adept population. This is not to say that micro credentials is a novel concept, nor does it signal that many African countries are engaging with it for the first time. In this short contribution, the concept, which consists of two parts, “micro” and “credential”, is unpacked. This is followed by some brief reflections on the implications micro credentials have for the further development of the African Continental Qualifications Framework (ACQF) being developed since 2019 (ACQF 2021).

Micro is a term that means “extremely small” and “minute in scope”[2]. When the term is interpreted within the context of qualifications, and the recognition of learning more broadly, it signals a small chunk of learning that can be recognised and packaged in a way that is commonly understood by society. It also signals that these chunks of learning are “stackable” in that they can be accumulated by a learner and interrelated in the same way that puzzle pieces may fit together. What is meant with this reduced scope is mostly quite ambiguous, but consensus internationally suggests that the volume of learning would be less than a formal qualification, and that the commensurate time taken to complete the learning could be anything between a few hours and a few months.

Credential is a term that can be used to mean “the abilities and experience that make someone suitable for a particular job or activity, or proof of someone's abilities and experience”[3]. In this sense, the term signals something that is closely aligned to the conventional interpretation of a “qualification”, but is also wider and more comprehensive. In contemporary society, credentials can signal anything from a professional license to practice (such as a lawyer, teacher or accountant), an online coding certification (such as Microsoft, Cisco or AWS), a driving licence, a national identity document or passport, to formal certifications reflected through qualifications systems.

In bringing these two terms together, we are immediately confronted with the global attention that this field is receiving at present, including some concerted international efforts to develop a common definition of micro-credential, such as the global consultation process commissioned by UNESCO in 2021 that involved a global panel of 47 experts (UNESCO 2021):

A micro-credential: (1) is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do; (2) includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider; (3) has stand-alone value and may also contribute to or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning; and (4) meets the standards required by relevant quality assurance.

This search for a global definition is not unique to the UNESCO process, with several international agencies grappling with the same issues (Cedefop 2022; ILO 2021; ILO & UNICEF 2022; NUFFIC 2022; OECD 2021). Let’s now turn to the ACQF and consider some implications for its further development, and also for the 55 member states involved in the process.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that smaller chunks of learning (let’s use the term “micro”), as well as wider interpretations of abilities and experiences (let’s use the term “credential”), are not new to Africa, our member states, nor to the ACQF process since 2019 (ACQF 2022). While the nomenclature used may be quite varied, there is no doubt that the value of learning beyond only formal qualifications is well accepted, with many member states having well-developed recognition of prior learning (RPL) systems in place. The delivery of smaller chunks of learning through short courses, unit standards, vocational courses and many other examples has also been pursued for many decades. In this sense, we may argue that micro credentials are nothing new, and that member states and the ACQF process do not have to change course.

Secondly, there is something about this new wave of thinking that challenges conventional approaches to recognise smaller chunks of learning in formal systems. Accelerated technological developments in recent years means that the recognition of all types of learning (formal, non-formal and informal) is more feasible, more seamless, and critically, also more citizen controlled. New data privacy laws signal the importance of this new trend and also the many vulnerabilities that come with it. The parallel development of modern and more digitally agile forms of occupational and educational classification systems (e.g. ESCO, O*NET, and ISCED-T) is just as important to note. In this sense, we may argue that micro credentials are very new, and that member states and the ACQF process should not only embrace these developments, but even lead the way.

The lure of abandoning what we have in place to embrace the new and exciting trend of micro credentials is strong, but perhaps pragmatism is well advised here. Let’s build on the progress made to date, while we start to trial elements of modernisation (ACQF 2022). As a new meta-framework, the ACQF has to be more digital in its design and more agile in its ability to recognise all forms of learning. The ACQF has the potential of being the first meta-framework designed and implemented not only for the lifelong learner, but with the digital identity of the learner at its core (McKinsey 2019).



  • ACQF. (2021). Towards the African Continental Qualifications Framework – Mapping report. Turin/Addis Ababa: European Training Foundation and Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit.
  • ACQF. (2022). Training Module 9. Innovation and technology in the context of qualifications systems.
  • ACQF. (2022). Training Module 10. Qualifications and qualifications frameworks – a systemic view.
  • ACQF. (2022). Thematic brief 12: Micro-credentials – towards a common understanding in different parts of the world.
  • ACQF. (2022). Newsletter article 15/03/2022: Micro-credentials and individual learning accounts.
  • Cedefop. (2022). Briefing Note: Are Micro-credentials Becoming a Big Deal?
  • Cedefop. (2022). Cedefop (2022). Microcredentials for labour market education and training: first look at mapping microcredentials in European labour-market-related education, training and learning: take-up, characteristics and functions. Luxembourg: Publications Office. Cedefop research paper, No 87.
  • ILO. (2021). Digitalization of national TVET and skills systems: Harnessing technology to support LLL. International Labour Office - Geneva: ILO.
  • ILO & UNICEF. (2022). Global Research on the Labour Market Value of Micro-Credentials with a Focus on Youth Employment. Forthcoming ILO & UNICEF.
  • McKinsey Global Institute. (2019). Digital identification: A key to inclusive growth.
  • NUFFIC. (2022). The Rise and Recognition of Micro-credentials Stacking Modules and the Future of the Qualification.
  • OECD. (2021). Micro-credential innovations in higher education: Who, What and Why? Education Policy Perspectives No. 39. OECD.
  • UNESCO. (2021). Towards a common definition of micro-credentials. Paris: UNESCO.
  • UNESCO. (2022). Minding the data. Protecting learner’s privacy and security. Paris: UNESCO.

See the ACQF website here