Taking the ‘Not Again’ Out of Professional Learning

A Collaborative Approach for Developing Micro-Credentials Based on Need

By Dr. Dessie Bowling, Robert Brown

Earning professional credentials is a requirement in various sectors of industry such as medicine, technology and business. Industry professionals attend sessions in face-to-face settings at required conferences or other specialized learning experiences for continued certification requirements and to increase their defined expertise. For several years, many of these same professionals have been earning credentials through the digital option of micro-credentialing.  According to Olivia Blazevic, in What are Micro-Credentials and How Can They Benefit You? they are defined as “certification-style qualifications that individuals choose to study to improve a skill found in a particular industry area. They are short, low-cost online courses that provide learners with a digital certification or a ‘digital badge’ when complete. This new learning concept continues to gain recognition and is highly sought after within the professional landscape.”

Newer to the education world, micro-credentials are gaining momentum as part of a continuous professional learning system. This digital form of professional learning provides opportunities for educators to demonstrate competencies in specific skills or content areas.  Typically, micro-credentials are more targeted and specific than other types of credentials.  They address current needs identified by the educator to improve learning environments for students.

Imagine it’s August and one finds an educator attending another sit and get professional learning experienced and wondering “how does this pertain to me” or “when are they going to model teaching strategies that I can use to help my students”! Study after study demonstrate professional learning that is designed specific to teachers’ needs, that is backed by proven research-based best practices, and that makes positive impact on classroom environments with improved student learning are worth every dime and minute spent.

Personalized Professional Learning Model

The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) located in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky continues to be on the cutting-edge and refining their professional learning model that includes: 1) virtual solutions for educators seeking professional learning experiences that address equity to high-quality, competency-based learning, 2) access to professional learning experiences regardless of zip code, and 3) opportunity to expand knowledge, skill and leadership. The work underway through KVEC’s “Digitalachia” is an important, significant, and effective model that could serve as a roadmap for other rural communities working to dramatically improve educational outcomes for students in rural schools nationally.  Micro-credentials are an important component of that model.

Identifying Needs and Creating Solutions

KVEC hosted the second installment in a five-part series of a Virtual National Micro-Credential Summit on June 30, 2020.  This is the fourth KVEC national convening, with the original three (3) being held in face-to-face settings; the first two (2) were held in Hazard, KY and last year’s (2019) held in Louisville, KY. 

The broad purpose: To provide an opportunity for state and national educational organizations and educators to learn, expand and share expertise and to network coast to coast and internationally on redesigning professional learning systems through micro-credentials. To be more concise, provide professional learning experiences for educators that have a direct, positive impact on student learning.

Educators are beginning to steer away from traditional sit and get models and move toward personalized sessions that allow for connecting clinical experiences to their learning and gather evidence that demonstrate achieved competencies.  There are hundreds of micro-credential options that meet the professional growth needs of educators.  But what happens when an educator’s needed session is identified but not available?  The June 30 convening was all about creating your own micro-credential around an identified need.

Using Data to Inform A Way Forward in Rural Schools

In the summer and fall of 2019, KVEC worked with multiple state and local partners to gather and analyze regional demographic and trend data illustrating current conditions in the region. From this analysis emerged the report, Public Education in Rural Eastern Kentucky, A Region’s Way Forward, Achieving Learner Equity and School Centered Community Reinvention in an Economically Distressed Rural Region.

According to Dr. Dessie Bowling, KVEC Associate Director, the report covers a broad range of indicators impacting education and community vitality. “We use the statistical data to help us make informed decisions about the work we need to do as a service agency. Eastern Kentucky is like many rural regions across the country that have been on the decline due to a loss of jobs and lack of economic opportunities.

 If we’re committed to the success of every child, we must acknowledge the uneven playing field that exists for all diverse learners who confront pre-conceived biases whether it be students with special needs, children experiencing trauma, or relentless poverty.”

(Kentucky Center for Statistics, 2012-2018)

Using the data points identified in the report Dr. Bowling, who also is a national trainer in Ruby Payne’s, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, began working with Dr. Jennifer Carroll, KVEC Professional Learning Lead, to create a micro-credential stack on teaching children in rural poverty. Three micro-credentials of the developing stack, Building Relationships, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, and Understanding Types of Poverty may be found on the platform at Digital Promise. According to Dr. Carroll, “KVEC seeks to provide personalized solutions to problems of practice.” 

