Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges
Discover how digital badges create a positive experience for your learners.
Developing an entirely new form of programming, like micro-credentials, requires collaboration between departments, faculty, senior leadership and even the surrounding community.
The work that goes into making these programs accessible and differentiating them from the rest of the university through badges or certificates can help more students return to work with new skills quickly.
Anissa Vega (AV): It’s unclear when the first group at KSU started offering micro-credentials, but it’s been decentralized for quite some time. Our executive education group was leading in this space, but we had multiple tools in use across campus, and the institution was paying for a variety of micro-credentialing solutions. Our university IT services group wanted to support a single micro-credentialing tool for efficiency’s sake. For several years, we have had a micro-credential buzz on campus, with stakeholders wanting a common tool. Several individuals had pressed the provost to purchase an institutional solution. In response, the provost gathered an ad hoc micro-credentialing committee that included representatives from across campus who were already awarding micro-credentials. The provost charged us with developing an initiative that not only identified one tool but was also inclusive of everyone who wanted to participate, including academics.
We needed to ensure rigor and trust but also make our brand recognizable, such that employers would trust them because there would be something similar happening in their visual identity. That was what we were tasked with right from the start. And because the ad hoc committee involved a collection of representatives from all the groups who were already engaging in micro-credentials, that committee broke down the silos.
Raven Malliett (RM): It’s important for us to highlight preparing our students to market their degrees to future employers, really capturing that employee-centered skills development that already exists in their degree programs and being able to showcase it during the search for a job or internship.
AV: Yes, I agree. But I would also add that the workforce relevancy of some higher ed degrees has been under attack. We know these degrees teach relevant skills and students successfully enter the workforce, but we haven’t been so effective in communicating that relevancy. In higher education, we use course codes, SOC codes and CIP codes to communicate what our students can do, but those are not employer-friendly terms or language. We wanted to find a way to bridge that gap. Our hope is that our academic side of the house, especially liberal arts faculty, will fully embrace micro-credentialing the key skills students develop through artifacts and experiences in degree programs—including both formal and informal learning experiences. This way, students can more effectively communicate to potential employers what they’re able to do. Micro-credentials should communicate skill sets more effectively than course numbers and course titles on a traditional transcript, which doesn’t say much about a student.
AV: We wanted to look at successful campus structures and processes that were well established and trusted. We evaluated the tools that the campus had already adopted—tools faculty already understood and were comfortable using, committee structures they were already familiar with and comfortable with. We identified that as some latent momentum we could use and apply to the micro-credentialing initiative. By mirroring those processes, we helped our community understand the process and initiative we were describing.
RM: We did have our separate units on campus already using micro-credentials, but we wanted micro-credentialing resources to be centrally allocated. These credentials do have our institutional name on them now, not just a unit’s name. So, we want to ensure they’re all at the same level of rigor. And again, that’s why we also have our taxonomy of credentials.
AV: That was critical to balancing rigor and inclusivity. Without that taxonomy, we couldn’t necessarily include everyone already participating in micro-credentials. The variation among the micro-credentials already being awarded across campus was evident. We needed to ensure consistent communication with employers about what level of rigor and mastery a micro-credential represents. Some teams just wanted to provide participation certificates, essentially. But others were actually studying and participating in activities that led to an industry certification. There is a very big difference in the amount of effort and time that goes into these two options. We wanted to still validate their desire to participate and the value that they saw in micro-credentials for their purpose, but by creating the taxonomy, everyone can find where the credential that they want to offer fits best and still participate but not necessarily negatively impact the perceived value of other more demanding micro-credentials.
We didn’t want a souvenir micro-credential, which represents participation, to negatively impact something that leads to an industry certification. We want them both to exist in the same space—we just needed to communicate their differences effectively. We not only communicate them through the taxonomy but also through common visual elements. And when you look at our taxonomy and the matched visual elements, it’s very clear that the souvenir offers different value than our digital certificates or Level II badges.
RM: As Anissa mentioned, we have our souvenirs for our participation level. It’s what you get for going to a webinar or a lecture series. So, you’re still gaining something useful for your academic career or as a faculty or staff member at KSU. Then we move on to our badges, with which we learned a major lesson in terms of the nomenclature we’re using. We originally started out with the ribbon to showcase an introduction to a skillset and then a badge to represent mastery of a skillset. However, after talking to our faculty and understanding their adverse reaction to the term ribbon, we’ve changed this to a Badge Level I and a Badge Level II to really showcase the differentiating levels of involvement with the skills our learners earn in these digital micro-credentialing processes.
