Published on 2016/09/06
The EvoLLLution | Digital Badges and the Career Pathway: Understanding the Value
Digital badges provide community colleges with new ways to forge career pathways for students who are not necessarily enrolling in higher education to earn a degree, but to get a job.

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 this interview, the first of two parts, Stephen Wright outlines some of the advantages digital badges bring to the table and shares his thoughts on why they may be particularly well suited to the community college environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it critical for higher education leaders to understand the pathways that lead to lasting careers?

Stephen Wright (SW): I did some research on the relevance of digital badges for non-traditional students, which are the majority of all higher ed students these days. I have a market research and product development background so the most important thing to me in the community college system and the area that I deal with—which is information communication technologies—is to find out the best, most effective pathway possible for students to get employment and a career.

These pathways are critical, especially for people who aren’t necessarily suited for a four-year college or just don’t have a lot of money, but want to learn something that can help them get a good job and a successful career. Nowadays it’s very hard to actually be able to guide a young person toward a pathway that makes sense and that’s going to make money.  There is too much misinformation floating about and as a result people wildly speculate.

I think we need to bring a new simpler and more effective approach to the way we build job pathways for students. What if I took all of the skills and resources used to do market research in a Fortune 500 corporate environment and turned that to the community college environment? We could bring a new understanding to where the jobs are, what skills sets are necessary and in what order someone actually climbs this career ladder. It’s more of an anthropological approach than a traditional workforce analysis approach. So much of the workforce analysis these days is very static, it’s very two-dimensional.  For example, I was looking at pathways to get into the IT space, which includes computer science, information systems and more hands-on IT, which Cisco Academy addresses. I was trying to understand the pathway for somebody in IT and how soon they could get a job. This is particularly relevant knowledge for postsecondary leaders in the community college system as most students (close to 75 percent) are only with us for less than one year. Communication of effective non-degree IT pathways is especially difficult as there’s only one counsellor for every 2000 students, they get their 20 minutes with their counsellor, then they often subscribe to an automatic educational plan that is usually pre-programmed for transfer to a four year college—all academic. We’re balancing a lot of students and few resources, but we’ve been overlooking career and technical education (CTE) and students are suffering. To the students, it seems like if they don’t want a four-year degree they shouldn’t come to us, and it muddles their pathway. We need to more effectively communicate to those prospective students.

So, I’ve been researching what jobs students could get in six months, because that meets the very real needs of non-traditional students to pay for rent, diapers and food. I want to know what job I can help them get that will start them on the path towards a successful career that I can continue to support with more courses and certifications. There’s a wonderful array of third-party industry recognized Certifications (big C) in the IT space, (community college certificates are small c) which take the role of validating that the student really knows what the industry values. That makes our job easy. We just need to point them towards those, but in what sequence and over what amount of time?

As a result of our research, our team has identified a distinct IT technician pathway (ict-dm.net/ittp) suitable for thousands of students and we’ve determined that a very accessible first step to a career in IT is to become a computer retail sales person. Now that’s not a high-paying job and it demands nights and weekends, but it does require some knowledge and I can train someone to get a required certification alongside a few courses on retail and customer services in less than six months. They can get a job as a computer retail person and they’ll probably be the best one in the store. Here’s why this is important: If you ask a head hunter who places IT help desk and service desk support staff, they find the people that they place for those jobs on the floor at computer retail outlets. Six months of education and the student is in the early stages of an IT career pathway with a customer service experience to last a lifetime.

There’s an anthropological research need to understand the true marketplace pathways to career success, and a great place to start is with placement agencies. Placement agencies are now placing about 80 percent of entry-level jobs in business, IT and a lot of different disciplines that community college students might target. Understanding the pathways is critical for community college leaders, as is understanding what placement agencies look for, because it might give us an indication of how to credential learning. We might want to create a badge to certify some learning, but there might already be well respected certifications, like we have in IT, that make additional badges irrelevant.

