Badging Goes to College

Many institutions that cater to kids and teens have embraced badging. But one territory is less charted, yet important for the general adoption of badging and, some say, workforce development: higher education.

Digital badges have been gaining traction as a tool for recognizing the learning that happens outside structured, formal environments. Institutions and organizations can issue them for myriad accomplishments—learning to build a robot, say, or interning for the city government. The idea is that educators and employers will be able to track the skills and experiences that most young people are already amassing outside school.

Many institutions that cater to kids and teens have embraced badging—the Pittsburgh Public Schools are starting to look at the role of badges through Cities of Learning, for example. But one realm of learning is less charted: higher education.

Advocates would like to see badges weighed alongside grades in the college admission process and granted to college students to signify the informal learning that continues through college (and beyond). As young adults enter the workforce, badges could offer evidence of a wide range of skills and learning experiences that are not reflected on a resume. Some educators think colleges should adopt badges to help the practice take hold nationally.

The Badge Alliance, an offshoot of Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation’s Open Badge initiative, has a Higher Education Working Group tracking and encouraging the use of badges after high school.

“Higher education admission is one of the biggest hurdles for widespread adoption of open badges,” the group has said. “This group is finding ways to get badges included in the admissions evaluation process for higher education as well as [for] credentialing course content and informal learning experiences.”

The working group has compiled a list of higher education institutions using badges in some form. Each case is quite different.

Colorado State University, for example, use badges in online coursework. DePaul University in Chicago has said it will soon look at applicants’ badges during the admissions process.

“Badges give you a better idea of who the applicant is,” said Nichole Pinkard, a DePaul Computing and Digital Media professor, in 2013. “They give you a stronger sense of quality and a stronger sense of context of what that person has done in the real world.” But Pinkard noted that the applicant’s academic record will still take precedence.

At the University of California Davis, a new undergraduate Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems major involves badges. Some align with predefined “core competencies,” or requirements of the major, but students and faculty are invited to design personalized badges, said the program’s learning coordinator, Joanna Normoyle, in a Q&A.

“It’s up to students to choose which experiences are relevant and to make sure they get recognition for what matters to them,” Normoyle said, adding that the process encourages communication between faculty and students.

The University of Michigan also issues badges, intended in part to help undergraduates with the post-college job search.

For badges to catch on in higher ed, many parties will have to sign on. There are the administration and faculty, the students themselves and, eventually, employers or graduate institutions.

The Education Design Lab (EDL), a Badge Alliance partner, is in the middle of a nine-month study to determine how ready the world is for badges on campuses. EDL released initial findings, which involve seven universities in the Washington, D.C. area.

The researchers’ conclusion? “Students sort of get it.” The young adults in the study express interest in badging for personal development but are not yet convinced of their relevance for employment.

Their skepticism may stem from the fact that employers and universities have not yet embraced badging. What would it take to get businesses to consider badges during hiring? The EDL researchers believe the trend will catch on once a couple of big names get in the game.

“Employers say, ‘If you can get our competitors to do it, we’ll do it, too,’ ” EDL writes. “Get two or three giants among the stakeholders to try it first, like Starbucks and Arizona State University.”

It will take a lot of clarity before badges can stand out in the murky waters of workforce credentials. Some critics wonder whether it is even a good idea to add badges to the mix. Researchers at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, for example, have questioned the unstandardized systems of credentialing jobs in the green economy. “After two years of discussion and research, we’ve concluded that not only is developing a comprehensive, comprehensible map of ‘green’ credentials impossible, it isn’t worth doing if it doesn’t get us closer to a coherent national system,” they wrote in a 2010 report.

But if chaos is avoided, “employers value nationally recognized credentials as they seek to hire new employees at any level,” according to the New York State Department of Labor. Badges could offer employers a reprieve from the confusing mix of credentialing, as companies or industries could develop their own tailored to their unique needs.

The Badge Alliance working group, which has a community discussion group, researches challenges and boons to the international standardization and widespread acceptance of higher education badges. The members are developing a campus policy framework. It is unlikely that badges will be mentioned in the same breath as SAT scores any time soon, or that students will be earning them for all their informal endeavors. But the Badge Alliance’s running list reflects curiosity across a solid spectrum of higher education institutions.

Published July 15, 2015