Published on 2016/09/26

Understanding the Present and Future Roles of Alternative Credentials

The EvoLLLution | Understanding the Present and Future Roles of Alternative Credentials
Though badges currently exist in a type of Wild West, where there are significant quality differences between various options, there are models currently in place to transform their position in the diverse credentials ecosystem.

Badging programs have surprisingly diverse objectives, which makes projecting their roles in the future equally diverse.

If we think of them strictly as credentials, without the underlying technology, we can look at the overall trend in credentials, including certificates, licenses and other shorter-term credentials. Over the past 30 years, the number of credentials issued by education institutions increased 800 percent in the U.S., and there are now roughly 4000 personnel-certification bodies issuing credentials to adult learners, with badges and microcredentials rapidly adding to those numbers.[1]

According to recent research, certificates can have an impact on students’ post-certification earnings, although early results also suggest that these findings vary depending on gender, race, and area of study, as well as the length of time to complete the certificate (i.e. long-term versus short-term certification), and in some cases the state of the local labor market.[2]

Digital badges are an extension of this trend, and the role they are expected to play in the labor market in 10 years will likely reflect the same differentiation, meaning that some industries will embrace them while others do not, and some groups will benefit more or less than others.

To a great extent, the success of badges will depend on how well they reflect what the labor market wants (that they are not already getting), and the trust instilled in the organizations that issue the badges. Badges introduce the idea that the course is not the smallest curricular building block, a design strength that Bernard Bull writes about, and that we can use credentials across the curriculum to recognize abilities, skills, roles, and even dispositions. This is a relatively novel type of evidence that the labor market purports to find useful. The Education Design Lab is doing human-centered design work to prototype a suite of badges based on essential 21st century skills that are meaningful to employers, for example.

When it comes to hiring, the labor market seems to have an almost insatiable appetite for evidence, especially the right kind of evidence, presented at the right time, to help figure out whether a prospective employee has the right skills and values for an organization. In theory, badges could provide useful evidence for employers, though in practice we have not seen widespread examples to better understand what role badges fulfill, other than early examples that involve existing relationships.

Also in theory, badges are machine-readable, yet the different technical systems involved in displaying badges and hiring people are, except for a few exceptions, not talking to teach other. And at the moment, non-credit credentials are not yet a mainstream part of that quest for evidence.

At the same time, the market is arguably flooded with evidence. A lot of the new hiring technologies are designed to filter through this flood of information, to try and find a good match in the volume of applications. As a result, the labor market’s hiring practices have become very algorithmic and automated, even for medium-sized and smaller companies. There is a premium on filtering efficiency that badges do not necessarily address, although this is a function of the hiring environment more than anything else.

When we apply for a job, we have to make it through a winnowing process that is not just about skills and experience, but also about keyword scanners, parsers, predictive analytics, and applicant-tracking systems. It’s a race to find a match, and it is a perennial quest for employers to figure out the most accurate and efficient way to do that.

Once a pool of candidates has been culled, however, there are opportunities to showcase badges as a source of evidence for relevant skills, roles, or dispositions that can be hard to gauge from testimony or traditional credentials. This may be where badges gain the most traction in an open labor market.

Where Are Badges Working?

While market research is limited when it comes to badges, it seems safe to say that people are more likely to encounter badges in workforce training than in schools of learning, at least for now. The U.S. Department of Labor indicates that students can expect to have 10 to 14 jobs by the age of 38, and many of those jobs will involve training that may very well include badges. Some high-profile organizations like Amazon, IBM and Zappos, are using badges as part of their workforce training and compensation systems.

However, not all digital badges are created equal. Badges that are open have the capacity to signal high-quality reputation data that is more meaningful than, say, Google search results or lines of text on a resume. Ideally, a person would be able to earn badges from a variety of organizations, and be able to collect them as they would any kind of credential, and display them online. Right now, a majority of badging platforms is giving lip service to this open functionality, making it difficult for someone to export their badge and share it outside the platform, which was the original vision for badges when this work began five years ago.

This raises an important discussion about open-source production and innovation, and whether we can scale the open-source ethos to credentials in the same way we’ve done successfully with other parts of the open web. At the moment, it’s still too early to tell if for-profit badging platforms are “living symbiotically” with open-source initiatives. If they are, this could be what determines widespread scaling of badges.

How Colleges and Universities Might Adapt to This Shift

The economic downturn of 2008 created greater pressure and demand for college and university accountability, and badge platforms and analytics have a potential role to play here. In the 1990s and 2000s, we saw universities doing more to network students with recruiters. In the next five years, we may also see companies like Merit Pages provide sophisticated matching services using algorithms to directly link students to jobs.

Their model is the same as badges in that educational outcomes and non-credit or co-curricular achievements are recognized (and verified), and then shared across a network of secondary and post-secondary schools, employers, and out-of-school learning environments. The difference is that their achievements are foregrounded by a trusted network that is already in place, essentially creating a reputation platform for stakeholders who have a vested interest in hiring their students.

We are also seeing career service centers respond to current economic conditions, meeting expectations that they play a more meaningful role in connecting students to internships, employment opportunities, mentoring, and experiential learning.[3] This may be an area where it makes sense for badges to expand, especially platforms that are designed to work across institutional boundaries (not all of them are).

There are promising models emerging in different institutions of learning that may elevate the role of badges. As an example, a student may accrue recognition for her leadership abilities not just within one assignment, or one course, but across many courses over one, or two, or four years. Meaning, a biomechanical engineering student could in theory earn a badge in entrepreneurial thinking that is similar to one earned by a student majoring in anthropology because the dispositional qualities and abilities are content agnostic. In this model, badges would be awarded for work already being done, not as a separate course of study, but as an example of work that meets specific standards.

This could be helpful for employers seeking characteristics that are hard to gauge otherwise. In one study about employer perceptions of badges, “innovation” was ranked as an essential 21st skill for college graduates, a measure of whether they have an, “ability to solve problems on their own when there is an unclear outcome.”[4] The same study also discovered that employers are looking for evidence of extra learning beyond the classroom, and that employers are interested in using badges to evaluate skills of recent college graduates. Hopefully, in 10 years we will have more cases and more research to make projections based on long-term data.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to follow institutions participating in the Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) experiments (which Congress authorized and amended under section 487A(b) of the Higher Education Act of 1965). These experiments propose new models of education that offer, among other things, “short-term credential options, and online or blended skills training that are responsive to the need for accountable innovation.” This willingness to experiment may influence what badges look like 10 years from now, and give us new models for how they might work effectively in colleges and universities.

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[1] Lumina Foundation. (2015). Connecting credentials: A beta credentials framework. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation.

[2] Xu, D., & Trimble, M. (2015). What about certificates? Evidence on the labor market returns to nondegree community college awards in two states. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

[3] Dey, F., & Cruzvergara, C. Y. (2014). Evolution of career services in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 2014(148), 5-18.

[4] Raish, V., & Rimland, E. (2015). Employer perceptions of critical information literacy skills and digital badges. College & Research Libraries, 15-712.

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