Employers today are far less reliant on the four-year college degree than in the past, when the B.A. or B.S. served as a primary pre-hire indicator of future performance. Today, the bachelor’s degree is virtually a commodity. According to an analysis by Burning Glass Technologies, degrees are now to be found among the qualifications of workers in jobs that rarely demanded such a level of education. Clerks, service workers, and assistants are now almost “required” to be degreed.
Since virtually all candidates come with a degree, companies must find other ways to identify the best candidates—the ones with the skills to do the job. Some employers have even worked to identify specific institutions that reliably turn out graduates with grit, which is quite apart from factors like grades, majors, and transcripts.
This ongoing hunt to develop better metrics to identify the most desirable candidates has driven employers to look to institutions that highlight these transferable (and often non-academic) skills and showcase them in a common currency, i.e., the digital credential.
Why micro-credentials and badging is the answer
The concept of a badge is a very deep-rooted one; everyone is familiar with merit badges from scouting. Badges are bite-sized visual representations that denote evidence of skills and experience. So, why are micro-credentials, often referred to as digital badging or digital credentialing, worthy of serious consideration now? Simply, they provide clear evidence about what the learner knows, has done, and should be able to continue to do in language and classifications that are portable, easy to consume, and, most important, trust.
Open Badges are especially valuable because they carry encrypted information about what the learner had to demonstrate to earn the badge, as well as the context for the badge itself. Similar to the transcript or degree, the badge has value because it has been validated by the institution.
Despite the hope that credentialing and badging will solve the challenges that employers face, there are some concerns, most notably, that experiential learning and the holistic nature of a liberal education will be lost. Another worry is that, even with micro-credentials, a steady progression to routine outcomes and ultimately deterioration of the entire experience will be the inevitable result.
Are institutions willing to risk adding a distinction, a higher badge designation, one in which the learner must also apply knowledge and skills in a real-world situation, successfully reflect on that experience in a way that proves she knows she is thinking and acting differently, and link this experience to others? Unless competency is examined via reflective practice, which itself must be formally taught and practiced, there is no reliable evidence of the habit of mind that employers seek.
Micro-credentials demonstrate students’ competence
Micro-credentials run the risk of becoming just another system of rewards for the masses for modest tests and assignments. If this happens, digital-badge collections could easily become a less-than-transparent diploma with more frequently awarded parts. If that happens, we will not have gained anything.
Challenges notwithstanding, it is clear that micro-credentials can be innovatively structured and applied, given the stimulus of the open source work of IMS Global and the Open Badge initiatives. Technology innovators and educators are entering a hopeful era in which there will be tools available to shape how educators and their organizations communicate that their students are competent.
The benefits of badging
As higher education institutions and employers wrestle with how to best capture student learning and skills, the benefits of micro-credentialing and digital badging are crystallizing:
- Evidence of skills and experience. Badges communicate who issued the badge, the relevant criteria, and what goals and standards are linked. The authenticity is verified. Platforms that allow the learner to attach additional evidence of their competence will be even more meaningful.
- Range and depth. No longer limited to common official credentials, badges can build upon one another in a portfolio to tell the full story of a learner’s skills, talents. and accomplishments.
- Multi-platform portability and accessibility. Open Badges can be imported/exported and displayed in a variety of platforms while still maintaining the useful information stored inside.
Open badging is a key element of an answer to the nagging challenge facing higher education and employers. Badging will help learners view their formal education as part of a lifelong continuum of skills acquisition and documentation.
Higher ed needs to bravely take on the challenge of verifying and documenting academic and co-curricular aspects of student learning in a way that allows employers to seek and find the candidates they need.