Things aren’t Stacking up: stackable credentials in Animation

“Now the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic is giving microcredentials a burst of momentum. A lot of people will need more education to get back into the workforce, and they’ll need to get it quickly, at the lowest possible cost, and in subjects directly relevant to available jobs”.

Jon Marcus, “More Students Are ‘Stacking’ Credentials en Route to a Degree” 06 02 2020

It seems the time is right to talk about microcredentials again. It’s time to address those learners who want recognition for their learning, to be challenged and then credited by a trusted authoritative party.

This article introduces some of the issues in general terms from what I’ll characterise as my own screen industries perspective and sets out some ideas I’ll deal with in greater depth in further articles.

Arguably the need for microcredentials is particularly acute in areas where the body of knowledge is always changing because it’s hard for a standards and qualification body to track and adapt its qualifications repeatedly and rapidly.

In animation or VFX (my specialisms) if you turned up for a job interview with just a degree from five years ago, how would you show you were ‘current’? Maybe you’d have a current showreel of more recent work – good. But what if the interviewer wanted to unpick what you actually did in the examples of teamwork you showed? Or maybe your reel doesn’t really display your key strengths? It’s maybe not clear from what you display on your reel that you independently raised angel investment for a project, or negotiated a deal with a famous sound designer, or that as a Scrum Master you taught the rest of the team agile sprints? In short, how do you proclaim your motivation AND metaskills AND articulate your personal achievements from the images you display on your recent reel? I think Microcredentials could add new dimensions to the learner’s offer to employers, and if we can explain it to employers they may well see the added value within their recruitment processes.

Often, after leaving School, College or University you are on your own; although a lot is said about lifelong learning, Universities have their hands full with the new people coming on the degree conveyor belt as you drop off the other side. Or, if you have a degree but want a certain new skill, the University frequently just wants to sell you a Masters qualification, or a short ‘training’ course which will be cancelled at the last minute if it doesn’t achieve the requisite quorate. Beyond the UG/PG structure credited learning can be dicey.

Here, I thought it helpful to consider how microcredentials might assist in a subject I know a little about- Animation.

Constellation not Stacks

First, we hear a lot about Stackable Credentials. But stacks in the service of whom? Stacks can imply linear progression, and linearity tends to be encouraged because it’s easier for the provider to administer and steer the learner to existing provision, nudging them to stay in the same field. This is what has led to so few trans-disciplinary talents emerging from Universities, despite the business world craving such.

A better concept is paths through Constellations, predicated on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. What I mean here is at any stage there are forks or multiple options on the next credential you might take, not just a linear stepping stone.

One thing that Universities are good at is progression. If you’ve done a degree, they won’t try and sell you another one. They want you to progress to a Masters. However, in today’s transdisciplinary world, another subject at the same level might be just what you need. Stacking also implies ascension. Horizontal Stacking is eschewed. So, Constellation Paths open up the debate in lots of ways, and gives the learner more agency. Caveat emptor becomes caveat venditor.

A Microcredential framework

Being freed of the need for courses to fit to a specific length, level, or discipline means we can create a constellation that is not standardised across all subjects. This will be most alarming to some institutions who have a modular framework mindset that only allows certain study hours, or credit weightings, (15 and 30 being common).

In our intended example of Animation, the Constellation can consist of a multiple of learning opportunities that get you from the present to your future self. Think of a rather dense and complex scrabble game- some words are long, others short but of even higher value. It’s a rhizomatic structure rather than arboreal structure you are travelling through.

In our constellation concept it would be possible to imagine multiple paths from one side of the board to another, hopping through a succession of words, big and small in circuitous, erratic directions.

Levelling Up

I’ve suggested elsewhere a taxonomy that employers might prefer for a Digital Badge constellation, but I think this might also map to a microcredential constellation too. I suggested these levels:

So, these would be our ‘Levels’ which microcredentials might be pegged to.


Within any Constellation there are clusters of stars. Within any discipline there are accepted principles or hierarchies of skills and competencies, expressed in the idiom of the profession.

If you ask an Animator for a framework for mastery of their subject, they mostly will talk about the 12 Principles of Animation. These ‘rules’ stem from 1981, when Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas outlined them in their seminal book “The Illusion of Life”. Although expounded before the digital era, and albeit with a bias to character design, the principles hold firm as a scaffold to peg learning courses and achievement. So, you might base your microcredential constellation cluster around:

1. Squash and stretch animation

2. Anticipation animation

3. Staging animation

4. Choosing between Straight ahead action and pose to pose animation

5. Follow through and overlapping action animation

6. Ease in ease out animation

7. Arcs

8. Secondary action

9. Timing

10. Exaggeration

11. ‘3D’ Solid drawing animation

12. Appeal animation

As a learner you could be encouraged to earn a ‘Principles of Animation’ credential by working through and being awarded badges and/or credits for these 12 components. As this is the industry’s own yardstick, what better way to build a constellation mini-cluster that gets aggregated into a qualification or credit?

The Credentialphant in the room.

Whilst the subject of microcredentials is mostly led by the US education system and its dynamics, we need a more European approach. In the States much of the work is regarding creating a range of breadcrumb skills that the learner picks up over a period of time to ‘Stack’ into a degree or a traditional university product. EdX have even trademarked the word “MicroBachelors” to describe them. Convenience is key, and it brings in learners who couldn’t access learning otherwise.

However, most of his seems to be Vertical Stacking, where progress is seen as getting higher value credentials as you go, and the concepts of Horizontal Stacking (shifting across to a credential at the same level), or Diagonal Stacking are undeveloped, and in terms of metaphor pretty two-dimensional. A 3D constellation is more challenging but more helpful.  

Employer’s eye view

What do Employers want to see? Actually, Employers have told us what they want in terms of skills and knowledge. In the UK they are called National Occupational Standards and are often unfortunately ignored by Universities when they want to create a course in a new subject. These documents could also be used as a way to frame and label constellations of microcredentials.

Currently a typical employer might recruit graduates but will have a hard time differentiating one 2.1 holder from another, without a lot of time. With microcredentials that differentiation is so much easier, and recruitment becomes more Boolean; rather than sifting through a horde of Animation degree 2:1s why not search for Animation degree holders + a microcredential in Agile + a specialism in secondary action? As an employer in this microcredential constellation universe you can have more refined demands of applicants and also be more declarative about what you are after from your recruits.

In this article I have suggested some ideas to guide the creation of flexible and meaningful credit system, with clusters and non-linear progression as principles that could guide us to create something of value to employers, I’m using my own industries as a starting point, and I make no assumptions that this would work across the board for other professions.

My next article will be to suggest how we might build a proximal system of credits around an existing degree provision, to enable learners to express their difference in the marketplace and find more rewarding work.

Images in this article: “The Stacks” in Ready Player One (2018 Warner Bros)

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