Going beyond a degree with digital badges, social media

Digital badges have proven a divisive topic in higher ed.

When LinkedIn, the social network for professionals, announced last week that it was adding pages for universities and lowering the age requirement to allow teenagers on the site, the decision was met with an equal mix of excitement and trepidation from technologists and educators.

But one of the most negative appraisals came from Colin Mathews, the chief executive officer of a platform called Merit.

“I admire LinkedIn,” Mathews wrote in a blog post. “But their recently announced University Pages are going to be a bust because they’re designed to solve LinkedIn’s business model problems, not problems that universities or students have.”

Of course, Mathews does have some stake in the success or failure of LinkedIn’s new plan to connect students with colleges through an online presence. Merit has been quietly trying to do just that for four years.

While not a social network itself, Merit is an application that  more than 500 colleges and universities now use to validate and promote students’ accomplishments. From making the dean’s list to taking a service-oriented spring break, students are awarded standardized digital badges denoting successes on campus.

The badges, or merits, are then displayed on an individual Merit Page that is easily shared through social media.

See Page 2 for how similar projects are trying to find new ways to denote learning.

“We started from a very simple problem,” Mathews said in an interview. “Often colleges and universities were looking for more effective ways to get people to care about things going on campus. A student may end up with a degree after four years, but there needed to be a way of showing what happens when students are still at college. Parents hear about the price of tuition or a bunch of parking tickets, but not a lot else until their child graduates.”

From there, Merit grew to include letting potential employers know about individual student accomplishments as well as parents. And they’re not alone in this space.

Mozilla’s Open Badges project employs a similar digital badging system that can be shared through social media, though one that is less standardized as educators can create their own badges using their own criteria.

“They know their communities best,” Mozilla explains on its Wiki.

Merits’ badges, on the other hand, mirror more real-world, on-campus achievements that can be compared across its 1.5 million students.

Then there’s Degreed, a platform that lets users create a profile that tracks informal and formal learning from more than 4 million courses, 4,500 universities, and essentially any massive open online course (MOOC) provided through edX, Coursera, and Udacity. The profile functions like an alternative degree not strictly bound by what was taught in the classroom.

“The degree is no longer an adequate reflection of your real education,” the service declares on its website.

Mathews did not go quite that far, saying that he views Merit as an extension of a degree rather than a replacement, but he did note that a degree, like a digital badge, is not actually worth anything.

It’s what those items — digital or paper — represent that counts.

“Every college student deserves good outcomes,” he said.  “They all deserve to have the chance to have the right job or go to the right grad school, even first generation students, not just those who are privileged or informed by parents to create an online or social media presence liked a LinkedIn page.”

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