In today’s competitive and ever-evolving workforce, many employers face considerable challenges when it comes to identifying and recruiting sufficiently skilled workers. As advanced technologies and economic forces continue to reshape the employment environment, the lack of job-ready candidates has created a concerning gap between education achievement and employment preparedness. This dynamic has resulted in structural underemployment for a variety of college majors; at the same time, there are significant shortages of appropriately skilled workers in a variety of areas, ranging from health care to information technology. Manufacturing and internet technology (IT) industry statistics reveal there are as many as 1.8 million IT jobs to fill by 2022, and an eye-opening estimated 2.4 million manufacturing jobs to fill by 2028. Although internship programs are still leveraged by employers to help fill open positions, corporate training has largely disappeared, and the desire for job-ready graduates is increasing. The skills gap has positioned numerous industry employers, companies, and educational institutions to explore alternatives to address the disparity between job seeker skills and employer needs. If educators can complement traditional degree programs to better prepare students and accommodate employer needs, the skills gap may be remedied. And digital badging could help pave the way.
A digital badge is defined as an online validation of an individual’s achievement and skillset via an informal and/or virtual educational setting. Digital badging entails the use of blockchain technology, the same rapidly evolving technology upon which Bitcoin is based. This technology is used to enable the digital maintenance and storage of an individual’s achievement data in the form of a badge, which essentially is a tamper-proof public digital ledger used to record and display information about a person’s credentials. Standards and specifications for competency and learning assessment programs differ in implementation, administration, and oversight. Open badges (developed and introduced in 2011 by The Mozilla Foundation and backed financially by the MacArthur Foundation) represent a group of specifications and open technical standards that serve both academic and non-academic purposes. Millions of open badges have been issued to hundreds of thousands of recipients across a wide array of companies, schools, associations, and government agencies. While not everyone agrees on the foundational standards on which digital badges are built, open badges are a commonly used standard for issuing, collecting, and displaying credentials across the web.
Open badges embed metadata such as an image or symbol (oftentimes the logo of the badge issuer), information about the area of expertise achieved, the name of the badge issuing authority, the date of issuance, date of expiration (if applicable), and more. Credentials from multiple badge providers can be combined and stacked. Open badges may be observed, accessed, and verified in an online central repository by employers, giving badge holders a concise and verifiable portfolio of their lifelong learning achievements. Open badges serve as a digital resume that can be displayed on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets.
Today’s digital badging platforms include vendors such as Acclaim, Credly, and BadgeCert, which provide real-time technology to authenticate digital/open badges and, ultimately, support educational institutions, companies, job-seekers, and non-profit organizations in maintaining the integrity of their credentials. When a learner completes a micro course, passes the assessment, and earns a digital badge, a badge issuing vendor embeds that information into what is referred to as a badge wallet or backpack for that learner. The system then notifies the learner that his or her badge is available to claim and share. Some badges have highly technical labor market insight built in. They are often linked to real-time job opportunities and include important job seeker information like salary range, needed skills, top employers, and more. The badge earner can look through job listings, review job descriptions, and apply online with the click of a button.
IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) is one of the most technologically advanced digital badge providers today and one of the first corporations to adopt digital badging. When piloting their digital badging program in 2014, IBM looked externally at labor market data as well as internally from a “soft skills” perspective, while considering high-level stakeholder needs. Five initial areas of expertise IBM felt were essential in the IT world were created: Collaborate Effectively, Presenting with Purpose, Interpersonal Skills, Delivering Quality Work with Agility, and Solving Problems with Critical and Creative Thinking. Once courses in these areas were finalized, IBM offered them on their website to learners free of charge, providing them the opportunity to earn badges after assessment. IBM’s pilot program exceeded their expectations, resulting in triple-digit growth of online training program enrollment, course completions, and passing score rates. Based on the success of the pilot program, IBM launched its open badge program in 2016 with Acclaim (formerly Pearson), part of the Credly global digital credentialing and talent recognition suite. Since that time, IBM has issued over a million badges to learners from all over the world through its digital badge registry and its forward-thinking efforts have increased employee recognition, motivated skill progression, and made the IT workforce more inclusive.
