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Digital badges hit the big time in higher ed

Micro-credential programs target professionals needing a skills boost
University Business, October 2015
Professional and continuing education students at Oregon State University can earn a digital badge for completing a course, workshop or certificate program.
Professional and continuing education students at Oregon State University can earn a digital badge for completing a course, workshop or certificate program.

While digital badges may sound like overshared gimmicks from the latest trendy game or social network, they have become serious commodities in the world of college credentials.

More institutions now offer digital badges as a form of micro-credential or “subdegree” to students who pass individual courses or certifications, and want to show potential employers what they’ve learned.

Perhaps appropriately, the University of Alaska, Anchorage offers professional development badges to instructors for studying digital instruction techniques, such as course design, social media and student interaction.

“We know that for a lot of our faculty to buy into the premise, they’d need to understand the context of how it would work with their students’ experience,” says Dave Dannenberg, the director of instructional technology.

Beyond instructors, badge programs may be most appealing to professionals who have already earned degrees but need to acquire new skills to advance in their careers, says Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Extension, which has joined a partnership with several other universities to offer a digital badge program.

“People don’t need to go back to school, but they can augment their skills to keep up with what’s happening in their fields,” says Sandeen.

Badges, which can be posted to LinkedIn profiles and in digital portfolios, link to detailed information about the course taken, skills taught and assessments passed. Today’s professionals are more likely than were previous generations to return to higher education—perhaps more than once, says David Schejbal, dean of continuing education at University of Wisconsin-Extension.

“The vision is to create a structure of alternative credentials that students could acquire relatively quickly and inexpensively that will also be immediately useful from an employment perspective.”

Computer coding is likely to be one area in which professionals will seek badges. Wisconsin is also focused on offering credentials in leadership, problem-solving, communication and other soft skills now demanded by employers, Schejbal says.

Badges link to information that can provide employers with more details about the specific skills a student has acquired. A traditional college transcript may list only the credits earned, says Daniel Hickey, an Indiana University learning sciences professor who studies badges.

“Rather than rely on the credibility of an institution, the digital badge allows the consumer to interrogate the information contained within.”

Last year, Oregon State University began offering about 40 different digital credentials aimed at a wide range of students—from attorneys and others seeking to earn additional professional certifications to hobbyists looking to broaden their skills in gardening and other pursuits.

“The badge can live in a social environment, where most people do their sharing to celebrate their accomplishments,” Mitchell says. “Badges also raise awareness for our current programs and link back to OSU.”