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By Lindsey Tepe / New America
Updated: April 17, 2015 11:21 AM ET | Originally published: April 11, 2015

Correction appended, April 14

“Sit and Get.” “Drive By.” “Spray and Pray.”

If you’re a teacher, or know one, it’s likely you’ve heard one of these expressions uttered in complete exasperation. Unrelated to their teaching, these phrases are employed to describe teachers’ own “professional learning” opportunities: Too often, teachers “sit and get” information during half-day and full-day workshops or after-school sessions, full of pre-packaged information and resources (rather than differentiated for teachers’ diverse needs) — it’s a veritable information “drive by.”

Over $1 billion federal dollars — plus additional funds from state and local governments — are distributed to districts annually for professional development. The research on what teachers are learning, however, as well as what actually works to improve their teaching, is remarkably slim. This is in part due a lack of information about the substance or the quality of these ongoing learning opportunities.

Given how little is currently known about the impact of professional learning opportunities, micro-credentialing could be a path forward for driving transparency and, in the long term, improving the quality of teacher learning opportunities. And here in Washington D.C.’s public schools — and several other districts around the country, from Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin to Los Angeles Unified School District in California — education leaders and practitioners are testing out innovative new professional development pilots to do just that.

The idea of micro-credentials grew out of the “digital badging” movement led primarily by the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundations. These organizations describe digital badges, or micro-credentials, as “an online record of achievements” that track both who issued the credentials as well as the work that was actually completed to get them. In other words, a micro-credential not only represents mastery of skill, but it is also linked to an online portfolio that shows colleagues, and potentially employers, how that particular person demonstrated his or her mastery.

In the technology space, you can see this most clearly with Mozilla Webmaker badges. These badges represent various skills that are valuable for web designers, including ones for editing, image making, and coding. As individuals master writing a piece of code in a new computer language, that bit of code becomes an artifact that is attached to the micro-credential online, allowing viewers to see their work. For gaining more complex skills, like how to code in HTML, learners can “stack” these micro-credentials. Once all of the micro-credentials in a given stack are completed, the online record conveys their master of the larger skill (coding in HTML). For Mozilla’s Webmaker badge, people who have mastered all the available micro-credentials can show publicly that they are a “Mozilla Webmaker Master.”

Now several education leaders are exploring how micro-credentials can be used to increase transparency and drive improvement in teacher learning, as well as recognize learning pursued through non-traditional pathways. In one promising example, over the past year Digital Promise — an independent, bipartisan organization dedicated to improving learning through technology and research — has authored research and supported the development of several micro-credentials. Digital Promise has also been assisting several school districts across the country this year as they implement micro-credential pilot programs for teacher professional development, one of which is the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).

Unlike many tech companies and start-ups (which can easily choose to recognize non-traditional credentials like Mozilla badges), school districts like DCPS must grapple with existing federal, state, and local education policies relating to teacher pre-service training, teacher licensing and license renewal, compensation, career pathways, and more. These kinds of policies can serve as an opportunity for integrating micro-credentials into existing systems of teacher training and professional learning, but they can also prevent micro-credentials from being used at all.

Teachers in DCPS must complete 90 professional development “contact hours” every four years in order to renew their teaching license, and DCPS has final approval over what learning counts. The District is exploring innovative options for teacher professional development by piloting a new model, MyPD, which offers more personalized options for teachers to choose from (options that also align with the District’s Teaching and Learning standards). MyPD includes online opportunities such as virtual modules created by Relay Graduate School which are aligned to the the district’s teaching standards — and much like Mozilla’s badges, the strategies covered in Relay’s modules “stack” to convey competency in a larger skill.

As an example, consider what it takes to build competence in Teach Standard 5, “checking for student understanding.” Three different strategies are offered to help teachers acquire this competency, including establishing gestures for student responses and making use of individual student white boards. Once teachers master these different, stackable skills — and create artifacts, like video, demonstrating their ability to implement these strategies in the classroom — they are able to convey their mastery and earn those “contact hours” that enable them to renew their license.

Digital Promise contracted with Achievery — an online credential and badge platform — to host micro-credentials for these three strategies. With this additional step, DCPS has been able to take a first step toward creating a more transparent way to track and give credit for teacher professional learning. It has also taken a step toward transferability. Imagine after years of working in the District, a teacher relocated to another school district in Virginia or Maryland: as that teacher applied to new schools in other districts, they would have a complete online portfolio that housed evidence and artifacts of their professional learning. That teacher’s learning would be in their own hands.”

Overall, the micro-credentialing movement has a lot to offer teacher professional development. While pilots like DC’s are just getting started, it’s promising to see educators looking to other industries for new ways to improve professional learning. For teachers needing 90 hours of professional development every four years, however, the few initial micro-credential offerings are only a drop in the bucket. It still remains to be seen whether the movement will be revolutionary — or just a novelty.

Lindsey Tepe is a policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the partnership to create micro-credentials. Digital Promise contracted with Achievery.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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