Diplomas—those venerable printed documents that lack hotlinks and interactivity features—have lost some of their luster. While employers increasingly demand that new hires have college degrees, the transcripts supporting those hard-earned credentials are no longer the most informative tool students have to exhibit their skills.
“The bachelor’s degree or Ph.D. will never go away,” says Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing and Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But every higher ed portfolio is going to have some form of alternative credential that will demonstrate a student’s competency in certain areas.”
Digital badges, a tool DiSalvio has studied and written about, are gaining currency as an effective alternative credential that students can use to show off skills from “problem-solving” to “3D printing” to “career readiness.”
An estimated 1 in 5 institutions issue digital badges, which can be posted to social media, stored on digital portfolios and displayed by other specially designed platforms. When clicked on, the badge lists a range of skills a student has demonstrated beyond grades.
“The reason they’re taking off in higher education is most employers are not getting the information they need about people emerging from higher ed, with previous tools we’ve been using,” says Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of the widely used badging platform Credly. “The degree itself doesn’t get to level of describing particular competencies.”
And while some employers may not yet be deeply versed in the capabilities of digital badges, colleges and universities are leaping ahead of the curve in developing rigorous and purposeful microcredentialing programs that recognize students for skills acquired on the path to completing courses, degrees, certificates and co-curricular activities.
Connecting the academic dots Esoteric course titles listed on transcripts can sometimes baffle employers trying to determine the skills a student has acquired. The same can be said for learning experiences such as service trips to foreign countries, which may only appear on a transcript as a pass/fail course.
Geoff Irvine, CEO of the assessment and e-portfolio company Chalk & Wire, calls this a “transparency gap.” “The degree itself is a very opaque document,” Irvine says. Badges can better connect what colleges teach to skills needed in the workforce. Badges can also bring some valuable clarity to a student’s academic record.
For instance, a Notre Dame student who goes on a trip to Ecuador to build bridges can earn a badge for mastering the calculations involved in the construction, says G. Alex Ambrose, associate program director of e-portfolio assessment at the Indiana university’s Kaneb Center for Teaching & Learning.
The most popular badges aren’t necessarily validated on traditional transcripts and résumés, Ambrose says. “We now have a way to show videos and pictures and the algorithms of that bridge, and write about the skills gained.”
At a handful of University System of Maryland’s 12 institutions, students can earn a “Career Ready Skills” badge—even though none of the schools offers a course called “Career Ready Skills.”
Students can be pretty certain when they have passed calculus or creative writing, but they don’t always recognize when they’ve excelled in demonstrating soft skills such as critical thinking, communication and work ethic, says MJ Bishop, director of the system’s William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation.
For instance, a recent system graduate didn’t claim any leadership skills during a conversation with a job recruiter. However, that student had managed several group projects.
“Students have never connected the dots—they don’t realize they’ve developed these skills,” says Bishop, who is helping five system institutions launch badging programs.
“If badges get students to reflect and pull together evidence of things they’ve done to develop leadership and other skills—and be ready to answer those interview questions—that’s a win, even if the employer doesn’t look at the badges.”
Not just a ‘Great Job!’ sticker Getting employers to take badges seriously means backing them up with a rigorous set of goals the student has achieved, says Rob Gibson, director of learning technologies at Emporia State University in Kansas.
“We are careful not to award badges for anything that’s considered fluff, such as participation in an event,” Gibson says. “We don’t have badges for pizza
parties—they have to have evidence behind them.”
Emporia State has been piloting badges in several departments over the last year, for both curricular and co-curricular achievements.
Badges have been most popular in the school of education—including with student teachers who, in turn, have created badges for the elementary and secondary classrooms where they’ve apprenticed, says Anna Catterson, the university’s educational technology director.
The campus library is another badging hotspot. Students there have earned microcredentials for research, 3D printing and other skills. These badges are being shared on LinkedIn and other platforms to obtain internships and scholarships.
The university runs faculty training sessions on badging and has established a review process for when faculty submit ideas for microcredentials. Catterson also serves as the project manager who reviews badge proposals for sufficient rigor and ensures that the skills are tied meaningfully to relevant curricular concepts.
One pothole to avoid is trying to create a schoolwide badge that’s standardized across a wide range of courses or majors. This can force the involvement of committees that can bog down the process, so it’s better to start with skills within single courses, says Ambrose at Notre Dame.
An early adopter, the Indiana institution has been issuing badges for about five years, including in the first-year experience course that covers the transition to college.
The work students complete to earn the course’s Five Pillars badge (focused on self-direction, goal-setting and communicating knowledge) has the viral effect of motivating students in following years to reach the same achievements. “That’s the real exciting part—when you become more open and transparent with learning,” Ambrose says.
“It has a really nice impact outside the life of one semester’s class of raising the tide of all ships.”
Revenue from a competitive edge Many schools target badges toward employers, so it makes sense to get those very businesses involved in the development of microcredentials. The Colorado Community College System learned from its partners in industry a few years ago that graduates did not have adequate math skills.
So, the system—which has 13 colleges, 39 campuses and 135,000 students—created a MOOC where students can earn a badge for learning math contextualized for manufacturing, says Provost William Tammone. This lead to the creation of badges for various machining skills, 3D printing and use of computer-assisted design software.
“Badges are a valuable supplement to college degree in documenting skills that employees are looking for,” Tammone says. “When employers receive applications, they can’t tell what the degree represents in terms of competencies.”
When creating a badge, system faculty have to identify a business or industry interested in that credential.
The Colorado system recently collaborated with medical providers in the Denver area to create badges in health care communications, and plans to develop similar microcredentials in IT, says Brenda Perea, an instructional design project manager with the system.
Kathleen Radionoff, dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Education at Madison College in Wisconsin, says badges provide a competitive edge for her institution, particularly when it comes to filling noncredit vocational courses that help students build professional skills.
Badges that have the backing of a college or university are more impressive to job recruiters than are completion certificates from skill-building websites like Lynda.com.
“Long-term, I see a very healthy revenue stream for the college,” she says. “Workers today have to upskill constantly—it’s no longer great that you have a bachelor’s degree. You have to prove to employers that you know the latest technology, the latest work skills.” The college is already seeing enrollment bumps when students share their badges online.
“In order for badges to be valuable, they have to mean something,” Radionoff says. “We set the bar fairly high for student attainment before we issue a badge.”
And administrators shouldn’t forget that badges have to look great, says Lindsay Doukopoulos, assistant director of Auburn’s Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.
Students won’t be motivated to earn a badge that’s a stock blue ribbon downloaded off the internet. Many institutions put a lot work into the design, and this can include harnessing expertise from the marketing department and graphic designers, Doukopoulos says.
“The design itself has a lot of impact—just like a website,” says Doukopoulos, who has created professional development badges for topics such as active learning and preparing future faculty. “The quality of a badge is really important in terms of getting people who don’t know about them interested.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.