Our Level I badge focuses on the introduction to a skill and understanding the basic principles, whereas our Badge Level II builds on that and shows comfort with going out into the workplace and demonstrating that mastery. And then we do have our final level, a digital certificate, which is going to be where we see either mastery of different skills through various stacked Level II badges or mastery of multiple skills all in one digital certificate. So, it’s been interesting to see how our various groups engage with those different levels, especially during our review process. We’ve had many conversations with people who think they’re at one level of skill but who realize after really diving in that they aren’t quite where they thought.
AV: Yeah, if our micro-credential committee recommended moving a proposed micro-credential from a badge down to a ribbon, sometimes stakeholders would actually argue with the group and say, “No, it really is a badge.” Because they saw a similar badge offered at another institution, where it was called a badge. Because that terminology had already proliferated throughout the broader higher education community, they just didn’t want to let go of that word—badge.
RM: One of our biggest lessons is having the resources available for the entire campus community and various units involved in this process. When we launched, we really wanted to be prepared to answer all questions asked. Since launching back in August, we’ve developed more resources as questions have arisen, whether that’s our all-encompassing guidebook or excerpts that really pinpoint some of the questions we saw coming up again and again. For example, the discussion between Level I badges and Level II badges; we developed a separate resource just to help the community understand those two different levels.
AV: As a committee, we really thought KSU was going to rapidly adopt micro-credentials, that everyone was going to be just as thrilled and enthusiastic about this as we were. But you know what? We were part of the smaller community engaging in a decentralized manner because we were the passionate and excited individuals, and getting the rest of the campus excited is just taking a bit more time than we had anticipated. We’re expecting the typical adoption curve, where it’s a little slow at first. We are hoping that once we start seeing more academic programs engage in micro-credentials, we will see more rapid adoption, especially because each individual degree program provides students with so many skillsets.
We really anticipate academic programs to lead the take-off, and we have some new enthusiasm out of our Radow College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which is exactly where we should have that enthusiasm to communicate the degree alignment with workforce demand. Tempering our expectations in terms of adoption is something that we’ve learned to do. Just because we have a plan and our system flowing is doesn’t mean that we’ve got a line out the door. But that’s okay. We will get there.
AV: We did an initial campus speaking tour, talking to individual colleges, letting them know what micro-credentials are, what the process is and how it mimics our curriculum processes. We want it to feel approachable to the campus community. We received lots of positive feedback. Of course, the KSU micro-credential website is an effective mechanism for communication with the campus to try and engage them. I also know that by housing the initiative in academic affairs and having Raven on our curriculum team, as she’s working with faculty on revising degree programs, we can more easily align a micro-credential with a learning outcome.
RM: One thing our unit is doing right now, somewhat separate from micro-credentials, is providing data reports to programs based on their CIP and SOC codes. And part of that is looking at a skills analysis using Emsi’s analyst tool to target the skills associated with current job postings. One of the goals is to really examine those skill sets and see where in our curriculum there’s room for us to develop a micro-credential and really highlight that for the programs. This is the first year we’re doing this, but we’re hoping that we’ll grow the micro-credentialing process and help revise our curriculum to the best of our abilities.
AV: We’re still learning them. We’re actually not that far into implementation. I mean, we only published the micro-credential guide a year ago. Right, Raven?
RM: I don’t think it was even a year ago. I remember that being a big summer project for me in 2021. All of this is fairly recent. We are currently accepting responses for a campus-wide survey on micro-credentials. We plan on closing that near the end of this month and looking at that data to not only understand what our current users are finding helpful or could use to improve the process, but also look at the users responding with: “I didn’t know this was happening on campus. How can I learn more?” So, that will be really helpful for us as well.
AV: You’ll notice if you read our micro-credential guide that right at the beginning it says, “This is a living document.”
Because going into this, we’ve known this would be a learning process and a formative process. We have no expectation of publishing a perfect guide. We expect to learn from the survey, from granting awards, from hearing from those submitting micro-credentials and from committee feedback. So, we plan to iterate on our current design.
AV: One of my most immediate goals is to get more engagement from the academic side of the house, specifically our liberal arts bachelor’s degree programs. There’s so much potential there and so much value to add.
RM: Focusing on educating the campus as well, doing another speaking tour just to get the word out… I feel like we’ve been running this initiative for a year now and have pockets starting to grow across campus, but we can really build on that momentum with the whole campus community and encourage everyone to participate.
AV: We don’t have a designated number goal. Our goals are related to inclusivity, rigor and trustworthiness. I don’t think we would want to grow the initiative too quickly in a way that sacrificed any of those. We really want to be sure that what we build maintains those. Maybe they’re humble goals. Ultimately, when we see any adoption of new technology, it starts slow and then you get a critical mass. If we can be very careful and focused on our values before we hit that critical mass, they will be infused throughout the initiative even after it’s adopted in large numbers.
This interview was edited for length and clarity
Discover how digital badges create a positive experience for your learners.
Author Perspective: Administrator