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Digital Badges: A More Viable Currency for Returning Adult Students?

Badges provide employers with a significantly more comprehensive idea of what their prospective employees can accomplish than a traditional degree and transcript.

I was leading a discussion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at a conference this morning, and a comment from one participant jogged my thinking. We were discussing how MOOCs don’t offer course credit, but how some institutions were beginning to accept such courses for credit, after administering their own exams or conducting their own portfolio reviews. One bright, articulate student—who was enrolled in a MOOC on artificial intelligence—reminded us that, like him, many people are not interested in course credit, and that my institution seemed to care more about academic credit than students do.

XYZ University: “Really? Not interested in course credit?”

Returning Adult Student: “Really. Not interested.”

XYZ University: “What about courses? Degrees?”

Returning Adult Student: “Look, I’ve been there and done that. A lot of us just want to learn to satisfy our curiosity or to become able to do something.”

Higher education is based largely on the assumption that students want degrees, and therefore they want the courses that are required to earn those degrees. And that assumption has been valid. Degrees have been a “ticket” that offered the possibility of admission to a desirable career (if it wasn’t sold out).

But as more and more people sought and received degrees, the increasing number of tickets available decreased the probability that the ticket would guarantee admission. And, as more and more institutions were printing tickets based on their own criteria, it became more and more difficult for the gatekeepers to know which ticketholders should be admitted. Many of the applicants already possess what appears to be a valid ticket, and the tickets carry very little information: Name of institution/Name of degree. That’s it.

In the next few years, I predict we’ll see more and more adult students interested in accumulating digital badges, as opposed to wanting course credits or degrees. Digital badges are more modular, they do a much better job of describing what the badge holder can do, and they can be assembled in ways that highlight how an individual stands out from the crowd. They can illustrate how he or she has the core qualifications required for consideration, and also has a series of related skills, perspectives, and attributes that add up to competitive advantage. And the quality of each badge can be interrogated with a single click of the mouse.

Imagine that you are an employer, about to make a decision between two apparently qualified candidates. One has:

  1. A degree that should signify preparation for the job
  2. A transcript with abbreviated course names and letter grades (let’s say a 3.7 GPA); and
  3. A resume in which the candidate makes unsubstantiated claims about skills and personality traits.

The other candidate has:

  1. A series of digital badges that cover the required skills and knowledge. Each badge is a link to an online statement of what the candidate did to demonstrate the capabilities the badge represents, and many even provide links to digital representations of to the work the student submitted as evidence
  2. A set of additional badges the candidate feels are relevant, including badges for leadership, creativity, and teamwork. Again, these badges are linked to descriptions of the criteria for earning the badge and perhaps other evidence, and
  3. A certificate that states that the institution certifies that the candidate is ready for work in that career.

Which candidate do you choose?

Now imagine that you are a prospective student looking for ways to prepare yourself to enter a very attractive career. You have the option of choosing a traditional college or university’s degree program, about which you have a little information (a list of courses and a paragraph or two about each course). Choosing this option means that you will emerge, years later, with a diploma, a transcript, and a grade point average. And, if you don’t complete the whole process, for one reason or another, you will have very little to show for it.

But you also have the option of selecting an innovative college or university (or a private, for-profit career development center) that allows you the freedom to assemble a set of badges describing the capabilities you acquire, gives you detailed information about what you will know when you have earned each badge, and recommends sets of badges that you might want to include as core preparation for the career of your choice. From this experience you emerge with a set of clickable digital badges that can be displayed on Facebook and LinkedIn and pasted into your resume (each linked to thorough descriptions of what you had to do to earn the badge and samples of high quality work), AND you will have earned a certificate that states that the institution certifies that you are ready for work in that career. And, if you don’t complete the entire set of recommended badges, you still leave with an impressive set of digital credentials, each bearing a solid description of what you can do.

Which educational option do you choose?

As Yogi Berra said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Learners will have new and different options. They will assemble a set of credentials that may or may not include formal courses. They will make decisions based on lots of information available online, including ratings of satisfaction and reviews left by others (just as they now make purchases on And employers will be able to assess the quality of their employees’ preparation and will also be able to rate and comment on the quality of educational options.

But maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe the existing educational systems will live happily ever after as the last remaining provider-oriented, one-size-fits-all enterprise in a user-centered world.

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