David Leaser, Senior Executive of Innovation for IBM’s Training & Skills organization, is the founder of the IBM Digital Badge Program and the developer of IBM’s first ever cloud-based embedded learning solution and the IBM training reseller program. Leaser’s passion for innovative technology has transformed traditional learning and gained the attention of a growing number of businesses, institutions, and learners. According to Leaser, “When it comes to information technology, the appetite for skills, especially in the area of cognitive computing, cloud and blockchain, has created a growing skills gap. The IBM New Collar Certificate Program for Customer Engagement helps solve that. The New Collar Certificate program was designed to reduce attrition, increase company productivity, decrease errors, and improve customer service and teamwork.”
When digital badges were first introduced, they were positioned as a potential substitute for a college degree. Over time, they have been expanded to serve individuals both with and without degrees. For example, the majority of students in coding boot camps offered by non-traditional, for-profit education providers already have college degrees—and it is not unusual for them to have advanced degrees. Non-credit providers like boot camps have even been approved for federal financial aid under certain conditions, illustrating a significant degree of change. Likewise, traditional, non-profit colleges and universities are beginning to tap into various vendor platforms to create a verified form of alternative credentials as an add-on to a degree. When successfully earned and accurately issued, badges can become highly beneficial to both employees and employers. But badge issuers must have a defined process in place that ensures badge holders adequately demonstrate the on-the-job competencies the badge is intended to represent.
In September 2017, IBM entered into a strategic learning partnership with Northeastern University to integrate IBM’s in-house education programs with Northeastern’s academic credentials by implementing IBM’s digital badges. This collaboration enables employees, students, and job seekers to take free IBM-issued online courses and to use those badge credentials toward various Northeastern degree programs, including data analytics, project management, and portfolio management, with additional graduate degrees and certificate programs to follow in the future. The Northeastern-IBM partnership not only furthers the organizations’ reputations as leaders in learning innovation by addressing the skills gap in various in-demand work fields, but has also allowed Northeastern to provide value beyond the walls of the institution. Students save money on tuition through free IBM course enrollment, and employers can recruit more qualified candidates.
This game-changing collaborative initiative with IBM, as Kemi Jona, Associate Dean, Digital Innovation & Enterprise Learning at Northeastern has noted, has allowed Northeastern to fully embrace the notion of lifelong learning. In a statement made to the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), he explained that “Digital badging offers the possibility of providing a seamless pathway for students and job seekers to earn resume–worthy credentials they can carry into the workforce, and at Northeastern, to apply towards academic credentials. Traditional learning is evolving into a more granular, skill-oriented, and transportable dynamic.” Jona also stated that “Whether universities are currently issuing their own badges or not, it is becoming very clear that there will be a growing number of organizations outside academia issuing digital badges. We can either look upon this as competition or see it as an excellent opportunity to collaborate with badge issuers to support lifelong learning. No matter where an institution currently stands on this subject, digital badging should be on everyone’s radar.”
Recognizing that learning that occurs in the workplace is just as valuable as the skills and knowledge acquired by students in traditional classroom settings, Northeastern knew that if they could carefully assess and work with non-institutional credential providers (like IBM) and align them with a university issued credentials, students would have a more innovative and flexible pathway to obtain a degree. Sean Gallagher, the founder and Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, and Executive Professor of Educational Policy, has advocated this innovative approach and worked to launch such growth initiatives across many institutions and academic domains. He authored The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring, which was awarded the 2017 Phillip E. Frandson Award for Literature in 2017. When asked about the future of digital badging and institutional collaboration with badge providers, Gallagher stated, “It’s a trend we will see much more of. While some universities and the academic leadership of their programs may not feel ready to engage with industry and employers and map that back to their curriculum, many are beginning to realize it makes perfect sense. In terms of micro credentialing more generally, the broader trend is dissolving the boundaries between non-credit and for-credit academic work.”
