Unwelcome Innovation

Proponents of digital badges and alternative credentials have valuable goals, writes Colin Mathews, but are pushing a universal language of credentialing that is unnecessary and unfair.

September 22, 2016

Inside Higher Ed recently checked up on adoption of badges specifically, and alternative credentialing generally, with a look at early adopter Illinois State University’s rollout of a badge platform. The overarching goal of badging and alternative credentialing initiatives is very valuable: to better communicate the value and variety of people’s skills to employers so that it’s easier to connect with and improve job outcomes. Yet the focus on badges and alternative credentials is like trying to facilitate global trade by inventing Esperanto.

The conception, theory and adoption of badge-based alternative credentialing initiatives starts as far back as 2011, when Mozilla announced the launch of its Open Badge Initiative and HASTAC simultaneously made “Digital Badges for Lifelong Learning” the theme of its fourth Digital Meaning & Learning competition. In the five years since, much has been written and even more time spent developing the theory and practice of alternative credentialing via badges -- from Mozilla and its support by the MacArthur Foundation to Purdue University’s Passport, to BadgeOS and Badge Alliance. Lately, the Lumina Foundation has taken the lead promoting alternative credentialing, most recently participating in a $2.5 million investment in badge platform Credly and a $1.3 million initiative to help university registrars develop a “new transcript.”

The premise behind all of the badge and alternative credential projects is the same: that if only there were a new, unified way to quantify, describe and give evidence of student learning inside the classroom and out, employers would be able to appropriately value those skills and illuminate a path to job outcomes. These kinds of premises often lead to utopian, idealized solutions that imagine transforming society itself. From Lumina’s “Strategy 8” overview:

To maximize our collective potential as a society, we need a revamped system of postsecondary credentials -- a fully integrated system that is learning based, student centered, universally understood and specifically designed to ensure quality at every level.

The problem for Lumina, Mozilla, Credly and the rest is that they’re proposing to replace a rich variety of credential “languages” with a universal one that’s not just unnecessary, but that’s modeled on fundamentally flawed analogies and observations.

I’ll start with the flaws of badges as a credentialing solution. Early on, digital badges often used Boy and Girl Scout badges as an analogy, but the more direct precursor of the current generation of badge solutions is video games. Indeed, attaining badges for completing certain tasks or reaching certain milestones is such a core feature of video game design and experience that the whole practice of rewarding behavior within software is referred to as “gamification.” This approach became widespread (with the launch of Foursquare, Gowalla, GetGlue and dozens more) in the years just preceding the launch of digital badges.

Yet video game badges -- and the badges employed by gamification companies -- are not truly credentials, but behaviorist reward systems designed to keep people on task. As credentials, their only useful meaning was within the systems in which they were earned, specifically within a given video game or bar-hopping app. Scout badges have a similar limitation: whatever their value in motivating attainment toward a worthy skill or outcome, the meaning of those badges is difficult to assess for nonscouts, or those not trained in the visual language of scouting badges.

Badge adherents aim to address the “value” and portability of badges by attaching proof of skills to the badges themselves. This is the same idea behind e-portfolios: that evidence of each skill is not just demonstrable, verifiable and universally understood, but useful to employers. Yet outside of specific fields, portfolios simply don’t matter to employers. As Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year about the New Transcript portfolio, “Employers don’t want to take time to go through your portfolio -- they just don’t.” Where evidence of skills is important and useful, solutions already exist: GitHub for software developers; Behance for designers; transcripts, essays and recommendations for graduate school.

The idea of replacing university “dialects” with a new language of skills and outcomes is less metaphorical when think tanks and ed-tech companies talk about alternative credentials as a category. There, advocates propose an entirely new vocabulary: microcredentials, nanodegrees, stackable badges and more, all meant to convey (to employers primarily) the body of skills and knowledge that a student possesses. But they are redefining concepts that already exist, and that exist productively for the marketplace of students, educators and employers.

Consider the stackable badge, the idea that learning competencies should be assessed and verified in a progression that comprises and leads to a certified credential. But stackable credentials already exist in ways that everyone understands. In the undergraduate major, a student completes a series of related and escalating levels of mastery in a given subject area, assessed by experts in that field. Upon completion of those microcredentials -- i.e., classes -- the student is awarded a degree with a focus in that field and with an indication of attainment (honors). The same goes for hundreds of areas of expertise inside and outside higher education: in financial analysis (the extremely demanding and desirable CFA designation), entry-level and advanced manufacturing (the National Association of Manufacturers MSCS system), specific IT areas of focus like ISACA and (ISC)2, bar exams, medical boards, and more.

Credentials, in and of themselves, are a solved problem. I know this because my own company, Merit, launched the biggest, most comprehensive badge experiment that no one has heard of. Between 2011 and 2014 we tested a variation of the scout model -- a badge-based visual language of college milestones and credentials analogous to a military officer’s dress uniform -- that could be quickly read to convey a person’s skills, accomplishments and level of achievement. Nearly 500 colleges granted more than three million students almost 10 million badges that included academic honors, notable cocurriculars, experiential learning, internships and more. We tested interest by employers, educators and students (and continue to). What’s clear is this: it’s far, far more important to simply document existing credentials than to invent new ones, or a new language to describe them. Stakeholders in the high-school-to-college-to-career pipeline understand and value credentials as they exist now, and rarely need or want a new way to understand them. They just want to see them.

Connecting students’ skills and ambitions to the pathways to a career is a big deal, but it doesn’t require a new language that’s based on techno-solutionist fantasies. LinkedIn, the “economic graph” that many hold up as a model, needed more than $100 million of private capital for something as simple as convincing managers and a certain professional class to keep updated résumés online. Doing something similar for every single student is both more valuable and more difficult -- and doesn’t need to reinvent the entire language of credentials to complicate the effort.

My biggest frustration with badges and alternative credentials isn’t that they are an ivory tower solution to a real world problem. It’s that helping students succeed means more than figuring out a new language. Higher education is a demanding, high-stakes endeavor for the vast majority of students. Proposing that they -- and the institutions educating them and the employers who might hire them -- learn a new lingua franca for conveying the value of that learning, every year, over the very short time that they’re mastering the skills and knowledge that they need isn’t just impractical. It’s unfair.


Colin Mathews is founder and president of Merit, a technology company focused on creating and sharing stories about students’ successes.


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