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Digital Badging: Going Beyond the Curriculum

A college degree is not a magic ticket — it does not inherently result in a job offer.

Instead, students must demonstrate readiness for a given role through interviews, resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles. Employers expect college graduates to articulate how their education and experience will translate into success with the company and preparedness for the workforce as a whole.

At the same time, students may struggle to explain their experiences in a way that truly connects with employers. Whether it’s internships, jobs, or student involvement on campus, employers want to know what students did, but also what they achieved. This is evidenced by recommendations that resumes now highlight achievements in positions rather than simply listing tasks and duties. 

Digital badges are designed to help students bridge this gap. They offer a new way to represent and communicate what a student has accomplished in a format that is portable, informative, and clearly defined. 

digital badge is a type of award earned online for one or many achievements. The requirements vary and are determined by the badge-issuing organization. A report from the American Institute for Research (AIR) presents digital badges as “a new way to capture and communicate what an individual knows and can demonstrate.” They note that badges can represent different levels of work and engagement, “including more granular, specific skills or achievements.”

What do you need to know when it comes to digital badging in higher education? Here are three things to consider if you want to bring your campus into the world of digital badges.

Digital Badges Belong in a Modern Curriculum

Just like peer learning, digital badges are essential to the modern college curriculum. Dan Stotz, an Assistant Dean at Kennesaw State University, notes in his LinkedIn article on digital badges and the future of learning that the U.S. News and World Report named them as the #1 educational trend to watch in 2017.

Indeed, digital badging programs continue to launch in higher education. Among initiatives in fostering resilience in college students, for example, George Mason University stands apart with their Resilience Badging Challenge. This article details their work with Education Design Lab to create the digital badging program and discusses how the way that students view and use badges has evolved over time. Other colleges frame digital badging as a resume-boosting tool that helps students “go beyond the transcript.” 

When executed at the highest level, digital badges engage Generation Z in all the ways they learn best. They offer freedom of choice, application of knowledge, bite-sized learning, and digital engagement. Digital badges also enable Gen Z students to “enhance their marketability,” which is important since these students highly covet practical skills and enjoy achieving milestones that lead to career advancement. 

What makes digital badging a critical part of any modern curriculum, however, isn’t just the fit with Generation Z — it’s how they engage employers. Digital badges provide a way to highlight select competencies to demonstrate what students know, since there is always “an entire infrastructure behind earning a badge.” They are also more informative and transparent than a paper certificate or other achievements listed on LinkedIn because recruiters can click on the badge to see the associated description of skills or competencies and view more information about how it was earned. 

AIR outlines other features that make digital badges a clear choice for any modern curriculum. To name a few, they are portable, discoverable through search, free or inexpensive to issue, and displayable in more settings than paper certificates. Additionally, since digital badges are visual and interactive, they can help increase student motivation, engagement, and retention. Students are able to see their progress, receive encouragement along the way, and build upon skills with rewards for previous learning. Stotz describes digital badges as ideal, in part, because they make use of gamification

Looking to learn more about the landscape of digital badges? Alliance for Excellent Education offers an overview of their use in higher education and the workforce, information about the digital badging ecosystem as a whole, and examples of active programs. 

Badges Should be Optimized for your Campus 

Digital badges can serve a simple purpose or a higher purpose. Simplistically, they can serve as certifications of completion, providing valid proof of the work students have done. This can motivate students by giving them something concrete to display on their LinkedIn to demonstrate their accomplishments. Butler Community College, for example, offers Butler Badges. With badges available at Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels, the focus is on completion of select courses, workshops, or trainings. 

For students to stand out in the job market, however, we know they have to demonstrate competency, not just completion. To serve a higher purpose, digital badges can show competency in areas that matter to employers. More than having completed a course or attended a training, digital badges that go one step further to demonstrate how these activities translate to workplace skills help employers to better understand the value of a student’s experience. The authors of the AIR report note that “a single well-known or well-understood badge can represent many bullet points of requirements on a job description.” 

With eight career competences, NACE offers a comprehensive framework from which to conceptualize, design, and optimize digital badges. A digital badge in critical thinking/problem solving, for example, gives employers the opportunity to truly understand what a potential candidate brings to the workplace. Digital badge programs that tie particular courses, activities, and experiences to NACE career competencies help employers make the connection between the college experience and career readiness. To paraphrase the U.S. News and World Report, you won’t get hired to be a sociology major but you will be expected to think creatively in the workplace.

The Career Readiness Badging Program from the University of South Florida illustrates the use of NACE career competencies to facilitate digital badges. Their format also includes opportunities to work with campus partners in badging content and onboarding capacities. Housed in the career services department, this program offers a holistic approach to digital badges. In fact, their program functions similarly to a co-curricular transcript where institutional offerings are connected to broad skills that are meaningful to employers.

Tutoring Work Helps Students Build Skills & Earn Badges 

We previously explored how peer tutoring work meets NACE competencies. As such, connecting digital badges to tutoring work is a logical and easy next step. 

The USF digital badge program allows students to pull from various involvement activities to help them meet the NACE career competency badge requirements. For example, students can use their work as a peer tutor to meet requirements for select competencies. This helps students understand how to frame their tutoring work in a way that employers value. A digital badge in teamwork/collaboration, with peer tutoring as a pathway to get there, may feel more applicable to employers than a digital badge in peer tutoring itself. 

The University of Maine (UMaine), however, takes a different approach with a range of Engaged Black Bear Digital Badges for learning pathways. Four badges are specific to levels of tutoring achieved, ranging from level one to the meta badge. While the USF program is managed by career services staff, digital badges for tutoring at UMaine are monitored and tracked by tutoring program staff. They also include requirements related to CRLA certification. Creating a connection between a digital badge and an outside accrediting body like CRLA enhances the value of these achievements for students and employers. It’s also helpful to note that UMaine offers a separate Career Ready Badge

Digital badging programs that combine the NACE framework with opportunities for professional development like CRLA training go above and beyond to prepare students for the workforce. This blended approach shows employers the true value of tutoring work, while also helping tutors understand how to best communicate their experience using language that employers are accustomed to.  

Unlocking new opportunities to use digital badges to show career readiness is a top priority in higher education today. Knack is currently working with the Education Testing Service to develop an innovative program of our own. Want to learn more? Contact us here.

Written by Priya Thomas

Priya Thomas is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant with 15 years of experience in higher education and student affairs. Her expertise includes wellness, mental health, student leadership and involvement, and fraternity and sorority life. She enjoys discovering local restaurants, travel, and learning new things. Connect with her on Twitter.