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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 May 29 - 06:23 pm

Show Me Your Badge

Digital Badging Is Growing, but Employers Remain Wary

But how do you measure and report all that learning? Conventional tools — progress reports, grade-point averages, transcripts, even framed diplomas proudly hung on walls — seem wholly inadequate for the task of defining precisely who knows what in the digital age. It has become almost a mantra in higher education circles as technology continues to grow its footprint on a new generation of learners. Learning today, so it goes, needs no classroom, not even a teacher, and can take place anywhere, anytime and on any device.

Increasingly, the answer to that conundrum is digital badges — also called nanodegrees or microcredentials — which have grown over the past several years from a mere curiosity into a mainstream movement attracting the attention of leading foundations and higher education heavy hitters.

Digital badges are defined as a visual, verifiable demonstration of knowledge, shared online, allowing the identification of individuals whose skillsets can be proven rather than merely listed on a résumé. These alternative credentials can be used to recognize the attainment of skills and competencies, whether they are learned in formal or informal learning environments.

Professional associations, industry organizations and some nonprofits have embraced them as a way for members and employees to demonstrate participation in certain activities or in completing training programs.

Higher education, however, has been slower to embrace digital credentials.

Some see them as a threat, upending the traditional approach to learning, which measures academic progress and achievement largely by time spent in a classroom.

And while higher education professionals have been able to earn digital badges for several years, their reach into the student population is more limited.

Some in the higher education infrastructure institutions are moving forward, however. Companies serving higher education have begun investing in digital badges. In 2014, Pearson, which produces educational materials, technologies, assessments and related services, created a badging platform called Acclaim, marketed to colleges who want to implement digital badges. The Acclaim badges can be shared through social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter.

Some colleges are setting out on their own, with government support. The Community College of Allegheny County recently received a $669,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry to develop a digital badging program called “Micro-credentials: Opportunity through Stackable Achievements.” The award is part of a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation Fund for the development of micro-credentials in the state’s workforce development system.

The CCAC program, one of seven in the state, will target out-of-school youth, adults with low basic skills, individuals who are underemployed or unemployed and other learners with significant barriers to education and training to develop concrete skills along key career paths in highpriority occupations.

Aiding low-income youth of color might be where digital badges have their most promise. According to a white paper recently published by the Urban Institute, “Digital badges have been used to engage young people of all ages in learning by helping them identify and pursue their passions and by rewarding them for their accomplishments. Proponents of digital badging see it as a mechanism for expanding opportunity, improving postsecondary and labor market outcomes, and solving some of the challenges faced by employers in finding a qualified workforce.”

Higher education is gradually warming to digital badges, according to Jaime Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

“A powerful shift in postsecondary credentialing has taken place over the last few decades, with an explosion in the number of pathways to an education beyond high school,” he wrote in an article for Educause. “As a result, today’s jobseekers can possess not just four-year college degrees but everything from associate degrees and apprenticeships to occupational licenses and education certificates, all the way to digital badges and employer-based certifications.

“Learning, rather than seat time, will be the core measure of progress in this new system, and students will be able to demonstrate what they’ve learned through dynamic online platforms.”

Yet even as digital badging has edged into the mainstream, most employers remain reluctant to use them in making hiring and recruiting decisions. A recent survey of human resources directors found that only 36 percent of them have any knowledge of digital credentials. Just a quarter of those surveyed were early adopters, reporting that they have begun using digital credentials in their recruitment and hiring processes.

Accreditrust Technologies, a company that authenticates digital credentials through its program TrueCred, surveyed 130 human resources, recruitment and talent management professionals. The survey
found that human resources professionals still rely primarily on credentials like a college or university degree, a professional certificate or license and work history listed on a resume. Likewise, a majority of respondents put less stock in digital badges earned through a for-credit online course.

But human resources professionals also expect digital credentials to gain in importance over time. While only 8 percent said they expected digital credentials to “completely replace” traditional credentials, another 50 percent said they would supplement the customary proof of job-readiness, such as a degree or work experience.

The survey report said: “We are still very much in the early stages of these shifts and there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed before we see widespread adoption. The good news is there has been much progress on both the academic and technology sides of the digital credentials equation, with efforts to develop standards meant to ensure the rigor, quality and reliability of credentials.”

In a prepared statement, Eric Korb, Accreditrust CEO, said badges are their infancy and much work remains to make them a credible source of professional qualifications.

“We see a three-pronged problem in the marketplace. Companies and organizations are having a harder time identifying candidates who possess particular skills; educational institutions are in the middle of a shift in the way they are preparing graduates for 21st Century job demands; and job candidates are struggling to make themselves marketable in a rapidly evolving job market.

“These three broad issues are really driving the development of technology to help tackle these challenges, but we’re still in the early stages. For digital credentials to deliver on their promise, we need to lay a solid foundation now. Credential viewers and verifiers need to be able to trust the information that they obtain from digital credentials. Making digital credentials secure, standards-based and interoperable are core to this effort.”

The Credential Transparency Initiative (CTI), funded by the Lumina Foundation, is in the process of trying to define digital credentials in commonly understood terms. Led by the George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, Workcred (an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Center for Workforce Development, CTI is building an online resource to enable users to see and compare the value and meaning of various credentials.

“This new effort, which is linking previously disconnected actors, can be best understood via a new Connecting Credentials platform for these actors to learn and share from each other. Rather than a separate set of definitions for each credentialing pathway, there will be a universal taxonomy to connect all credentials. This will transform today’s highly fragmented system into one in which all types of postsecondary credentials can be easily understood and compared,” Merisotis said.

The result could revolutionize the way higher education does business, with greater transparency, a sharper focus on outcomes and easier navigability. The Urban Institute report asserts that badging could lead to a process of earning college credit for college-level learning acquired from other sources, such as work experience, military training or open source learning from the Internet. Badges could aid the development of competency-based education, where students earn credit based on the assessment of skills and knowledge acquired rather than the time spent in the classroom.

But as the badging systems develop, advocates are being warned to make them sufficiently rigorous to build credibility. Only if digital badges are trusted by issuers, holders and consumers will they be widely adopted.

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