Digital Badging: Do We Need Another Credential?

By Jeffrey Moss posted 04-25-2019 09:41

  

We all know campus recruiting is broken for employers and students alike, and that academic pedigree does not predict success or fit. In response, we have seen the new solutions emerge—ePortfolios, digital badges, micro-credentials, and gamified assessments just to name a few. And while they claim to provide a crystal ball for employers and level the playing field for college students, they don’t work. They also can’t work for three specific reasons. 

Corporate realpolitik

Let’s ignore issues around validity, reliability, predictability, and fairness (we’ll get to those in a bit) and focus on the practical aspects of these tools. In short, hiring managers don’t care. Hiring managers are used to seeing candidates with certain academic pedigrees (school, major, GPA) whether it’s a Big 10 marketing major, an Ivy Leaguer with a 3.9, or a literal rocket scientist from CalTech, MIT, Stanford, or CMU. Even if a candidate has a badges suggesting competency in certain areas, it doesn’t matter—hiring managers immediately wonder about the lack of pedigree, and blame HR for not finding the “right” type of candidates. 

HR then has two choices: (i) make the case or (ii) don’t bother. Making the case is difficult—even after educating the hiring manager about why a badge is more reliable than academic pedigree, they are putting themselves at risk. If they are ultimately proven correct (measured by a good hire), they get zero credit as it was clearly the great interviewing and training skills of the hiring manager.  If the hire does not work out (or is even just a bad interview), HR gets blamed for pushing an unqualified candidate. And given that those responsible for campus recruiting are typically measured on filling the seats versus the retention and long-term performance of new hires, they are incented not to bother. 

In fact, trying to push an alternative is perceived as creating work for HR and the hiring managers. Beyond the time debating the issues, leveraging these tools requires a significant commitment. Given that the average resume gets less than 10 seconds of focus, is HR or a hiring manager really going to spend time evaluating the ePortfolios of candidates? Will they invest the time to understand all of the different badges, the competencies assessed, and the quality of proctoring associated with being awarded one? 

And while this may seem cynical, I would point to a recent “Exploring Digital Badges” posting within the NACE Community. Of the 30 responses at last count, 100 percent of them were from career centers, and none were from employers even though employers are active in the community. Not one. Even when doing online searches related to digital badges and ePortfolio, the content was focused on those organizations that provide the service (i.e., issue the badges or host the portfolios), offer the content, or otherwise are marketing the service—there was little to nothing about how companies are seeing these tools used to drive recruiting success. 

I appreciate the fact that 30 career centers are thinking about innovative ways to support their students and help them stand out to employers as the seek the right jobs and internships, but if employers don’t value these badges, is this just a rabbit hole with a dead end? 

Not valid, reliable, or predictive

Unfortunately even if a hiring manager is willing to trust a badge, it’s highly likely that it is not valid or reliable. Having spent way too much time with statisticians, educational psychologists, mathematicians, and other literal geniuses in assessment while at Educational Testing Service, I learned what goes into assuring validity and reliability (and even the difference between the two). For hard or vocational skills, it’s really difficult. For those skills that NACE research highlights are most important to employers (e.g.,  problem solving, teamwork, communication, and grit), it’s impossible given the models in place by the badging authorities. Is my ability to describe my role on a team a reasonable basis upon which I can earn a teamwork badge? Does making a concept map or “providing one letter of support from a supervisor/faculty/professional…” demonstrate my critical thinking skills? Should I as an employer rely on a badge awarded based upon a 5-6 minute assessment (assuming it’s actually the student taking the test) to judge a candidate’s grit? 

While validity and reliability are about if a badge can effectively measure an individual’s competencies, predictability is focused on if those competencies align to success in the role. For example, while my digital badge shows that I am a team player, does being a team player predict if I am the right fit for the job? Herein lies another real world problem: companies do a really bad job defining the competencies required for success in a role for a number of reasons. In some cases, different hiring managers have different needs for the exact same role. In other cases, the competencies of successful hires are less important for new ones. And in both cases there is an assumption that hiring managers are even aware of the real skills required (and for those who suggest that AI will address this, look no further than Amazon’s experience for one example as to why it won’t). By relying on digital badges or micro-credentials as a shortcut to predict a good hire, these issues have real negative consequences. 

Exclusionary

While badge vendors claim to level the playing field, the reality is that digital badges exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots. First, there is a real cost to earn the badge. While it may be bundled into an academic program, the student still pays directly or indirectly. As an aside, it’s interesting that if one visits the corporate sites of those organizations promoting digital badging, they’re focused on (i) selling the content, (ii) charging for the badge, or (iii) helping other organizations make money doing one or both of the first two. I’m not against for-profit enterprises (and I do have a dog in the fight around how to solve this problem) but given the student debt crisis we need to be especially wary of asking our students to take on additional financial burden especially if the benefits are questionable. 

Second, like standardized tests and even resumes, digital badges encourage an arms race that further expands the demographic gaps. Wealthy students can afford the classes and tutors to score well on SATs (or insert snarky Varsity Blues comment). Wealthy students can afford to have their resumes “optimized” for keywords or to accept unpaid internships.  In the same way, wealthy students will be the ones who can pay to access the content or classes to earn digital badges. 

Parting thoughts

There is a place for digital badges, especially as related to professional organizations and the specific skills associated with the industry—they’re called certifications, though some have re-branded them or offer lower-stakes versions (as another revenue stream). However, for our students and recent grads they add little value in the job search and can in fact get in the way if they are pursued in lieu of other efforts. 

