Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Students Earn Digital Credentials for Adding New Skills

Schools and employers are taking a fresh view of digital badges in preparing students
By Michelle R. Davis — September 26, 2017 8 min read
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High school senior Christopher Ediger earned more than grades on a report card as he progressed through Colorado’s Aurora school district. He was the first student in the district to earn all five of its digital summit badges, representing his talents in areas such as collaboration, invention, and critical thinking.

But earning those badges wasn’t just something to show off on his college résumé. They unlocked opportunities directly related to the working world: a hands-on tour of a mobile television company, a writing class at the American Museum of Western Art, and a three-week internship at a Denver architecture firm.

“The badges helped me understand that these are sought-after skills I’m learning,” Ediger said.

Aurora’s digital badging program, which runs across P-12, also offers recognition for more granular skills, like analysis and organization. The effort offers one way that schools, employers, and groups working with students may need to adapt their approach to preparing students for the evolving work world.

This future workplace is likely to be one that comes with rapidly changing technology and skill needs, according to a Pew Research Center study released earlier this year on the future of jobs and job training. The report cites a need for new ways to document employees’ evolving skills and their professional learning, pointing to the idea of credentialing as one way to accomplish it.

The idea is that students, and employees, can’t expect to earn a degree and be done with learning, said Justin Reich, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, who was interviewed about the future of work for the Pew study. (Reich also writes an opinion blog hosted on edweek.org.)

“We’re in an era of rapid technological and social change,” Reich said. “As a result, what people are being asked to do to be successful in the labor market is changing. There are many more expectations of learning skills throughout our lifetimes.”

What that will look like for K-12, higher education, and employers is varied. But the idea of credentialing is taking hold in some form in all those arenas.

At the 40,000-student Aurora district, the digital badging program arose from within its college- and career-success department as a way to make students aware of skills—like collaboration and information literacy—that businesses want from employees, while staying rooted in the Colorado Academic Standards.

Building those badges and their requirements started with discussions with local employers, said Charles Dukes, the director of the college- and career-success department. The district consults with Colorado businesses, which they call “endorsers,” to make sure that the skills needed to earn a badge also matter in the workplace.

“We had to talk with companies to find out what the value of these badges would be,” Dukes said. “One industry might need more collaboration, and another might emphasize critical thinking.”

Students collect their badges in a “digital backpack” hosted on the credentialing platform Credly. Clicking on each badge allows a viewer to see artifacts that demonstrate a student’s proficiency in a specific area—that could be a video, an essay, or a blog entry, for example.

Some wonder, however, if schools, with their more traditional, slow-to-innovate models, are best-suited to take on that type of endeavor to prepare students for an innovative workplace.

“The notion of moving from curricula to active learning is discussed a lot, but it really hasn’t been accepted in K-12,” said Jim Hendler, the director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, who studies artificial intelligence and robots. “A lot of things happening in after-school clubs seem more relevant to kids’ futures than what they do in the classroom.”

A pilot project in Chicago is highlighting how credentialing can be used outside of school walls to help students gain workforce skills. The initiative is based on work by the nonprofit organization LRNG, which created an open-badging and learning-platform program that fashioned digital credentials of all sorts and grouped them with learning experiences into playlists allowing users to progress through learning and earn employment opportunities.

“Right now, the way school is set up, the only learning that counts is what happens in school and the credentials that gives,” said Connie Yowell, the CEO for LRNG. “To keep up with shifts in the world of work, we have to be flexible and allow learning to happen in a variety of places, and for it to count.”

LRNG badges were used this summer in Chicago in the city’s One Summer youth-employment program, aimed at low-income people ages 14 to 24. About 31,000 youths participated, working in jobs across the city, said Tracy Frizzell, the executive director of the Chicago-based Economic Awareness Council, which helped coordinate the program.

As part of the Chicago project, LRNG created badges to help jobholders—some of whom were new to the workforce—navigate the process. Youth employees could earn badges for completing online playlists that showed them how to fill out paperwork, including tax forms and time sheets, or set up direct deposit for paychecks.