Under Kentucky regulations, teachers must complete 24 hours of professional development credit annually to renew their teaching credentials for a five-year period.  Under current budget cuts, resulting in zero dollars being allocated for professional development, schools and districts are faced with finding solutions to meet professional development needs with limited or no funds.  This is where micro-credentials rose to the occasion. 

By analyzing data from multiple schools involved in KVEC’s Activating Catalytic Transformation initiative, gaps were identified for rural students in poverty.  From this data review, the micro-credential stack was developed.  These micro-credentials allow teachers to address specific competencies such as different poverty types -situational or generational- and effects on student learning.  According to Dr. Carroll, “We are always looking for how engaging in understanding impact professional practice and how is it impacting student outcomes.”

“Working through the understanding children from rural poverty micro-credential helped us understand how to better meet the long-distance needs of rural students in our community.” Anna Prince

Two principals, Anna Prince of Louisa East Elementary School and Sara Bowen of Fallsburg Elementary School, both in Lawrence County, KY provided insights into how these micro-credentials were used in their schools and the positive results that were achieved. Both principals incentivized teachers for completing the Understanding Children of Poverty micro-credential by accepting certificates of completion for six (6) of the mandated 24 annual hours of professional development required in Kentucky.  Anna Prince provided an additional incentive of a $100 stipend for teachers who successfully completed the micro-credential.  In both cases, teachers were given the flexibility of time and the ability to work with a team.  Teachers were successful because of the support and encouragement each of the principals provided.  One outcome that had a major impact and was shared by each of the principals was the understanding where their students lived. Completing the micro-credential enabled teachers to have a deeper understanding of how to better meet the needs of their students, especially when schools are closed. Teachers shared that they now had a better understanding of how to meet the long-distance needs of their students and to help them work toward overcoming barriers they could face in isolation.

The micro-credential completion provided meaningful learning for the teachers since they are evaluated based on evidence and earning a digital badge that comes with successful completion.  One should note that completing the micro-credential is not a guarantee of success.  External reviewers are the assessors and measure artifacts and evidence submitted against a rubric to give feedback so that each educator can have a deeper understanding of children from poverty.

Data analysis from ‘A Way Forward’ provided evidence that in our rural region there is a need to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.  Working with our Special Education partners at the Kentucky Department of Education, KVEC designed and initiative aimed at developing the capacity of exemplary regional special education teachers to design nationally vetted “micro-credentials” specific to the needs of practitioners who serve special needs students. 

Dionne Bates, Implementation and Improvement Lead and two colleagues, Denny Paul May, Due Process Consultant and Transition Lead, and Vonda Adams, Achievement Gap Specialist with a focus on Math, collaborated with emerging and experienced teachers to create a stack of 12 micro-credentials.  Their focus:  To improve outcomes for students with disabilities. All published micro-credentials of the Teaching Students with Disabilities stack may be found on the Digital Promise platform. According to Bates, this involved collaborative conversations focusing on needs most appropriate and relevant for our region. “We not only created these to provide supports for special education teachers but also to support traditional educators who teach those same special needs students.”

Through this collaborative process, KVEC staff, a group of special education teachers, administrators, and regional specialists combined their knowledge, skill, and research to develop a wide range of topics from identified special needs areas that included: Mathematics, Literacy, Behavior, Progress Monitoring, Building a Micro-Credential, Administrator coaching, Administrator Feedback, etc. We also had the support of regional hearing impaired and vision impaired consultants to incorporate content strategies in Literacy, Mathematics and Data Analysis.

But this work was not without its struggles.  Paramount to this initiative was the training for practitioners as well as for the KVEC staff.   According to Vonda Adams, “This was a productive struggle for all of us.” Denny Paul agreed. “We really had to dive into the research for our areas and understand how micro-credentials are developed.”

 The teams began with what they knew were the best practices for special education that meet needs of all students.  They reviewed various required standards, tools and high leverage practices.  Often, they found themselves retraining on specific aspects, working with regional experts and recalculating thoughts on the creation of their perspective micro-credential.  According to Adams, “This productive struggle allowed us to understand the competency and deeper personalized learning opportunity.”

Emily Kincer, a teacher at Letcher County Central High School in Letcher County, provided an interview on her work in developing a micro-credential based on Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and detailed a key data point that gets to the true nature that all educators do. “After implementing strategies, all three classrooms in which students used these strategies had a 65% increase between pre and post-assessment results.  This is amazing!”