Instead of focusing on earning badges to demonstrate skills to prospective employers, we should provide opportunities for our students to actually demonstrate those skills and for employers to see those skills in action. Not only would students benefit from their ability to highlight real examples of their competencies on their resumes, they could also use these opportunities to explore career paths and build relationships with employers, alumni, and faculty.

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Comments

04-26-2019 13:57

And an article about this new effort came my way earlier today:
https://digitalcredentials.mit.edu/

Again, where are the employers in this? If the mission was to improve academic outcomes for students it would be understandable. However, the first purpose listed was to "Maintain a compelling and verifiable record of your lifelong learning achievements to share with employers."

04-26-2019 12:16

Thank you for the very thoughtful comments @Chris Miciek. My comments were not intended to be a data-driven analysis of credentials or suggest that there is no place for them in learning.​ As you highlighted, they can provide a signal competency in specific areas, especially for more technical / tactical skills; however, like other signals (eg GPA, resume keywords, etc.) the predictive nature is uncertain. I also strong believe the prediction problem is not solvable, but that is nothing more than an opinion (though I am always happy to share more of the rationale behind it).

To your other points, I also agree overall. Resumes, interviews, and many of the other processes used to hire college students for internships and full-time roles are ineffective; for data, one needs to look no further than stats around new hire attrition, surveys of job readiness, and under and unemployment of recent grads. In fact, the root cause of this is that a student has limited opportunity to gain professional experiences to populate one's resume, articulate real examples of skills demonstration in interviews, and have the context to determine the "right" role.

However, your critique of my proposed alternative (ie providing more ways for students to actually demonstrate skills to employers) includes a flawed assumption that students will only have one or two of these opportunities. Like you, I agree that would not solve the challenge, and in fact is exactly the problem we have right now given the traditional internship / co-op model.

My proposed solution is to provide ways for students to gain not just one or two of these experiences, but rather 10, 20, 50 of them throughout their 4ish years of college. Not only would the student demonstrate the skills to those specific employers, but they would also be able to populate their resumes with real examples and discuss them in interviews with other companies.

What's great is this is not an idea or hypothesis, but something already taking place on campus. As I shared in a prior post, a Dell Scholar talked about his experience with the model and the positive outcome - and this is not an exception, as thousands of college students across schools are seeing the same.

All that said, in no way do I want to suggest you or others should ignore digital badges and other credential tools, but rather wanted to highlight these aspects to consider when building your program and setting expectations.

04-26-2019 10:51

It is to the credit of this piece that key challenges facing the development of badging or any kind of micro-credentialing receive attention. While some of these challenges are forcefully presented (and that illumination is appreciated), the overall analysis remains inadequate and the proposed path to a solution itself is problematic. Since the original piece contains three key segments, this response will approach them in order.

Corporate Realpolitik offers the strongest contribution to the piece and the only real argument why micro-credentialing could fail. The portrait of the employer side of the problems facing college recruiting succinctly lays out internal dynamics and expectations that plague the process. While universities cannot fix these, badging is an attempt to provide a response to a problem that has been shifted to the career centers. Let’s be clear, universities have endured years of corporate leaders complaining that universities do not train students sufficiently to enter the workforce. Instead of calling out employers for shifting T&D functions onto the backs of higher education and the students paying tuition, schools have tried to accommodate. The move towards badging is yet another attempt by schools to help employers see the value in students who don’t fit excessively narrow criteria as illustrated in this section.

The observation that 30 schools (mine included) and no employers posted on the badging thread means little. The original post specifically addressed career centers. Furthermore, schools need to start working out what these systems might look like before meaningful conversations can happen between them and employers. Those conversations in turn can contribute to further development of the system. This leads to the next section on validity, reliability and predictiveness.

Micro-credentialing is a nascent tool. Of course there is not currently uniformity or reliable coherence. Then again there’s not necessarily uniformity across similar sounding degrees from different schools. Claiming at the outset of the piece that badging can’t work because the assessment piece is complicated and not yet in place makes no sense. Consider resumes, a 1-2 page self-report of skills that we all rely on. Interviews, another currently common tool in the hiring process, also rely on self-report and skew towards personalities that thrive in social context and are verbally articulate.

The second section’s strength comes in the second paragraph where the real dangers of using micro-credentials as shortcuts is highlighted. The rush to adopt any technology without proper vetting and rigorous development and testing is problematic.

The third section attempts to claim that badging is exclusionary based on passed along costs. But the criticism offered applies to any program offered by an educational institution. Extra-curriculars, co-curriculars, even the way schools structure and support internships all can be marginalizing because of restrictions students face personally and financially. However, universities have more talent and will to identify and address issues of diversity and inclusion so this is a straw man. Building equitable and universally accessible micro-credentialing systems within our schools is probably the easiest (not to say it will be easy) dimension to tackle. Furthermore, the hiring expectations highlighted in the first section are far more exclusionary so let’s address where the real systemic problems exist instead of deflecting to what-ifs. Raising awareness of a potential threat makes sense, stating that potential threat is insurmountable is an overstatement.

While the opinion piece raises real concerns that must be addressed as micro-credentialing develops its opening claim and reasoning are overreaches. It also completely ignores the shifts in the work economy towards real lifelong learning and the growing need for a way to communicate ongoing education that falls outside of traditional degrees and certifications. Finally, the proposed alternative encounters these same challenges. A student may have opportunity to demonstrate to one or two employers they possess skills, but how can the student effectively share that with other employers? And how do we ensure that system does not exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots?

Thoughtful, deliberate development of micro-credentialing can have a vital role in supporting both the intentional development of key skills among students and in the effective communication of those skills to prospective employers. I appreciate you taking the time to illuminate these issues as they do need critical attention, but let’s not kill this thing prematurely.