Further education can be a daunting prospect when you have to work around full-time employment and other life commitments. That’s why the stackable micro-credential courses from The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab’s are designed to create a master’s programme that doesn’t compromise your career.
After years as the owner of her own businesses, and with her days of full-time study behind her, Eddie Hoskin wasn’t in the market for a return to intense post-graduate education.
A diploma in business management at a traditional education institution had given her the chance to upskill, but left Hoskin unhappy with the weight placed on areas of study that didn’t seem relevant to her learning.
“It was so frustrating feeling like the learning materials would have been exactly the same 30 years ago,” she says. “One of my essays got 99% because my resources weren’t all in alphabetical order. What does that show about what I’ve learnt about management?”
The print and design store owner didn’t want to stop learning, but felt as though she had reached the end of what traditional education could offer her. That’s when she stumbled upon The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab.
After attending an online information evening, Hoskin realised micro-credentials could be the perfect way to keep her knowledge relevant and boost her business nous, while not compromising on career goals.
Now she’s a few weeks into her master’s programme, having completed two micro-credentials with The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab: Disruptive Technologies and Organisational Agility. And she has a whole new outlook on postgraduate education.
“The thought of writing a thesis, that’s not something that interests me, sitting in front of a computer and writing out theoretical stuff, but this is like a hands-dirty thing for me and I’ll have something to show for it. My project is something that I believe is going to make a difference to the people around me, and I don’t think if I had gone to a university that would have been the case.”
But how do micro-credentials work, and how can they lead to a master’s degree?
Craig Hilton, national academic director at The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, talked to The Spinoff about the work they’ve done to ensure further education is accessible for all with their Learn, Stack, Build, Master concept.
First-off, what is a micro-credential?
Essentially, a micro-credential is a short, NZQA-approved course with a focus on skills not necessarily found in mainstream education, like digital skills for the workplace. At The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, these courses often take around 10 weeks to complete, and the workload and timings of classes and group sessions are built to fit around people who work full-time.
“Micro-credentials support you as and where you need the learning, so you’re learning as you go. They’re bite sized. Not a massive commitment in time and not a massive commitment financially,” says Hilton.
For Hoskin, being able to use the knowledge she was gaining through her micro-credential courses in her day-to-day helped her learn on the job.
“Being able to explain to my staff why I was making decisions and making them in new ways and being able to test things out in my business, that’s what I liked. There are heaps of things that I now have incorporated into my day-to-day work,” she says.
So how can these micro-credentials turn into a master’s degree?
It’s similar to how students can choose electives in more traditional education programmes, Hilton explains.
“It’s not new to have electives in study, but we want to go another step and offer the opportunity to do micro-credentials, so if you do a micro-credential on Disruptive Technologies then that’s already at the right level to include in your master’s.”
The idea is that The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab can create micro-credentials quickly to respond to the needs of their students and the needs of a world where technology is rapidly changing the way we work. The courses are designed in close collaboration with the needs of industries and the influences impacting their future in real time. Hilton says the goal is to have a list of micro-credentials that can be mixed and matched to create a bespoke master’s programme for each student.
“We want to have a list of approved micro-credentials that you can use to do your master’s, and we want to be able to modify that list when master’s candidates have identified an area, for instance entrepreneurship, that they want to focus on. They might have great ideas about technology but need to be more savvy in regards to all the other things that they need to do for their master’s project.”
How is this different from just going back to university for postgraduate study?
Using stacked micro-credentials to create the first block of the master’s programmes means students can dip their toes into study without committing to their master’s straight away.
“What we want to do is give a learner-determined pathway, so they can choose the micro-credentials they want to do in the first third of the master’s. They can choose different micro-credentials that will help them form an idea to do for their master’s project,” says Hilton.
“Students might not even know they want to do a master’s, they might do a couple of micro-credentials and then we might say ‘have you considered a master’s?’ and then we can support them doing a project.”
So how does the rest of the learning differ from a traditional master’s programme?
There are a few ways to complete your master’s with The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab, and often students choose not to go down the traditional thesis route. For some students, that means a final project delivered by presentation instead.
“Other education programmes are designed with a colonial, western assumption that the only way you can evidence your learning is through writing,” says Hilton.
That’s why the Learn, Stack, Build, Master approach features indigenous knowledge and is focused on practical applications of learning that can be immediately applied in the workplace.
Evidencing their students’ prior learning and industry experience is a key focus for the advisers at The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab. Hilton says it’s important that students feel like they’re not being delivered a one-size-fits-all product, especially those who have years of industry experience already.
“When our master’s students are doing their projects we don’t call supervisors ‘supervisors,’ because that suggests they have a whole lot of knowledge that the student doesn’t have. We call them advisers. They’re facilitating the learning, but often they don’t know as much as our students know about their contexts. We facilitate their learning, we can connect them to experts, we can help them critically engage with the problem or project that they want to do.
“We want to recognise them to evidence their learning in a way that is true to them and relevant to their stakeholders and communities, not what is assumed in an academic environment,” he says.
So it’s immediately relevant to students’ careers?
Exactly. For Hoskin, the acknowledgement of her experience as a business owner meant the content felt more tailored to her personal journey.
“We have these lively discussions and we share things and the staff involved in the delivery of the course will say ‘oh, you’re interested in that? Great, there’s someone else who did this project, I’ll introduce you.’ They care not only that we succeed through the master’s, but that we are enjoying it and we are getting value and contributing. It’s a really circular system,” she says.
For Hilton, the programmes they offer, whether for students wanting to do short courses, or committing to a master’s aren’t meant to just be credentials on a CV. He wants learners that want to make a difference, and that seems to be the kind of learners The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab attracts.
“We don’t want the master’s itself to be an end to the learning. It’s a vehicle for you to have some change in your business or community. These courses are for students who want to learn how to create change in their world – one step at a time.”
And that learning becomes even more meaningful when it takes into account the journeys students have already been on, and the ones they want to take next.
“We want to help students be the change and meet those aspirations and the only way we can do that is by listening to them.”