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The Florida Gulf Coast University campus: buildings surround a rectangular grassy area.

Florida Gulf Coast University’s campus.

Twhair, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Microcredentials and digital badges are rapidly growing in higher education as colleges and universities race to offer something to fill the “skills gap” employers report between the skill sets new employees arrive with and the skills needed in the current workplace.

But increased use of digital badges co-exists with a healthy skepticism about their value. Some worry that badges will crowd out valuable course content, devalue traditional majors or rely on low-value “boot camps,” MOOCs or similar products offered by commercial providers. The fact that many badges focus exclusively on a narrow set of highly technical and job-specific skills only exacerbates these anxieties. Skeptics ask, “Will the rise of microcredentials and digital badges elevate mere training at the expense of a more well-rounded education and devalue the college degree in the process?”

This is a legitimate worry, because technical skills do not make up all, or even most, of the tool kit students need to succeed over the course of a career—let alone in life. But the skills gap is as much about the transferable skills typically acquired through a liberal arts education as it is about technology. Even as projected demand for technological skills increases, employees still need to collaborate and communicate with each other. Employees will apply “evergreen” skills like critical thinking, writing, social/emotional intelligence, teaching or leadership, even as the workplace around them changes.

Paradoxically, the increasing use of technology and artificial intelligence may enhance the value of the human skills that are hard for computers to replace. And employers agree that the transferable skills taught across the college experience are the same as those needed in the workplace. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Career Readiness Competencies—a list of essential career skills representing the consensus of employers and career counselors—is in fact very similar to the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ VALUE Rubrics, which name the key outcomes of liberal education.

This is good news for the continuing relevance of college for career preparation, but it brings with it a wicked problem for designing effective digital badges. How do we recognize students for skills like communication, leadership or critical thinking, skills that are gained in the regular college curriculum, but are not visible on the transcript because they are not in the name of the course?

An image of a digital badge featuring the words "Florida Gulf Coast University" and "Leadership."
Courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University

Courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University.

Florida Gulf Coast University has found a solution in a “transferable skills” badge program that makes these skills visible and uses the strengths of the existing curriculum. FGCU’s digital badge system is based on a portfolio of artifacts drawn from course assignments and co-curricular activities the student is already doing, combined with an interview experience that helps students learn to explain their mastery of the skill in question, be it critical thinking or written communication, in a detailed and compelling way to employers—to become “skill storytellers” on their own behalf. This approach adds nothing new to the curriculum—since the skills are already being taught—but it is able to add value by highlighting the skills content of everything in a student’s college experience, from a general education course through major requirements and electives, even including co-curriculars and student life.

Higher education has long recognized the value of student engagement; digital badge programs further engage students in recognizing where transferable skills acquired throughout the college experience overlap with core knowledge relevant to a variety of good career paths. At FGCU, these transferable skill badges are part of a larger badging system that also includes industry-specific skill badges designed to connect students with specific jobs and industries. The two kinds of badges complement each other—one making core career skills visible, the other providing a bridge to particular areas of employment.

Digital Badges and the ‘Power of And’

Badges add value for employers, students and institutions of higher education. Employers value digital badges because (1) they are secure and verifiable by the educational institution, thus protecting the integrity of the credential and (2) they offer evidence that students have mastered the skills most in-demand today.

For students, digital badges can showcase skills, competencies, interests and accomplishments on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and can provide links to artifacts and assessments that bring skills to life for an employer. When badge requirements are tied to specific course artifacts or co-curricular activities, students have something tangible to talk about when claiming a skill like problem-solving in a job interview.

From the institutional perspective, FGCU has found that it is possible to implement and update a digital badge system, including integration with the learning management system, with existing staff resources and little investment.

Microcredentials and digital badges enable universities to honor the type of education they have always done well and also develop new educational tools to respond to the changes of the new world of work. Instead of devaluing the traditional college curriculum and replacing it with training in a narrow set of skills, badges have the power to combine: degrees and badges, education and training, human and job-specific skills, college and continuing education, enduring skills and timely trends.

FGCU’s digital badge model creatively clusters faculty expertise, courses, and co-curricular activities around competencies that industries need. Digital badges can further elevate the value of humanities and social science programs to parents, policy makers and other university stakeholders by highlighting how much employers seek the transferable skills already and expertly taught by those programs.

Badge programs can accomplish this without adding anything substantial to the curriculum. This may be bad news for commercial badge providers—after all, there’s little money to be made by shining a light on what’s already there—but it’s good news for colleges and universities, which already have the ingredients they need to build a robust badge program that recognizes students for their core skills. Transferable skills badges should add nothing to the curriculum, but they can enhance the value of nearly everything our students do in college.

Aysegul Timur is president-elect of Florida Gulf Coast University and currently vice president and vice provost for strategy and program innovation; she will begin her presidency July 1. Clay Motley is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at FGCU. Glenn Whitehouse is associate dean for student affairs and an associate professor of philosophy and religion at FGCU. Shawn Felton is interim dean of Marieb College of Health and Human Services at FGCU. Dave Jaeger is director of digital learning at FGCU.

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