“This was a massive population of people who needed some critical basic information,” Frizzell said. “This was the best way to get this out in a large-scale manner in an effective way.”

Supervisors could check badges and see which employees had done their training. As an incentive to do the work to earn the badges, their recognition unlocked opportunities, such as a prime interview slot at a job fair, Frizzell said.

But what gives value to a credential?

Some districts have created worth around badges in different ways. The 4,100-student Kettle Moraine district in Wales, Wis., encourages teachers to earn professional-development microcredentials. District teachers can earn hundreds of dollars on top of their base pay for earning the badges. Other districts are doing similar work around microcredentials for professional training—in fact, the advocacy organization Digital Promise has built a platform containing more than 200 such offerings that districts across the country can access.

MIT’s Reich is not so sure, though, that employers will value the badges on a widespread basis.

“Who wants to have that kind of fine-grained information? Potential employers looking through a stack of 100 résumés are unlikely to look at those kinds of details,” he said. But, he added, badges earned could be a factor when the decision is between a handful of applicants.

Indeed, the Pew report on the future of work asks: “Will employers be accepting of applicants who rely on new types of credentialing systems, or will they be viewed as less qualified than those who have attended traditional four-year and graduate programs?”

For technology giant IBM, badges are gaining traction as a viable way for applicants to show their experience and talents, said David Leaser, a senior program executive for innovation and growth initiatives there. The company is beginning to embrace credentialing as an alternative to a traditional degree.

“We’re no longer focused on degrees; we’re focused on skills,” Leaser said, noting that about 15 percent of IBM’s U.S. hires don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

In part, that acceptance comes from IBM’s own experience issuing credentials. IBM began a digital badging program in 2015 after realizing that its products were evolving more quickly than its standard training programs for users.

"[Cloud-based technologies] had disrupted everything and changed the pace of technology to that point that the pace of change was outstripping the pace of learning,” he said.

Initially, IBM launched its training platform, now known as Cognitive Class, without badges, focusing instead on online courses. But the dropout rate was high, Leaser said. To encourage people to finish the courses and pass the associated exams, IBM introduced digital badges. After 60 days, the number of people using the site increased by 125 percent and the number completing exams to get a badge increased by 694 percent, he said.

“It was startling,” he said. The badges, hosted on the Acclaim open badge platform, come with data that highlights the skills people have mastered, provides an overview of the course taken and date earned, and can be carried from job to job.

One of the most important aspects of badges Leaser sees is the ability to provide a common language between industry and educational institutions. An IBM badge, earned by taking an online course, can now count toward college credit as well as for job skills.

“Now, we have a verifiable achievement that can be inspected,” he said. “It’s providing this glue between industry and education institutions.”

Higher education is taking note. In the Colorado Community College System, officials are working with local manufacturing businesses to establish microcredentials that will be valuable to employers and also allow those already in the industry to earn them.

“We talked to the workforce first and then did a backwards design to build this into our program,” said Katie Woodmansee, an instructional designer for the community college system. Advanced manufacturing companies like aerospace titan Boeing, for example, have many jobs that go unfilled because of lack of skills, she said.

With Credly, students and job seekers can display their badges and link to them on résumés or applications. The community college system now has 80 badges available.

“There’s still work to do in terms of education and outreach,” Woodmansee said. “Some companies still don’t know what it is.”

But the idea fits perfectly into what the future workplace is likely to look like. “You don’t necessarily need to go back to school for an entire degree to keep up,” she said. “But we have to build a robust rigor for the badges and make sure companies understand what they’re for.”

Jason Burchard, the visual- and design-arts instructor who worked with Aurora district senior Ediger on his badges, said he sees the value of badges increasing, as students begin to understand their benefits and employers see the rigor involved in earning them.

“Employers keep coming back to us and saying the students who earn these badges are really strong,” he said. “That’s giving it more traction outside the district.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2017 edition of Education Week as Rewarding Fine-Tuned Skills


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