Meanwhile we identify separate pathways for students who are up-skilling or transforming from one career to another. From a marketing perspective these are different personas with different pathways even though they may sit side by side in some classes.

Evo: Why are more and more students turning toward alternative and informal education opportunities?

SW: Students don’t necessarily know everything—they learn over the course of their career and it’s important for us in the education system to know now what they’re going to be wanting 10 years from now, and to make it easy for them to get there. At the starting point, a lot of students just want a job. The informal, often on-line teaching of certification or digital badge preparation appeals to that.

There’s also a wider movement towards gamification in all aspects of life for younger people, and we need to follow that trend. Whether it’s getting some sort of affirmation very quickly, or putting a badge on Facebook or LinkedIn, people want to share their accomplishments. People who earn badges are willing to share them with other people, encouraging others to look seriously at badges as well.

The validation that comes from a digital credential is also valuable for job seekers. The primary value of the digital badge is as a digitally connected way of saying you really have a credential. You could just as easily include a certification into the education section of your LinkedIn, but nobody knows if you have actually earned that certification. If, however, you put your digital badge of that certification on LinkedIn, someone could click on the digital badge to see what lies behind it. It affirms that the student claiming to have earned the badge actually did the work, how they performed and what topics were covered. It’s like an instantaneous transcript validation for employers. Situations will arise where the ability to instantaneously prove who you are and that you have a certification may occur in worldwide recruitment, in emergency situations, and even during vendor technical audits on client worksites.

Evo: Why is it important for community colleges to keep an eye on this trend?

SW: Alternative education providers have a clear need for digital badges as their way of confirming their product quality. I can see a digital badge being more important to education providers like bootcamps if they’re independently verified.

Since colleges are accredited, they already have a mechanism to say everything that they produce over a period of time—regardless of the course or the department—is valid because of the accreditation status. As a result, unaccredited schools and education providers have an uphill battle for which certification and digital badges may provide a comparative advantage.

Community colleges are more likely to embrace digital badges as time progresses, and we’re looking for common standards and trends to dictate the direction of the badging movement. This is especially important across California’s community college system, as all 113 colleges are independently operated and all curricula are developed by each college’s faculty. Despite the incredible and rich diversity of offerings across our system, this results in very little consistency. What can and does address that issue for us is third-party certifications. A student can take courses that lead toward any number of credentials at any number of our colleges, but when they sit for the Certification it’s the same Certification worldwide.  There’s a real advantage there, and the community colleges are a natural fit for Certification preparation.   In the near future all 3rd party industry Certifications will probably have a digital badge option.

Evo: How much of a differentiator is employability of graduates for community colleges?

SW: Employability is the major differentiator for the students because getting hired is their top priority. Is it important for the community college? Yes, but it is not tied to revenue—our community colleges get by based on how many students they have in chairs as full-time equivalent students. The move to measuring and defining success based on employment results is relatively new, and frankly it’s likely going to take years to figure out how to do that well. Our own infrastructure is not designed to support performance-based funding because it’s so difficult to track students. Every student has a different Student ID number that doesn’t correlate to their social security number, and—for privacy reasons—we’re unable to look at social security numbers to track a student’s past enrollments. Every school has a separate SIS system so we’re reliant on schools and students voluntarily sharing limited information to track and monitor student progress. It’s going to be very hard to do that.

While our free market competitors may be more results-based and more expensive, the CCCs take well deserved pride in being an open-access provider of quality education for all Californians.

This interview has been edited for length. It is the first installment in a two-part Q&A series with Stephen Wright on digital badges in the community college context. In the second and final installment, Wright discusses some of the obstacles to getting a digital badging program off the ground.

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Key Takeaways

  • The traditional two-year and four-year degrees are not adequately meeting the needs of adult students who are looking to get the learning they need to get a job that puts them on a path to a career.
  • Through their capacity to instantaneously validate learning, digital badges have the potential to transform pathways from the academy to the labor market.
  • Focusing digital badges on certifications with third-party verification creates opportunities to deliver learning in high-demand fields that lead to a job.