Badges, credit, and accreditation in online education

Digital badges represent a new, innovative mechanism for verifying achievement and attainment of pre-specified skills and competencies.

Badges shouldn’t be reserved for mastery of a subject.

As we’ve been learning during the “Badges: New Currency for Professional Credentials” MOOC co-sponsored by WCET, many postsecondary institutions are considering, even preparing to implement, badges within academic programs and for faculty development.

As these institutions and others contemplating using badges evaluate the suitability of badges for their programs, questions come up about how badges might be encompassed within an institution’s accreditation.

Read more about digital badges in higher education…
MOOC to explore digital badges’ role in online learning

Badges acknowledge that learning happens everywhere and anywhere. Badge issuers can be education providers, employers, community organizations, even individuals. By displaying the badges they have earned, badge holders can provide proof of learning even if they don’t have a school transcript to support their assertion.

This enables postsecondary institutions to provide credit for prior learning to students and staff alike.

Badges are awarded when evidence-based assessment establishes that the badge seeker has attained clearly articulated competencies. In other words,

badges represent what a badge holder can do, not just what someone remembers. Further, the “doing” must be proven, not merely asserted.

Unlike degrees, badges don’t need only to represent mastery. Badges can also acknowledge skills and abilities that lead up to mastery. This granularity supports stackable credentials that allow institutions to take a modular approach to curriculum design, with badges for core competencies providing a cross-curricular foundation.

These are also the very reasons that badges challenge the way accreditation is currently designed and how it currently functions.

See Page 2 for a look at the future of competency-based credits in online courses…

Accreditation matters to everyone: students, parents, education institutions, research and teaching faculty, alumni, employers, government and taxpayers. Institutions that fail to receive sought-after (re-)accreditation lose access to federal funds that support student financial aid.

Unaccredited institutions are less likely to attract top faculty and administrators, making them potentially less inviting to prospective students. This can lead to loss of access to grant programs and to community and corporate donors falling away.

Accordingly, accreditation is, by its nature, a conservative, deliberative, painstaking undertaking; change to accreditation policies and processes happens slowly. Accreditors must gain recognition by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) by demonstrating that they are operating in compliance with federal regulations, a requirement that can further dampen efforts to alter policies and/or processes.

The emphasis on credit, academic oversight and faculty participation, and limitations to experiential or non-collegiate sponsored learning all suggest a disinclination by the accreditation community to rush to badges.

Rather, it will fall to institutions to proceed with development and recognition of badges in a way that addresses the issues that O’Brien highlights.

Before the badge discussion really takes off, the accreditation community must address the antecedent issue of competency-based learning. During a recent email conversation, Karen Solomon (Higher Learning Commission of North Central Association) offered the following recounting regarding competency-based learning accreditation to light the way for those interested in badges:

The Commission recently approved four institutions to offer competency based degrees. Due to USDE requirements, a new application and review process was developed to evaluate institutions as they redefined how degrees could be earned when they moved away from credit hours determined by seat time to competencies. Students earn degrees once they demonstrate mastery of competencies. The concept of a two-year or four-year degree does not exist since the concept of time is separated from the degree. Some students with a great deal of experience might demonstrate mastery to several competencies in a few weeks while others may take several years. Since they are not enrolled in courses, the financial aid system must be re-evaluated. Accrediting agencies will need to identify peer reviewers that can evaluate institutional preparation and resources available for degrees that are decoupled from the credit hour.

Solomon’s story (K. Solomon, personal communication, September 23, 2013) demonstrates the many factors that must be balanced during the accreditation process. As we see, a turn to competencies by postsecondary institutions can result in a disruption to financial aid, and badges have the potential to amplify this effect.

But the door is not at all closed.

“Institutions regularly bundle courses from existing degree programs into certificates and Commission approval is not required. If an institution wants to offer a certificate developed independent of existing degree programs (and for it to be Title IV eligible), the institution is required to complete a brief online application and we would review the request,” says Solomon, adding, “Our intent is not to build a new system just for badges but to wrap them into existing policies as appropriate. We know that many institutions recognize learning through PLA (prior learning assessment) or transfer of credit but we do not approve the actual decisions for individual courses. Each institution is expected to have policies and processes to evaluate the quality of credits it transcripts, and we review how the institution follows its own processes. The same expectations would be in place if an institution were to award badges based on credits or competencies.”

Anne DerryBerry is producer, designer, reviewer/evaluator, market analyst, next-generation Learning and Productivity Solutions, Sage Road Solutions, LLC. This blog post originally appeared on WCET’s blog.