The Future of Microcredentials: Why Arts Organizations Should Prioritize Digital Badges Over College Degrees

An Introduction to Digital Badges

“Badges [provide] an alternative and more in-depth method for students and workers to demonstrate knowledge and skills. Meanwhile, badges also give employers a new way to assess critical but hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, communication, teamwork and adaptability.” -Connie Yowell, Director of Education, MacArthur Foundation

College debt in the United States now totals over a trillion dollars, and averages nearly $40,000 per person. While conventional wisdom tells students that formal higher education is the only road to a good career, skill-appropriate employment for these indebted grads is far from guaranteed.  In fact, a staggering 59% of people with a master’s degree are underemployed.  In part, this figure comes from the fact that there is a nearly universal misconception that formal higher-level degrees are the only way to showcase subject-matter mastery. This educational paradigm hurts people on both ends of the hiring exchange. Digital badging offers an alternative: highly specific, skill-based education without the crippling burden of lifelong debt.

Digital badges identify specific skills a learner has mastered through the course of their own self-directed learning.  Badges can be acquired in online, in-class, or apprenticeship learning settings.  Amy Duncan, the US Secretary of Education, has said, "badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency [...] badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings."

In spite of the great potential that digital badges offer for job-specific credentials and alleviating the debt of potential employees, work must be done to make them more widely understood. A recent survey by Extreme Networks showed that 46% of participants believed that digital badging is not yet widely recognized, and 34% of participants didn’t fully understand the concept.  Nevertheless, the same survey also showed that over 60% of participants believed that digital badges will either come to supplement or entirely replace diplomas and course certificates.

Functions of Digital Badging

According to Daniel Hickey, associate professor and program head of learning sciences at Indiana University, the intended functions of digital badges are fourfold.  Working with the MacArthur Foundation, he listed the following design principles:

·       Recognizing Learning

·       Assessing Learning

·       Motivating Learning

·       Evaluating Learning

While each of these functions is worth investigation by organizations interested in educational reform, my research will just focus on the first principle: recognizing learning through digital badging.  Over the course of the semester, I will share more about the digital badge acquisition process, taxonomies of digital badges, initiatives for accreditation and standardization, and what employers should know for using digital badges in both the hiring and continuing education of employees.

In the meantime, if you have an opinion on digital badges or questions you'd like answered in this research series, let's start a conversation in the comments section!