Digital Badges: The Future of Credentials in the Digital Age

Mike is one of my oldest and closest friends. He is a successful web developer with a nearly 15-year career developing content management systems and web pages for major national accounts. He is creative, technically savvy, easy to work with, and a natural problem-solver.

When we were young, Mike enjoyed tinkering with gadgets or building vinyl model kits, from classic airplanes and cars to the more modern, Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator figurine. Coming of age during the advent of the Internet, Mike was naturally drawn to the World Wide Web and became passionate about the potential of open-access and sharing of information.

He bought self-help books, participated actively in Internet forums and discussion boards, and spent a lot of time practicing—using trial-and-error to learn the basics of HTML, CSS, and Photoshop. By the time he set off to college, Mike had developed a significant suite of technical skills that could land him a well-paying job as a web developer.

In many ways, Mike was and remains the epitome of the 21st century lifelong learner: curious, self-directed, at ease in the digital world, and capable of quickly incorporating the latest digital tools into his repertoire.

He also has attended multiple institutions, compiling a little over 60 credits, but has never completed a degree. As a college student, he was jaded by the outdated content of his IT classes and bored by the structure of the learning environments. The concepts and tools he learned in the classroom often lagged behind the knowledge and skills he had gained by staying active in networks of peers, or by tinkering on his own with the latest and greatest emerging technologies. The lecture-heavy, textbook-driven format of his courses often left him restless and daydreaming in class about his own projects, or about that one piece of code that kept his site from rendering correctly.

Without a college degree, Mike has faced some challenges obtaining management positions at mid-sized organizations. This is despite Mike’s unparalleled technical abilities, and his high regard among colleagues for his ability to work in teams, lead projects, and motivate others.

Mike’s situation echoes the argument made by Sean Gallagher in his excellent book The Future of University Credentials, where Gallagher notes that “the bachelor’s degree has emerged as a baseline requirement, or floor, for a great number of professional roles” (p. 50).  It points to the persistent value of a university credential—specifically the 120-hour bachelor degree—as a signal or screening mechanism used by employers to simplify the complex decision-making processes of recruitment and selection.

Yet, while employers rely heavily on the bachelor’s degree to make hiring decisions for professional positions, there are a number of high profile studies that call into question the value of a college education and whether graduates are prepared to be good communicators, team players, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. Furthermore, there are numerous surveys that point to employers’ wavering confidence in the ability of colleges and universities to graduate students with the skills and competencies that businesses need.

Given this, a lot of my recent conversations with Mike have focused on the idea and potential of microcredentials—more specifically, digital badges—as an alternative or supplement to a traditional university degree.

At their most basic level, according to a report conducted by the American Institutes of Research, “digital badges are a new way to capture and communicate what an individual knows and can demonstrate,” (p. 2).  Or taking the Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University’s definition, digital badges are “an online record of achievements, tracking the recipient’s communities of interaction that issued the badge and the work completed to get it” (p. 3).

Much of the recent attention given to digital badges has its origins in Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges initiative, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. This initiative emerged for what seems to be five important and interrelated reasons:

  • The job market is changing so rapidly and requires more flexibility than is currently offered by traditional higher education.
  • With increasing interconnectedness and easier access to information, learning in the 21st century is fundamentally different than it was when the traditional university model was developed.
  • Learning today can and does often extend beyond the walls of a school or classroom, and therefore the validation of learning should be easily portable across systems.
  • Credentials, like degrees and certifications, are currently conferred in a top-down way, taking control away from the learner and limiting the customization and personalization of learning pathways.
  • The types of credentials conferred by colleges and universities are often too broad, and miss more “granular” and “incremental” elements of learning. Therefore, they often lack important detail about what a student may have learned or can actually do by virtue of earning their credential. (See here and here for some more detail.)

For many of the people and organizations that support the digital badging movement, the hope is that digital badges can be used to expand an “ecosystem of learning.” For others, this new and emerging credentialing system has the potential to disrupt the  “traditional college diploma.”

But as someone who sees the value of a college credential as self-evident, I am more interested in how we can use digital badges to supplement our existing models of education, rather than replace them. I see how digital badges might have positively impacted my friend Mike’s life and career path, and how we might use badges to add to what the American Institutes of Research paper sees as the “potential value and impact of digital badges”:

  • Motivation and engagement: Badges could have been used within Mike’s curriculum while attending college to make the experience more fun, allowing the colleges and universities he attended to create milestones in advance of the 120-credit hour degree. These could have been used to provide victories earlier and more frequently as he progressed through degree. This is very much in-line with the gamification of learning.
  • Lifelong learning recognition: Badges have the potential to allow for the recognition and validation of learning in a variety of settings. If badges existed when Mike was younger, he might have earned them for completing specific tasks required to learn HTML or CSS, and his demonstrated expertise and ability to produce functioning web pages for various clients. Over the last few years, he would have been able to add to his badge toolkit through the completion of specific tasks in Drupal and other new languages that he has picked up along the way. These would enable Mike to more clearly articulate what he has learned at a granular level.
  • Recognition of prior learning: As the ecosystem for badges developed more fully, Mike could have potentially earned credit for the set of badges he has earned, as colleges and universities became more comfortable with the badging infrastructure, and came to trust the validity of what the badges signaled.
  • Identity curation for the badge earner: In achieving badges for the work that he was doing outside the classroom, Mike would have started to tell a story about himself as a learner. He could examine the badges of his peers and potentially identify what badges they might have that he didn’t.  He could use this to help him pursue his next learning pathway. At scale, institutions of higher education might have access to trends in emerging technologies, and use this information to develop programs that were more aligned with the interests of students and the needs of industry.

These are just some quick thoughts on the potential value of badges. It will be interesting to watch as the ecosystem develops, and what badges are put to use with varying levels of impact.

This article was written by Scott Dolan, Associate Dean for Business in the School of Business & Technology.


Scott Dolan
About Scott Dolan 2 Articles
Scott Dolan is the Associate Dean for Business for the School of Business and Technology at Excelsior College, where he provides academic leadership for all graduate and undergraduate business degree programs. Prior to taking this position, Dr. Dolan served as the Executive Director of Accreditation, Assessment, and Strategy, where he was responsible for leading the continuous improvement efforts of the school including the development and management of the outcome assessment process in all the degree programs in the School of Business and Technology. Prior to joining Excelsior College in 2014, Dr. Dolan worked for a private program evaluation business conducting program evaluations of P-20 education programs. Dr. Dolan received his doctorate degree in Sociology from the University at Albany—State University of New York.

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