New Pathways to Credentialing: The Digital Badge

By Philip DiSalvio

With roots going back to the 13th century, the modern system of academic degrees functions as one of the most important ways to signal mastery of knowledge. The degree serves as a currency for accessing opportunities.

Yet as new areas of knowledge and demand for particular competencies expand, traditional ways of measuring mastery may fall short of fully capturing the learning that happens in the classroom. Moreover, these ways of measuring mastery may do a poor job of communicating detailed information about graduates.

Increased talk about alternate credentialing in the higher education space has reappeared and there is reason to believe that institutions should pay heed. With an increasing number of higher education institutions now offering “digital badges,” some suggest that this credential has become a practical commodity in the world of college credentials. Colleges and universities are in a unique position to be the gatekeepers of many of those credentials.

Among the many institutions of higher education looking closely at digital badges is Oregon State University. Hearing the message loud and clear, Oregon State has begun to offer 40 different digital credentials aimed at a wide range of students—from attorneys and others seeking to earn additional professional certifications to hobbyists looking to broaden their skills.

In 2013, the New England Board of Higher Education convened educators and opinion leaders to discuss opportunities and challenges in the daylong symposium The University Unbound: Can Higher Education Compete and Survive the Age of “Free” and Open Learning.

Erin Knight, who leads the learning work at Mozilla, spoke of her “Open Badges” project supported by the MacArthur Foundation. With different kinds of learners who opt for different pathways, Knight argued that badges capture a more comprehensive way to describe student learning than just a one-line naming degree. As an alternative credentialing system that aims to allow the learner to control the credentials and move away from seat time, “the idea with badges is to have an alternative system that allows us to supplement the degree (and) instead of having just a grade at the end of a course or a degree, recognize various competencies along the way.” Knight observed that “… the only things in the game right now are grades, transcripts and degrees, and there are only certain ways you can get those … and there is learning that’s getting missed.”

Earlier this year, the Parchment Summit on Innovating Academic Credentials convened leaders from higher education, business, philanthropy and technology to explore the transformative potential of technology in extending the reach and meaning of academic credentials. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce opened the day’s discussion by saying “Our current credentialing system is too fragmented. The many credentials out there—including certificates, licenses, college degrees, industry-based certifications, even apprenticeships—all have labor market value. We need a transparent and comprehensive system for tracking their economic value.”

Parchment Chief Executive Officer Matthew Pittinsky stated that “employers are asking for better insight into the discrete competencies and skills that make up today’s academic credentials (and that) around the country, colleges and universities are beginning to reimagine how we convey the experiences and learnings that make up the degree. By taking a new approach to academic credentials, students are able to better map those to new educational and job opportunities.”

Another recent gathering hosted by The New Media Consortium, stressed the importance of students earning digital badges to help them in the job market and what must be done to propel the digital badge and credentialing movement. “Digital badges allow students to turn competencies and achievements to marketable credentials … yet, unless clearly defined management processes are put into place, this potential may not be realized,” said Susan Manning, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and panelist.

Examples of such management processes might include the development of clear definitions of competencies, mechanisms that test students and verify identity, processes that demonstrate evidence of skills attained, capacities for easy management of badges with interfaces that are easily viewable and storable, and systems that track digital badges earned.

The significance of the digital badge on the higher education scene should not be taken lightly. With a nontraditional digital approach to credentialing—one that places the focus on individual student learning accomplishments—a student might earn a cluster of badges. This collection of individual competencies could be accessible from a variety of social media sites or as part of a résumé or e-portfolio. Providing a more detailed story to prospective employers about those activities that specifically define a student’s learning, a digital badge can communicate specific skill-sets acquired and knowledge obtained. With the fierce competition in the labor market today, credentials such as digital badges can serve as a way to align employee competencies with employer need.

Demand for verified skills and credentials is on the rise. The publication eCampus News (Dec. 10, 2015) reported that currently 1 in 4 adults have an alternative credential of some sort, and those adults with digital certifications generally receive six times as many profile views on social media job sites such as LinkedIn. Additionally, eCampus observes that the availability of alternative credentials will double over the next five years with 400 institutions reportedly having competency-based digital badge programs in development, bringing the total to about 750 in five years.

Questions over the impact on student learning remain and research is underway to explore how digital badges might be incorporated into the overall learning of students. The New York Times reports that one such research study at Carnegie Mellon produced findings that suggest integrating badges into courses motivates students to continue to keep learning. The article goes on to report that some Purdue University professors are awarding badges for reaching benchmarks in regular credit-bearing courses.

There is still much to be done. While digital badges may be a useful tool in providing a gateway to career advancement and identifying and validating an individual’s accomplishments and competencies, the American Council on Education has observed that a shared vision among higher education and employers for a learning-based credentialing system that ensures tangible benefits for students must be developed.

Many details remain for badges to be broadly accepted as legitimate indicators of education, skill or experience. It may be premature to say whether employers will come to view them as trusted credentials. In a recent survey of 114 human resources managers from across various industries, 62% expressed interest in digital badges but wanted to learn more about them.

Educause, the nonprofit membership association that supports professionals who lead, manage and use information technology in higher education, observes that acceptance depends, at least in part, on the level of quality control for these credentials.

While the question of quality control remains, there are frameworks that provide parameters to help institutions build impactful, high quality, evidence-rich badges. The MacArthur Foundation-funded Open Badges in Higher Education initiative provides such parameters, built around are a set of questions that help build better badges. Among the questions to be asked about: “badge-able” learning: 1) Can the badge be validated through an evidence-rich credential? 2) What does the recipient of the badge have to do to establish a claim of learning? 3) What evidence will be used to substantiate learning claims? 4) Can the badge exist with the institution’s learning management system or can it exist within any learning management system? 5) Is the learning evidenced in the badge context-specific and not subject to expiration or valid for a limited amount of time until more training is required?

Such frameworks could help drive the growth of digital badges in higher education and open up opportunities that deliver added value to the traditional degree credential and make discernible those accomplishments, skills and competencies of students.

Philip DiSalvio is dean of the College of Advancing and Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


First Digital Badge at UMass Boston

The College of Advancing and Professional Studies Corporate and Professional Division recently launched the first digital badge at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The Project Risk Management Digital Badge is a self-paced online set of modules that covers six steps of project risk management as prescribed by the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Successful completion on a test of knowledge results in the awarding of a Project Risk Management Digital Badge that can be added to a Mozilla Backpack for sharing on social media platforms.



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