The Digital Badge Revolution

For better or worse, we live in a society in which credentials are currency.  A credential is a signal that the bearer has participated in and successfully completed some type of formal learning. Some credentials are broad and encompassing while others are highly specialized.  In spite of the vast number of credentials awarded by an amazing array of recognized local and national institutions and organizations (essentially making all of them unique even if they are identically named), hiring managers have successfully utilized them to find talent. We need credentials.  We need them to group, sort and understand potential and capability. We need credentials so industry can keep pace with emerging technologies, and we look to education providers to create new ones to fill voids in the credential marketplace. In credentials, we have historically trusted.

If this has been the world in which we have lived and celebrated, then why haven’t micro-credentials, specifically digital badges (an even more precise demonstration of knowledge, skills and abilities), enjoyed the same welcome reception from higher education or employers?  

If incumbent credentials are being scrutinized due to a lack of transparency and misalignment with industry needs caused by academia’s preference for more versus relevant content, then why aren’t we rolling out the red carpet for digital badges?  

An emerging marketplace

Digital badges simply got off on the wrong foot.  With roots in the gaming industry, digital badges were a new and interesting way to visualize accomplishments through gaming or via social media. When education jumped in the sandbox, appropriate testing of these new credentials ensued. As a result, the digital badging marketplace has been, for many, a confusing mix of signals. Search Credly or Acclaim’s site, and you’ll find digital badges awarded using the traditionally accepted formula (i.e., the successful completion of some type of formal learning) and digital badges awarded simply for fun or the participation in an activity. You’ll find digital badges awarded by familiar and unfamiliar institutions and organizations. You’ll find digital badges whose name at face value makes sense and others that make no sense. For the uninitiated, this lack of order and consistency is more than enough to check out. We like it how we like it, and digital badges represent a change to the world to which we’ve become accustomed and around which we have designed processes and systems. Digital badges are the unexpected guest at the credential party. But instead of asking “who are you and what are you doing here?” we should be asking, “where have you been?”

The Education Design Lab’s founder, Kathleen deLaski notes in the Lab’s recently released whitepaper, The Learner Revolution: How Colleges Can Thrive in a New Skills and Competencies Marketplace, “Degrees as the most valuable workforce currency are beginning to give way to more nuanced competencies. At the same time, globalization and rapid technological advancements, including automation, are reshaping the nature of work, demanding that workers be more nimble, have a broader range of capabilities and regularly increase or revamp their skills. They will now need to extract learning from multiple parts of their lives to be credentialed continuously over the course of a lifetime.”  Digital badges (more discrete, stackable demonstrations of knowledge, skills and abilities) could be the solution learners need for lateral and upward mobility and employers need to construct a consistently competitive and agile workforce.

A new credential requires new approaches

In the eyes of employers, what you can do is becoming more important than what you know. Achieving results hinges on performance and application of knowledge.  Digital badges, when artfully designed, can provide this window in. But as a new type of credential, we must consider new and different approaches to the learning and assessment associated with them.  We must beat back the urge to badge existing courses by packaging segments of it and utilizing the same content and assessments. A well-constructed badge should consist of three core components (knowledge, assessment and practice/reflection). And a badge earning experience should challenge learners to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in authentic ways (i.e., through performance-based assessments).  Learners should reflect throughout the learning experience and engage in meaning-making exercises, which can increase stickiness. More than a digital visualization of completion, a digital badge should increase a learner’s awareness and allow them to readily transfer their knowledge to other contexts. When designed with these principles in mind, digital badges can inspire confidence.

Co-design your badge

Designing a digital badge in an academic silo, however, is not the best way to achieve this. After over four years of on-the-ground testing and implementing our 21st century skill digital badges with learners, faculty and administration, subject matter experts and employers, it is abundantly clear that effective badge design should be a collaboration between learning providers and the individuals who will look to the badge as a signal (e.g., employers–specifically those with knowledge of hiring processes and systems). Collaboration allows us to be more precise in our design and to zero in on the most important KSAs. It allows us to select or create the preferred metadata or artifacts–a process that ensures that anyone who wants to compare earners of the same badge will see the same artifacts. Most importantly, a thoughtful co-design process educates all involved and builds trust.

The Learner Revolution is upon us

According to deLaski, “The day when the degree stops being the sine qua non for 21st century career readiness feels much closer. While employers still rely heavily on degrees for now, only half say they are “fairly reliable representations of candidates’ skills and knowledge.”  In our own survey of employers as part of our TeeUpTheSkills initiative to test our 21st century skill digital badges as hiring signals, one-third of the employers believe digital badges can be as valuable as incumbent degrees and credentials. One hundred percent of the same employer group agreed that they are interested in new ways to assess the skills of recent graduates.

The Learner Revolution represents “an exhilarating, yet daunting deconstruction of the degree as we know it: a world where a learner will not be tethered to one institution for their degree, where in fact, earning a whole degree will be only one option on a success-focused learner’s menu.”  The credential marketplace is exploding. According to Credential Engine, a nonprofit whose mission is to create credential transparency and a national registry to “increase credential literacy and empower everyone to make more informed decisions about credentials and their value,” there are 750,000 “unique credentials” offered in the United States… and counting.  

While the new credential landscape is forming, there is still work to be done by learning institutions of all types and their employer partners to craft meaningful, purposefully designed digital badges. If we can meet the needs of the learner as well as the economy, then digital badges may just become the guest of honor.