Using micro-credentials to supplement the NZDE


A feasibility study into the potential for micro-credentials to provide an alternative pathway into the NZDE (Civil) recommended a pilot project to run at Unitec.

Feasibility study recommends pilot micro-credentials project

The 2018 Engineering e2e-funded feasibility study investigated the potential for micro-credentials to supplement the existing New Zealand Diploma in Engineering (NZDE) (Civil) programme to make it more attractive to a wider range of potential learners.
See our info sheet on micro-credentials/feasibility studies

Hugh Wilson and Malcolm Hay, Unitec, consulted with industry, interviewed graduates and compared micro-credentials learning outcomes with the NZDE. They recommended a pilot micro-credentials project be trialled at Unitec; this is presently underway and will conclude in December 2019.

The pilot

Learners participating in the pilot are able to complete five online three-credit micro-credentials covering knowledge and competencies in the design, construction and maintenance of roads. Those who complete all five micro-credentials would be able to have their micro-credentials cross-credited to the equivalent NZDE course at Unitec.

Developing a micro-credentials system

Developing a micro-credentials system aligned with the NZDE (Civil) started with first identifying the roles that NZDE (Civil) graduates fulfil in industry, then determining the tasks undertaken in each role. The competencies required for each task were then derived and micro-credentials developed to recognise each competency. It was found that each competency could be represented by a 3-credit micro-credential (about 30 hours of learning for someone new to the topic).

Comparing micro-credentials with NZDE learning outcomes

The project team compared the proposed micro-credentials with learning outcomes in the NZDE courses and arranged them into stacks (groups of micro-credentials) that aligned to the learning outcomes of the corresponding NZDE course.

They found that most of the competencies required by graduates in their first few years of practice could be covered by 10 (of 21) NZDE courses. Some additional micro-credentials had to be added to ensure all learning outcomes were covered but the micro-credentials and NZDE syllabus generally agreed.

Available online at no cost

The project team proposed that the micro-credential system be available online at any time at no cost. The proposed system would involve:

  • Free open learning resources (videos, readings, websites and activities) that would enable learners to develop the competency
  • Learners having the option to pay a fee to demonstrate and be assessed in the competency and receiving recognition with a micro-credential along with verification of their identity.

 Benefits of micro-credentials

Micro-credentials have benefits for learners and employers. They offer a flexible way for learners to balance study against other commitments, given that they don’t have to be in class, and have the potential to make engineering education accessible to a wider range of people.

It may be easier for learners to gain a specific competency through a micro-credential rather than as part of a larger topic, and could also be more motivating. As a learner achieves each micro-credential, they may be more inspired to continue on to the next and/or work towards gaining the NZDE.

Micro-credentials are simpler and less time-consuming to develop, and can be implemented quickly as required. Their flexibility also makes them a good option for providing staff with professional development.

Potential disadvantages

The project team noted several disadvantages of micro-credentials: that focusing on a single competency raises the risk that learners do not understand how individual competencies interconnect; and that the relatively simple format does not offer them the opportunity to develop higher order thinking skills such as analysing and synthesising information that can be developed with large, complex assignments. These potential issues need to be addressed in the design of a micro-credential system.

Online learning in itself can be challenging for people with less academic abilities who lack the skills needed to study online or self-motivation to direct their own learning. Therefore, the online learning resources need to be designed to provide options for the additional learning required to allow learners to develop these academic abilities.

Cross-crediting micro-credentials

The pilot proposal suggests that the micro-credentials be linked to the NZDE. “This would provide some status to the micro-credentials and enable micro-credential holders to transition into a formal educational pathway.”

It would allow learners who gain the complete micro-credential stack associated with an NZDE course to apply for a cross-credit for that course. (NB: the National Curriculum Document for the NZDE only allows 50% of the programme to be cross-credited). Further discussion around this suggestion is under way with the New Zealand Board of Engineering Diplomas (NZBED) and ITPs (institutes of technology and polytechnics).

Potential to increase the number of civil engineers

Micro-credentials have the potential to increase the number of civil engineers. The project team identified some possibilities:

  • Compiling some of the micro-credentials into an NCEA course focused on providing students with an understanding/skill in the civil engineering industry
  • Introducing a certificate or larger micro-credential recognising the holder has all the competencies required for a specific role, such as structural draftsperson, so that workers can gain a relevant credential in their field
  • Using online resources to enable regional education institutions/organisations to implement micro-credentials that meet their own needs.

Proposed pilot stack

The project team noted a number of risks in designing a new approach and recommended the project be progressed in stages – one or two micro-credential stacks at a time – to minimise risk.

Our thanks to Hugh and Malcolm for their time and advice; if you have any queries please contact

May 2019