21st Century Skills Badging: A Bridge from Education to the Workforce

The 21st century economy is marked by rapid changes in technology. Many industries are adopting digital technologies to automate work, create efficient processes, and lower costs. As a result, companies are changing what they do and how they do it. With more and more businesses using technology for processes, workers must have inter and intrapersonal skills like empathy, collaboration and communication to be successful in today’s modern workforce. As employers look for talent with unique human abilities, candidates need a way to signal that they have the skills necessary to do the job well. 21st Century Skills digital badges are that indicator and are an emerging form of currency in the workplace.

21st Century Employability Skills

21st century employability skills are knowledge, work habits, and traits necessary for success. They are the competencies that today’s employers find increasingly important. As employers shift from degree-based hiring to competency-based hiring, they place more value on skill sets and less on a certificate or degree. Educational institutions across the country are being called upon to better prepare learners with 21st century employability skills. The California Community Colleges (CCC) rose to the challenge. Through its Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy (DWM) framework and support through Strong Workforce Program, the largest system of higher education in the nation is pursuing a systematic incorporation of 21st century employability skills curriculum throughout its 114 colleges and offering 21st Century Skills badges to help students demonstrate skills acquisition to employers. The New World of Work program is the catalyst.

New World of Work

The New World of Work (NWoW) 21st Century Skills program provides free video, curriculum, assessment, and digital badge resources to California community colleges and their partners, including secondary institutions, workforce boards, and employers. Funded by DWM, NWoW collaborates with employers, workforce development boards, educators, and research organizations across the country to build college/career-ready, 21st century employability skills. NWoW conducted extensive career development research to determine the skills necessary for success in the modern workplace. In addition, skills panels were convened across California with entrepreneurs, business representatives, industry leaders, human resource professionals, and educators. NWoW partnered with the Foundation for California Community Colleges (Foundation) to issue 21st Century Skills badges through LaunchPath (LP), a work-based learning program management tool. 21st Century Skills badges are aligned with New World of Work’s curriculum and resources for its “top 10” 21st Century Skills: Adaptability, Analysis/Solution Mindset, Collaboration, Communication, Digital Fluency, Empathy, Entrepreneurial Mindset, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Social/Diversity Awareness.

21st Century Skills Badging

Development of 21st Century Skills badges commenced with a digital badging advisory group meeting, held August 2015 in Sacramento, California. Leaders in the community college system, state government, and business community convened to provide input on digital badge assessments. An assessment consultant, W3Workshop, created the assessments aligned with NWoW’s Competencies, Attributes, and Traits for the “Top 10” 21st Century Skills established through a collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation. NWoW reviewed the Mozilla Foundation’s comprehensive framework comparing college/career-ready competencies from organizations across the country and then correlated to their “Top 10” 21st Century Skills list. In 2016, digital badges were designed for post-secondary learners with two sets of badges for each of the NWoW “top 10” skills, an instructor and employer verified badge. A learner can first earn an instructor verified badge after they receive instruction in the NWoW lessons for that skill and complete an online assessment through LaunchPath. Passing the online assessment results in the awarding of the instructor verified badge and then unlocks the opportunity for a learner to try to earn an employer verified badge if they are in a work-based learning experience. To do this, a learner initiates a request to a site supervisor through LP asking their supervisor to evaluate the demonstration of the skill in the workplace. If a site supervisor gives passing ratings, the learner earns their employer verified badge. In 2016, the instructor verified badges were piloted with six partner community colleges that participated in an Industry Driven Regional Collaborative (IDRC) grant managed by New World of Work. In 2017, NWoW was officially endorsed by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and recommended for statewide adoption among all 114 community colleges. LaunchPath and badges are now openly available to practitioners who complete a New World of Work two-day 21st Century Employability Skills Training as a resource for their college students, adult learners, and clients.

Emerging Practices

Colleges are working collaboratively across departments and in their region to implement 21st Century Skills curriculum and badges. College of the Canyons’s career center and adult education departments are working collaboratively with their local workforce development board to offer a series of 21st Century Skills modules through community education in Southern California. Each workshop culminates in the opportunity for participants to earn a 21st Century Skills badge. Folsom Lake College in the Greater Sacramento region is hosting a series of 21st Century Skills workshops through its Work Experience & Internship Program. Students complete a workshop and have the opportunity to earn a 21st Century Skills badge. American River College, also in the Greater Sacramento region, is integrating 21st Century Skills curriculum and badges in its Design Technology program in conjunction with work-based learning. Students receive instructions in 21st Century Skills through a work-experience course and earn badges through coursework and their internship at the campus maker lab. The North Central Adult Education Consortium, serving Yuba College and Woodland Community College in the Greater Sacramento Region, is partnering with the Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce to engage local business community members in NWoW 21st Century Skills and badging.

21st Century Skills Badging Successes

  • The NWoW program was selected for a national grant awarded to MDRC from the Institute for Education Sciences, the research and evaluation arm of the US Department of Education. MDRC and NWoW, in partnership with the Foundation, will strengthen 21st century employability skills curriculum, work-based learning resources, and 21st Century Skills badging to enhance the program as it scales throughout California. The NWoW Study will gather input and measure the program’s impact on student success in a pilot group of community colleges beginning 2017 and ending in 2021.
  • NWoW 21st Century Skills are being integrated in other statewide CCC initiatives. This includes the California Community College CCCMaker Initiative which promotes STEAM and maker education through coursework and work-based learning as well as Retail Ready California, a statewide partnership with Apple Retail and the CCC Retail/Hospitality/Tourism sector.
  • 21st Century Skills Badging was recognized as a promising practice in higher education and featured alongside Education Design Lab in the white paper “Promising Practices of Open Credentials: Five Years of Progress “written by Sheryl Grant.
  • W3Workshop, the assessment consultant who developed the 21st Century Skills badging assessments, was selected by Mozilla Foundation to write badge assessment guidelines for field.
  • In an effort to create a pathway of 21st Century Skills learning and micro-credentials, NWoW partnered with Concentric Sky and Connected Lane County to develop learner badges. 21st Century Skills learner badges were developed for high school students and are aligned with NWoW’s high school video content. Learner badges are meant to be an introduction to 21st Century Skills for students and help develop a badging mindset. Badges will be available through Badgr and hosted on the NWoW website in January 2018.

Looking to the Future

Daniel Hickey, Professor and Program Coordinator of the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University, asserts that e-credentials will transform higher education. He states that e-credentials are to higher education today what e-commerce was to retail 20 years ago. E-credentials, which include badges, have the opportunity to disrupt traditional credentialing systems. His groundbreaking research on learning and digital badges indicate the value badges have for students and educational institutions. Education institutions across the nation are creating formal badging systems. The badging community has more work to do, especially around employer engagement, for badges to be more common and have currency in the workforce. The California Community Colleges are helping to create a badging mindset, serving the communities where badges are most meaningful. 21st Century Skills badges seem to have the most useful purpose in Career Education. These academic programs work closely with industry partners to provide students with skills needed for jobs. Champions in education and industry continue to engage with one another to determine how 21st Century Skills badges can serve as micro-credentials within their ecosystems.