Northeastern has a long history of business partnerships. In a unique model that goes back decades, mandatory internships are built into their undergraduate degree requirements so that all their students gain practical experience. The IBM collaboration was Northeastern University’s first partnership for purposes of open badge credit application toward post-secondary undergraduate and graduate degrees. In fall 2018, Northeastern expanded its alternative credentialing options by allowing students to apply Google course digital badges toward college credit. While not intended specifically for college credit application, and aimed entry-level technology job seekers, Grow with Google provides free training courses to assist learners in acquiring IT skills that lead to employment, career advancement, and business expansion. At Northeastern, a completed Google IT Support Professional Certificate can count toward a bachelor’s degree in information technology in the university’s College of Professional Studies. Northeastern incorporated this pathway after faculty carefully reviewed the available Google coursework and mapped it to their IT related course curriculum. As Natalie Van Kleef Conley, Product Lead, Grow with Google and Industry Fellow, Northeastern University explains, the pathway “enables learners to earn up to 12 credits towards their degree,” while costing them less in tuition. “Employers can also benefit by having a pool of skilled professionals who meet the demand for qualified workers in the IT industry. We’re excited about the potential for impact here,” Conley says.
Community colleges around the U.S. have joined Northeastern in implementing innovative open badge programs. Wake Tech, for example, has partnered with IBM to implement an open badging program for blockchain technology training as part of IBM’s new collar jobs initiative, which involves combining in-demand skillsets for roles in fast growing fields that don’t always require traditional degrees. Other schools are also using digital badges through external providers, while some are even providing their own badges internally. Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, Santa Barbara City College, and the Colorado Community College System are among the growing number of institutions incorporating digital badging.
Despite advances made through innovative partnerships and initiatives such as these, there are more opportunities that universities and colleges can create around open badging. According to the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) in their report on The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials (ADCs), traditional transcripts are not serving students and the workforce adequately because they do not connect student’s on-the-job capabilities with workforce needs.
Gary Matkin, who contributed to the ADC report, has done extensive research on how alternative digital badging can be applied towards college credit. Dr. Matkin, who is Dean of Continuing Education and Vice Provost of Career Pathways, University of California, Irvine, stresses that such applications must be done with great care. “When it comes to badging,” Matkin points out, “criteria and guidelines” must be developed “to aid educational institutions in determining which subject matter areas should be credentialed and which should not.” While “Institutions will most likely be interested in both competency-based and learning-achievement based credentials, they need to carefully make a distinction between the two and establish separate criteria to avoid causing confusion and devaluing ADCs.” The comprehensive report serves as a guide to those institutions considering digital badging implementation and helps explain the recommended model and the need for a thorough methodology.
Educators and administrators who are watching the open badging movement closely are starting to rethink the traditional process of post-secondary educational skills assessment. It’s no secret that people are often uncomfortable with or unsure about using unfamiliar tools, but successes like the Northeastern University-IBM partnership can light the way. Educational institutions without a digital badging initiative may one day find themselves left behind. Digital badging innovation can help institutions think outside of the box, enabling them to embrace the much anticipated and highly technical world of learning in the foreseeable future.
Allyson T. Welch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the CEO/founder of OutWrite Solutions, LLC. Before launching her freelance business in 2016, her career was primarily focused on managing credentialing and continuing education programs in various non-profit environments. Allyson has served on the Professional Development and Credentialing Committee for the Colorado Society of Association Executives (CSAE), authored articles for trade magazines such as the Journal of Dental Technology (JDT), and ghost written for Learning Management System (LMS) providers and many more. Allyson currently acts as Credentialing Director, Accreditation Specialist, Continuing Education Program Manager, and Staff Writer for a wide range of professional organizations.