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Digital Badges: A Cost Effective Alternative?

Digital Badges

In order to be considered for higher paying positions, college degrees have seemingly replaced high school diplomas as an ostensible prerequisite. Since everyone thinks they need them to get hired, they have never been more important. This allows colleges to charge more and more in the knowledge that people will pay regardless, as there is no widely accepted alternative. The landscape is ripe for another option.

Enter Digital Badges. The Mozilla Foundation; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) spent 2 million dollars commissioning the creation of a credentialing system outside of academia. This allows a person to show proof of their knowledge and skills using experience they accrued naturally throughout their life as opposed to traditional schooling. These Digital Badges would serve as the first substantial alternative credentials to a college degree and, as the learning would be derived from real world experience, obtaining the information necessary to receive a Digital Badge could theoretically be free.

If you believe Digital Badges to be an exponentially cheaper alternative to college, I would caution you to hold your horses. In its current incarnation it is designed to serve in a more supplementary role. A system as ingrained in the fiber of society as academia is not easily changed. Many recruiters still lack a firm understanding of Digital Badges and their purpose; however, those who do understand the concept, while not suggesting them as an alternative to degrees, are optimistic about their usefulness.

How do Digital Badges work?

Digital badges are created to acknowledge understanding or mastery of a subject or skill, as well as experience or expertise in a field. These badges can be traded and upgraded as a person’s familiarity with a subject grows. From a current practical application standpoint, they fill the gaps in a person’s experience and abilities not directly referenced by academic credentials. All those participating in the program would have an online portfolio containing all of their Digital badges, what they are for, where, how, and from who they received them. Lesser badges in a specific subject can be exchanged for higher level badges showing increased knowledge.

How do you get Digital Badges?

The ease with which a Digital Badge can be procured is both a boon and a burden. From classroom programs, to museum tours, to online courses, to merely taking a test or accomplishing a certain task, all one needs to do is show adequate knowledge of a subject to be issued a Digital Badge. While trading and earning badges is free within the Open Badge Infrastructure, maintained by Mozilla, the entities that issue the badges and any outside websites that may display them are at liberty to charge at their own discretion.

The means of obtaining badges are myriad, effectively making them accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Great, right? In theory yes, but as a society we put a high premium on prestige, and prestige is often denoted by exclusivity and rigor. If they can be issued so liberally, how can their validity be maintained?

The various means of acquiring badges presents yet another problem. Since there are multiple ways to earn a badge, simply having one provides only superficial insight into your actual  skill set. For example, if an employer sees that an applicant has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from an accredited institution, they know from that information that the applicant has completed a standardized course of study. If the GPA is also listed it provides further insight. Whereas, if an employer sees that an applicant has a Digital Badge in psychology, they know that they had adequate knowledge to receive the badge, but they would have to do further investigation to see who issued the badge and what was required to earn it. While the Digital Badge provides credentials that a degree does not, it is difficult to properly value those credentials at a glance.

Do colleges have to fear the competition?

Maybe. That answer may seem surprising given how I’ve present the idea thus far, but the program is still in its relative infancy. Digital badges are a viable, albeit imperfect, alternative. The digital age has had a profound impact on nearly every aspect of life, including the acquisition of knowledge. It’s only natural that a new way of acknowledging that knowledge be developed, accepted and utilized.

As applicants with college degrees become more commonplace, the appreciation of non-traditional credentials achieved via non-traditional means is likely to bourgeon. Practical application is already valued higher than conceptual knowledge; who’s to say that digital badges aren’t the tangible evolution of that hierarchy? It only takes one competitor to bust a monopoly. So while colleges may see badges as a supplemental tool now, it’s not in their best interest to see them flourish too much. But, is it in yours?

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Jim Slowik

Jim Slowik strategizes for families of all incomes to leave no stone unturned to reduce college costs. Jim has worked for over 30 years in marketing and management with 20 of those years in financially related industries. As a parent of college students, Jim understands the challenges of navigating the college process. He holds a Bachelors of Marketing from North Central College.

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