What is a Micro-Credential? Should I get one?

By Cindi Noe, MSN, RN Aug 24, 2020

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AACN has been exploring the potential of a micro-credential for several years.

Last April, I was in my home office in Texas when my supervisor called and asked, “Do you think now is the right time to introduce the concept of a micro-credential?” My heart leapt. “Yes, we absolutely need to do this,” I enthusiastically replied. The next question was more sobering: “Is it possible to do it in four months?” I understood the point of the question immediately. It is all about relevancy and timing.

As one of the AACN certification practice specialists, I am part of a team responsible for the coordination of certification exam development activities for AACN’s RN and APRN credentials. Development of a credential is no easy feat. It represents a tremendous investment of time and resources. At a minimum, a new nursing certification may take as long as 36 months to launch with the efforts of staff at AACN Certification Corporation, including the expertise of psychometric services from our test vendor and over 45 volunteer nurses who are subject matter experts. It would take years to follow a traditional process for developing a credential and, at that point, would a COVID-19 micro-credential be of value to nurses?

Furthermore, when nurses ask us to develop new certifications for a specific, albeit important, aspect of their practice, such as ECMO or CRRT, we explain why these topics wouldn’t meet the definition of a nursing certification. Since this pandemic began, AACN has received requests for a COVID-19 credential, which is considered a subset of knowledge that could be appropriate for a micro-credential.

The Value of a Micro-Credential

AACN has been exploring the potential of a micro-credential for several years. While a nursing certification encompasses the broad aspects of the role and scope of a specialty (e.g., critical care, progressive care, infection control, etc.), a micro-credential is focused on a specific skill or competency. Business and information technology professionals commonly use platforms offering micro-credentials, such as LinkedIn Learning or Coursera, to learn new skills and obtain credentials that validate their knowledge to employers or customers. But they are still a novel idea for nurse certifiers. Micro-credentials vary significantly in definition and design. The rules for an accredited certification are standardized across all professions, but micro-credential standards are determined by the offering organization. For a profession such as nursing that values standards of practice, policies and procedures, waiting for consensus on the rules of a micro-credential seemed prudent.

How a Micro-Credential Can Benefit You

… And then came COVID-19. Everything we thought we knew and could count on was upended. We watched as nurses had to completely rethink their practice and delivery of care models. Circumstances forced innovative thinking, such as:

  • The use of visual cues for hot and cold zones
  • Extra-long IV tubing
  • Rapidly teaching complex concepts to help staff provide care for higher-acuity patients
  • Embracing technology to bring family members and other loved ones virtually to the bedside

Nurses even became skilled at writing backward on glass walls to communicate with team members.

In thinking back to the start of my journey as a nurse I recalled the words of my research professor: “The only thing you can count on in nursing is change. And if you are going to be successful, you must adapt, but you must do so safely. Your patients are counting on it.” At the onset of COVID-19, nurses were looking to AACN and their fellow AACN members for best practice recommendations and clinical guidelines, staffing models and emotional support. And they were asking for ways to validate the knowledge needed to do this work. If nurses could almost completely revamp their practice to meet the challenge of COVID-19 head-on, so could we as a certifying organization.

Development of a Micro-Credential

Certifying organizations know how to assess knowledge. We could create an exam to validate the knowledge of clinicians who would be doing this work. The timing was also right to rethink how we could deliver a micro-credential exam directly to candidates. This year, we had successfully launched CCRN and PCCN practice exam products through a digital platform. Therefore, candidates could take a micro-credential exam on their own schedule conveniently from a home computer or mobile device.

The key to making this micro-credential possible was the engagement of our amazing team of volunteer expert nurses who work on exam development and know what is involved in caring for patients with COVID-19. Each nurse we approached with the idea of a micro-credential focused on COVID-19 pulmonary and ventilator care immediately offered their time and expertise. Since the knowledge required was also applicable to other healthcare providers, AACN reached out to clinical experts with other healthcare backgrounds to create an exam that was inclusive of their disciplines.

Two volunteer teams worked at a fast pace to create the exam. One designed the blueprint and specifications for the exam and validated the test; the other independently wrote the exam questions. Within four months, we developed a micro-credential exam to validate the entry-level knowledge of direct care clinicians who wish to provide pulmonary and ventilator care to patients with COVID-19. Could we develop a micro-credential to validate knowledge to provide pulmonary and ventilator care to patients with COVID-19 now? Yes, we should and we did.

The "COVID-19 Pulmonary and Ventilator Care" micro-credential online exam is now available and can also be taken from the safety and comfort of your home.

How would a micro-credential bring value to your practice?