Digital Badges Are Gaining Traction

At the moment, they seem to be filling in cracks that more formal credentials don’t cover. While there are some efforts to convert formal certificates and (more rarely) degree programs into stackable micro-credentials, those activities are mostly happening around the edges at the moment

The Main Driver: Career Readiness

There was a noticeable shift in emphasis toward corporate training (or “talent development,” as the lingo du jour would have it). The cynical read on that shift is that investors have discovered that education is hard and are shifting their focus to a related area that they think will be easier to crack. I think there is some truth to that take, although the corporate training market may not be as easy as they think either.

That said, it’s also true that there are genuine gaps in that market that our college and university system is doing a poor job of filling, which means that their graduates are not doing as well in the job market as they could be. Of course there’s the whole 21st-Century lifelong learning challenge; I won’t beat that dead horse except to say that one of the lessons from the 2012–2013 MOOC craze was that there are a lot of white-collar professionals who need to keep current on their skills and who are still looking for opportunities to do so. Badges are showing up in this space, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that they are needed. So far, most mid-career folks who are taking MOOCs and other non-certification online courses don’t seem to need something additional to show current or prospective employers what they’ve done.

Instead, badges seem to be gaining the most traction in career readiness, particular for so-called “middle skills” jobs that require more than high school degree but less than four-year college degree. Increasingly, these jobs need an associate’s degree plus something extra. Some career paths have formal certifications. Burning Glass, a company that tracks job skill requirements, has found that career paths lacking these certifications tend to see “degree inflation” over time:

  • Employers now require bachelor’s degrees for a wide range of jobs, but the shift has been dramatic for some of the occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree. The credential gap can amount to 25 percentage points or more for middle skill jobs in some occupational families, like Office and Administrative and Business and Financial Operations. For example, 65% of postings for Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree. Only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.
  • In some roles, employers prefer bachelor’s credentials even when that makes the position harder to fill. For example, Construction Supervisor positions that require a B.A. take 61 days to fill on average, compared to 28 days for postings that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
  • In other occupations, such as entry level IT help desk positions, the skill sets indicated in job postings don’t include skills typically taught at the bachelor’s level, and there is little difference in skill requirements for jobs requiring a college degree from those that do not. Yet the preference for a bachelor’s degree has increased. This suggests that employers may be relying on a B.A. as a broad recruitment filter that may or may not correspond to specific capabilities needed to do the job.

This problem doesn’t appear as often when employers can find those “associates degree plus” candidates because there is credentialing for the “plus” part

  • Jobs resist credential inflation when there are good alternatives for identifying skill proficiency. Many health care and engineering technician jobs, such as Respiratory Therapists, show little sign of upcredentialing. That is likely because those positions are governed by strict licensing or certification standards, well-developed training programs, or by measurable skill standards such that employers do not need to look at a college degree as a proxy for capability….
  • In many of those occupations with a growing credentials gap, it is worth examining exactly why employers prefer employees with a college education. In some cases, the skills needed in that occupation have objectively increased, as reflected in upgraded skill requirements as workers use advanced technology or apply more sophisticated analysis and judgment in their jobs. However, in many other cases — particularly those where the substance of the work does not appear to be changing or to be different based on whether or not a B.A. is required — employers may be using the bachelor’s degree as a rough, rule-of-thumb screening system to recruit better workers. In the latter case, greater alignment between K-12 schools, job training programs, and employers might accomplish the same goal with greater precision.

This is gap where I’m seeing the most traction for badges. Interest in badging at IMS Learning Impact was hot enough that they were able to fill an entire track with it, and a number of presenters focused on middle skills opportunities. For example, the Colorado Community College System has a badging program that focuses on areas like “Engineering Graphics” and “Machining Level 1” (although, interestingly, they also have faculty development badges). These programs were developed in collaboration with area employers and apparently have had their badge earners actively recruited by companies that entry-level employees with those skills.

To a lesser degree, I’m also beginning to hear anecdotes of colleges and universities working with area high schools to create badges around college readiness and earning AP-style credit. We might think of this as “high school degree plus.” In other words, badges are organically filling in small but critical gaps in our current credentialing system that make it more difficult for students to move onto the next, post-credential stage in their lives.

I suspect that badging may continue to flourish mainly in this sweet spot for quite a while. The post-credential transition gap opportunity is pretty big with lots of room to grow and no huge barriers to expansion. In contrast, there are many very significant barriers to replacing current, more formal credentials with stackable micro-credentials, ranging from the politics and change management of getting traditional universities to embrace true, top-to-bottom Competency-Based Learning (CBE) to the fact that none of the major SIS systems on the market today handle microcredentials well and I see no reason to believe that either the existing players will improve dramatically or a new player will gain major traction in the near future.