Digital badge proponents say traditional degrees are too flawed for the 21st Century

digital-badge-degreeThere’s nothing quite hotter at the moment on the higher-ed front than alternative credentialing, and proponents, who once said that digital badges are great ‘supplements’ to a traditional degree, are quickly changing their opinions—arguing that digital badges are a better alternative.

(Read: “Going beyond a degree with digital badges, social media.”)

“Many degrees are only loosely linked to employability after graduation,” explains a new report by Pearson, “Open Badges for Higher Education.” Increasingly, the degree itself is not as critical as the skill set behind it.

And though Pearson is currently going to market with an independent business called Acclaim—a scalable enterprise-class badging platform, built on Mozilla’s open standards and designed for awarding and tracking verifiable credentials—with more than 20.8 million students enrolled in noncredit programs, it’s no surprise that the education world is excited about the latest trend in alternative credentialing: open badges.

Though many perceive badges as a threat to traditional higher education, many institutions are now using badges to combat negative press on higher-ed, citing data provided by badges on students’ acquired skills.

“For higher-ed institutions interested in keeping pace [e.g. Purdue University, Seton Hall University, SUNY Empire State College, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Southern California, and Wheeling Jesuit University, et cetera], establishing a digital ecosystem around badges to recognize college learning, skill development, and achievement is less of a threat and more an opportunity, notes the report.

“Used properly, badge-based systems help motivate, connect, articulate and make transparent the learning that happened inside and outside classrooms during a student’s college years,” the report emphasizes.

(Next page: 10 problems with diplomas and traditional accreditation)

Even though degrees and diplomas conferred by accredited colleges “still command enormous respect with employers and the general public,” the report notes that they carry some significant limitations:

1. Diplomas lack transparency and granularity: The same degree can be conferred for different courses of study at different schools, and a diploma is not granular or transparent enough to help employers understand how courses map to specific knowledge or skills required.

2. College grades are subjective—and can be a low quality indicator of real competence: According to the report, there is growing evidence that inflation is driving up average grades, making grade point averages an unreliable metric for employers. Competency-based criteria, however, complement the grades on a college transcript and provide better information for employers.

3. For diplomas, institutional reputation drives value, not job relevance.

4. Diplomas present an incomplete picture: They don’t include skills or knowledge acquired outside the classroom; for example, part-time jobs, internships, service learning, and externships. Students can also learn skills through extra-curricular activities, Greek life, competitive sports, and publications.

5. New learning providers challenge the status quo: Today’s students, especially adult and non-traditional learners, are taking more online classes and MOOCs; yet, there is no standardized way to aggregate course credits and apply them toward a degree or gain workplace credit.

6. The traditional accreditation processes must evolve: The current accreditation system is based on classroom hours, not competencies or outcomes.

7. Learners are not in control of their own qualifications: Learners should be able to manage, group, and stack their competencies and achievements, and choose which qualifications to share for specific opportunities.

8. Learners need to make informed college investment choices: Increasingly, parents and students apply a “return on investment” mentality to seeking the right program, explains the report. “Badges can help students and parents make better-informed decisions by providing information that illustrates connections between colleges, majors, and careers.

9. Connecting learning and career pathways: Industry and employer groups can define pathways to develop skill sets over the long term. This influences learners who will set and achieve goals based on the market demand for skills more effectively. Employers complete the circuit, says the report, by communicating skill gaps to institutions, who will, in turn, adapt their curricula.

For more information on how higher-ed institutions are the ideal providers of digital/open badges, as well as numerous examples of institutions across the country currently implementing open badges, read the report.

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