Digital Badges Threaten Colleges' Monopoly on Credentials

Badges for lifelong learners' knowledge and skills are considered a 'game-changing strategy.'

By + More

Applicant A's résumé shows an associate degree in business. By taking community college classes, studying online, and learning on the job, Applicant B has earned "digital badges" in product design, marketing, business writing, sales, bookkeeping, leadership, mentoring and teamwork. Who gets the job? 

Badges aren't just for Boy Scouts—or video game enthusiasts—anymore. The Mozilla Foundation; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) have created a $2 million Digital Media and Learning Competition to encourage the development of digital badges that recognize lifelong learners' knowledge and skills. 

[Learn how digital badges could significantly impact higher education.] 

The first set of winners in the teaching category were announced Jan. 12. 

One of the winners, Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, will develop a series of badges for computer science teachers. "To earn the NXT-G Instructor Badge, a candidate must first earn the NXT-G Knowledge Badge, then demonstrate additional competency in instructional material scaffolding, questioning techniques to build student understanding, and technical expertise in maintaining robots and software in her classroom," the proposal reads. 

Calling badges a "game-changing strategy," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has offered a $25,000 prize for the best badge concept serving veterans seeking skilled jobs. Instead of trying to get college credit for skills learned in the military, veterans could accumulate badges showing their expertise. 

If digital badges gain employers' respect, colleges and universities will face significant competition, writes Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector. "Traditional colleges and universities use their present monopoly on the credentialing franchise to extract increasingly large sums of money from students," writes Carey. That will change—if badges prove their validity as credentials. 

Once a badge "ecosystem" is developed, people will display an e-portfolio or "digital backpack" of their badges, degrees, and other credentials using Mozilla's Open Badges platform, advocates say. Employers, prospective investors, and others will be able to click on a badge to see what skills it represents, how it was earned, and who issued it. 

Badges could supplement college learning by "providing employers with a more nuanced and perhaps relevant understanding of skills and capacities," says Connie Yowell, director of education grants at the MacArthur Foundation. 

Community colleges should see digital badges not as competition in workforce credentialing, but as a way to offer more value to students, advises Sheryl Grant, social networking director for the Digital Media and Learning Competition. 

[See four things to know about community colleges.] 

In "the age of the learner," people need ways to prove what they know, says Grant. "Community colleges have been in the business of doing exactly that—helping students show proof of knowledge." In an Open Badges world, "a community college that offers digital badges is going to be more relevant" to students. 

Badges let people manage their reputation, Grant says. Community colleges that offer digital badges to students will enhance their own reputations by showcasing "the variety and relevance of skills being taught." 

With years of experience working with employers on workforce training, community colleges may find a role endorsing badges developed by industry. For example, the Manufacturing Institute is working with high schools, community colleges, and universities on plans to create a series of badges certifying skills needed for advanced manufacturing jobs. 

[Read about the economic benefits of starting at community college.] 

However, badges don't have to be limited to technical skills, writes Duke University Professor Cathy Davidson, a cofounder of HASTAC. "Individuals can earn badges from multiple organizations, some certifying human skills such as collaboration or even helpfulness, that mean as much to future employers as skills and experience and credentials from traditional institutions."