Behind the scenes and gathering information related to this collaborative process was Dr. Will Kayatin, Education Consultant, Transition and HEd.  Dr. Kayatin served as the senior researcher and author of the  RISE2 Deeper Learning Model:  Systemic Enduring Engagement RESEARCH REPORT:  Special Education in Rural Eastern KY.  This was a collaborative process with Dr. Joseph Wallace, Campbellsville University, KY and Dr. Joe Blackburn, University of Mississippi.

This article describes the impact of a state funded project in the rural schools of Eastern, Appalachian Kentucky. The project involved a partnership between the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Through the partnership, grants were made available region-wide to focus on three areas in special education: transition, micro-credential development and new and emerging teachers. The project was designed to provide practitioner-based opportunities to innovate transition experiences for students, teacher-driven micro-credential development and address the burgeoning need of new and emerging special education teachers, particularly those on alternate academic degree plans. The results of the study indicated that faculty and staff believed that RISE2 Deeper Learning had a positive impact on instructional effectiveness and ultimately student learning, student achievement, as well as overall teacher morale and satisfaction (Kayatin, Wallace, Blackburn).

According to Dr. Kayatin, “We interviewed and observed up to 40 teachers with full support of school/district leaders.  This was an opportunity for them to develop micro-credentials germane to their profession, schools and districts.”

The data revealed overwhelmingly positive results from both experienced and emerging educators involved in this process.  Using survey instruments and interviews to collect quantitative and qualitative data, Kayatin shared data which demonstrated that in each content area and each level, from elementary to high, all results were in the strongly agree or agree that this work positively impacted the teacher’s classroom performance.   “There were even positive results between those teachers who had 1-10 years of experience and those that have 15+ years,” remarked Kayatin.

Question 11 of Education Survey of RISE2 Deeper Learning

Of special note was the one question whose 100% negative response was extremely positive for this study: “The RISE2 project has made no tangible improvement to my capacity to improve my instruction or student learning.”  Since the research pool on micro-credentials for education is currently rather shallow, these studies shed light on promising practices, geared toward teacher need, that are making positive impacts on the lives of students.

Transforming Educator Professional Learning in a Digital Environment

In conclusion, this is how KVEC does it.  1) Reviews multiple sources of data, 2) Identifies gaps and needs based on that data, and 3) Brings together regional experts, administrators, teachers and researchers to develop solutions to problems of practice. While addressing equity and access and the limited funding pool of schools, KVEC and its collaborative schools, are finding ways to bring professional learning to the teachers’ doorsteps. Add to this mix the current COVID-19 needs, providing digital, competency-based professional learning fits the bill for any looking to provide access to high-quality learning.  But, yet again, KVEC was already ahead of the curve on this one.  Having been involved in the micro-credential world for several years, not even COVID-19 stopped KVEC from being able to provide these types of professional learning experiences.

But the work is not over.  KVEC has completed two of the five sessions.  The next session will convene on July 14, 2020 at 2:00 PM, EDT.  This session will focus on Micro-Credential Design Principles created in collaboration between the Council of Chief State School Officers and Digital Promise, along with other multiple organizations who were involved in the process…and yes, KVEC was at the table.

Deepening the discussions, KVEC will host two others, one on July 28 and the final on August 11.  These sessions will focus on the impact that competency-based learning has on leadership in the schools, and how state and national organizations are using micro-credentials for professional learning, certification, and re-licensure, respectively. 

If you would like more information or discussion about this work, email:

Dr. Dessie Bowling, KVEC Associate Director        
[email protected]
Robert Brown, KVEC Policy Lead                  [email protected]


Blazevic, Olivia “What are Micro Credentials and How Can They Benefit You?”
Training.com.au. 8 August, 2018 https://www.training.com.au/ed/how-micro-credentials-can-benefit-you/?utm_referrer=

Kayatin, W., Wallace, J., Blackbourn, J., (2020)  “RISE2 Deeper Learning Model:  Systemic 
Enduring Engagement RESEARCH REPORT:  Special Education in Rural Eastern KY.” Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative


1 thought on “Taking the ‘Not Again’ Out of Professional Learning”

  1. I am so very proud of the team at Phelps…Mr. Don Page and his team of students completed this great Tiny House. It was snapped up by a buyer in California. Those folks know a quality built and attractive home when they see one!!!

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