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Corporations and Colleges Must Evolve to Allow Badges to Transform Professional Education

The EvoLLLution | Corporations and Colleges Must Evolve to Allow Badges to Transform Professional Education
Though valuable to identify and highlight specific skills and competencies, badges have a long way to go before they fulfil their true potential.

Employers across the labor market—regardless of industry—recognize professional development as critical to the success of employees and organizations. In fact, research by The EvoLLLution and Destiny Solutions found that 70 percent of employers thought employees needed continuous education just to keep pace with the demands of their jobs. Of course, one significant challenge many employers grapple with is how to know whether a training intervention has been successful. Badges could be the solution. In this interview, Sarah Frick reflects on how badging is being used to enhance professional development activities at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and shares her thoughts on their capacity to transform the corporate education space.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the introduction of digital badges impacted professional development activities at UAA?

Sarah Frick (SF): We implemented badge systems into two different faculty professional development activities at UAA, each of which provided a unique and valuable impact on community building among the badge earners.

The first implementation involved attaching a badge system to an existing program for our faculty “Technology Fellows” program. This rigorous program takes a cohort though two years of technology skill building, course design and peer mentoring. We added badges to aid in tracking progress and milestones through the requirements, and to add motivation for completing additional activities. We wanted to move away from a completion checklist or digital grade book and offer something more robust.

With this longer-term deployment, we saw increased participation within the learning community, online and offline. Tech Fellows were already a part of an open online community within a WordPress website, so it was easy to showcase the earners’ progress with the Badge OS plugin with Credly integration, and see the increased discussion emerge around the challenges as they posted about their milestones, online and on campus.

The other deployment was to attach badge systems to “challenges” presented at our face-to-face, week-long faculty training. The earners were excited and motivated to face these challenges, which were mostly skills practice with technology tools and posting to a blog or discussion board for evidence. We also printed the badges as stickers and awarded them within the group, which we were uncertain about at the first iteration, and actually added last minute. To our surprise this analog addition was a hit.  With each iteration we presented a new badge theme or narrative. We even started letting the faculty badge us for innovative training and presentation techniques.

In both cases the badge system introduced game scenarios and mechanics and added an element of creativity. The most apparent impact for our learners was motivation through engagement. The game scenario with the badges is fun. It encourages a dialog of inquiry among the earners as they work through the story, pass through the levels, or master the challenges.

Evo: Why do you think digital badges have had such a drastic impact on learning and growth?

SF: I think humans have an inherent want, maybe even a primal need, to display elements of our persona like level and allegiance. We have seen this through the ages and have consistently discovered that even basic ornamental decorations turn out to display important rank, skills or community status.

Research in digital badges crosses many spectrums and professional fields. There is real opportunity in the ideas that issuers can be vetted instantaneously, the evidence can be seen by the community, and that badges can be collected by the user into groups that can then be displayed for different audiences.

What I believe to be a very real, overlooked motivator is the fact that the badge earners are publically recognized within their community through the badge systems, either online or offline, for their achievements and skills. A little recognition can go a long way in the workplace, or anywhere.

Evo: How could providers of professional education learn from the lessons at UAA to impact the provision of professional development training to the corporate market?

SF: I think that higher education and the corporate market could stand to come together a bit more and learn from each other as we gain experience in this realm.

From higher education, to me, the most important concept to think about is planning for your outcomes and evidence before setting the badge system in place. What do you want people to learn? What behaviors do you want to encourage? What is the evidence of learning? The badge system needs to meet the training outcomes.

We decided early on that badges earned for seat time was off the table. We weren’t just providing a digital version of a paper completion certificate (although that is all that is currently needed in promotion/tenure files). We wanted earners to reach a new competence level or understanding. We wanted them to have something to show for their work—a new persona to display. We wanted earners to be proud to say “I AM a Tech Fellow,” not just “I sat through this program.”

I have also heard many innovative and creative ideas for staff professional development within the corporate market that higher education could look to as well. Recently I heard from a corporate colleague that at her workplace they are badging each other for professional and courteous behaviors, and the badges are being used at annual performance reviews, and that got my wheels turning for faculty/staff development within my college.

Evo: How do you think the use of digital badges will expand over the next 20 years?

SF: I think people are getting more proficient with technology and we are gaining better understanding of the web and our personal and professional presence there. As social media use expands and we find places to connect professionally online, more people will start to take control of their online presence and displays of skills and achievements.

In higher education, there is certainly a move toward using digital and web-based portfolios for promotion and tenure processes, so there are exciting possibilities there for digital badge system integration.

Evo: What do you see as being the main obstacles to the expansion and growth of digital badges?

SF: Currently, I’m not convinced that badges are being used to their maximum online social potential outside of fields that are already inherently technologically proficient, or already connected in online social environments.

There is still a lack of easy-to-use badge collection systems available. The people working in the back-end technology of micro-credentialing and digital badge realm, like Mozilla, are doing great work to get to set open standards and put out management systems that allow embedding and connect to social media, but I am not seeing my particular users taking full advantage of this outside of our more intimate online community.

In surveying our faculty users (of various ages and tech proficiency levels), we found that a very small percentage were using the social media sharing options, or displaying on a resume or online portfolio area of any kind yet, with lack of understanding the higher level technology cited as the main reason for not taking those steps.

The value reported was the smaller group collaboration, the creative atmosphere, the pride of displaying their new skills, and the recognition within the community.

This interview has been edited for length.

More resources from the “Build a Better Badge” presentation by Sarah Frick and Dave Dannenberg at the Open Learning Consortium 2014 conference are available here.

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