Published on 2016/10/11
The EvoLLLution | Digital Badges and the Career Pathway: Assessing the Obstacles
Digital badges have the capacity to be a transformative credential for students, but only if colleges fully think through the subject areas in which they’re delivering the badge, and its widespread demand.

Digital badges have the capacity to transform the way students share their academic accomplishments. Right now, students rely upon paper degrees, transcripts and certificates to prove to employers that they have the skills and abilities they need to succeed in a given job. These are challenging to understand, challenging to verify and, ultimately, don’t do much to communicate the work a student has put into their education. In the first installment of this two-part interview, Stephen Wright shared his thoughts on why these credentials could be valuable in the two-year space. In this concluding interview, he reflects on what it will take to establish them in the community college environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What kinds of models show the potential of bringing credentialing and job pathways together?

Stephen Wright (SW): It is possible to have this kind of infrastructure, and a great model to look at is LinkedIn. Right now, the majority of LinkedIn’s revenue is based on customized human resource software for companies. They have the vast majority of job seekers and professionals on their network, and they sort and manage a huge amount of data on a regular basis—it is the most complete source for prospective talent. Head hunters and corporations are both going to LinkedIn to find new employees and that relies on their ability to deliver customized reports. This is the environment where the digital badge starts to become so important, because it fits into LinkedIn’s capacity to search and filter.

LinkedIn has taken this a step further through its acquisition of Since the jobs are being posted on LinkedIn and the talent is already there, it’s possible for them to come up with more accurate crosswalks between what the ads are asking for and the skills people have when they get hired. Then they can develop algorithms that push people aspiring to certain jobs who have some necessary skills but are missing others towards specific training offerings that would fill that gap. They see themselves as a big data algorithm analysis machine that helps people understand where they need to upskill or reskill to become highly employable at a higher level.

The Pearson Acclaim platform of digital badges exemplifies an enterprise approach to corporate training and, like LinkedIn, has developed tools for badge earners to explore career options relating to their badges based upon real-time labor market information. Both systems and many more on the market illustrate that there is more to come.

Evo: What are the technological requirements a community college needs to have in place to adequately manage a robust array of non-degree offerings?

SW: If you take the digital badge out of the equation, this is effectively a question around how we manage career and technical education processes, which is another discussion altogether. The methodology for that is extensive and evolving; however, when you add the digital badge you add a cost layer that currently doesn’t exist.

We have helped with the development of some digital badges, but if badging is not presented to the college as an activity with a self-sustaining budget, it’s not going to work because the colleges don’t have the money to engage in projects like this. They certainly aren’t doing it right now. For the majority of certifications students are pursuing, the student takes courses at the college to gain the knowledge they need to sit for the certification and then the students have to go out on their own and buy a voucher to attend a testing center location to take the test, and these tests cost $200. They then sit in one of these testing centers for a two-hour, proctored exam and then they leave and eventually get word on whether they passed or not, then they get the certification. Students can get all their training for these certifications any way they want, which is why so many private training providers are operating.

So what’s keeping the colleges from doing digital badges? Initially, its still new, but eventually it is cost. California community college students’ pays $46 per class unit, and it actually costs in the order of a few hundred dollars per class unit to provide the education. So we’re already running a deficit against tuition. Let’s say you put on a course that costs three units and then you want to give students digital badges as well. The digital badges have to be clickable, which means it’s got to be hosted somewhere. That hosted site has to be secure, has to have the capacity to add new users and and define who can validate certain learning. There’s an infrastructure cost to providing and supporting badges, not to mention the salaries of all the executives that are doing the projections and all the MBA’s they hire so all of that adds up. The way I see it, it comes out to be about $45 per badge. Going back to the original example, this would be for a course that costs students $138 for the three units (add books for another $90). So now in addition to paying for the course, students will have to pay extra for the badges, and then they may have to pay for the certification test. This begins to add up really quickly for students. Which is why some colleges find the DIY Mozilla open badges so appealing. However, while you could have local badges to signify that a student mastered a skill or concept, how is that different from a piece of paper? If it’s going on the internet but isn’t recognized, verifiable or connected to a database, was it worth it?

The badges we’re looking at now focus on third-party certifications for which there’s already a demand. These are options like project management professional that actually lead to a job, where it would be job-impacting to have that certification. Additionally, some shared statewide CCC pathways that lead to a common CCC credential among all 113 colleges may have some real potential if tied to a system-wide effort to align curriculum (like the BIW, ict-dm/biw)

Community colleges could do a lot to support that once they know which digital badges are most relevant for the students. Community colleges are run compassionately, intelligently and with the proper amount of concern for taxpayers’ money, so they’re not just going to do things on a whim. Someone has to show them that this is going to get students jobs and it is worth the money because businesses are hiring. Once they know all that then they still have to ask themselves, “Are we doing this exclusively for one company—which is corporate welfare—or are we doing it across the board?” As soon as the community college figures out those fairness issues they usually go ahead and offer the courses.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity for offering a robust array of digital badges to really help a college to service students better?

SW: First it’s important to share a word of caution: Don’t just go out and do badges because they’re new and cool—a student won’t get a job just because they earned a digital badge. Postsecondary leaders have to understand what it is about a digital badge that makes it special because, at the end of the day, a digital badge is just a piece of technology. It’s a paper certificate made digital. If you have a third-party certification from a major association or group verifying the value of that credential, it makes a difference because learners can put it on their LinkedIn profile—just as they could before—but now that badge can be clicked on and employers can see if it’s active and verified. Badge holders can be shopped for jobs statewide, nationwide or worldwide and their verified skill and accomplishment helps them to stand out.

It’s critical that we think through what these digital badges are for and how they can help students. Across the California community college system we have over 2000 different IT certificates. These programs were crafted in direct recognition of a stated labor market need, as a way for students to signal they have the skills employers are looking for. These are usually in response to a local demand, and they could be effective paper certificates in the local or regional market. We need to think through why it’s valuable to go to the extra expense of making it digital and permanent and instantaneously verifiable. If the skill set they learned is something that allows the student to be identified anywhere in the country, then that is worth exploring for digital badges. That’s the real value of digital badges, but how do you truly predict the long-term relevance of a technology like digital badges? You can make a big fool of yourself by predicting in the technology space—innovations will have incredible impacts on demographics that will surprise even the people who created them. The same is going to be true for digital badges. We don’t know yet what the market will value in digital badges, and if community colleges are looking for the best way to position themselves on these credentials, I think we need to look at what industry associations want in digital badges, then provide the training for them because they’re saying they’re more important than just a regular certificate.

When it’s all done it’s just a question of teaching the right skills for the economy—and getting students hired!

Print Friendly

Key Takeaways

  • Higher education leaders need to fully think through why offering a digital badge is more valuable than a paper certificate both for the students and for the institution before setting out to create one.
  • Focusing on creating digital badges in areas that are both third-party verified and in high demand could be immensely lucrative for college leaders.