Blog Post

Future of Higher Education: Micro-Credentials & Badging – Part 1

by | January 1st, 2018

The Commoditization of the Bachelor’s Degree

In August 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education released a forty-five-page expose, “The Future of the Degree”. The publication pulls together points made in countless journals and media and commentary over the past several years. Most notable is that the four-year college degree, which in a bygone era served as the litmus test for employers, has lost its shine.

Once a rare commodity, since the GI Bill in 1944, the “degree” has become a matter of entitlement, and a foundational expectation for most high school graduates. The college degree, once the irrefutable gold standard of the manufacturing sector, long a place for middle-skilled high school graduates, has since disappeared off-shore. This was juxtaposed with the compelling statistics that showed that the lifetime earnings of college graduates vastly outpaced that of high school graduates.

The bachelor’s degree is now a virtual commodity. As such, the laws of economics must prevail to drive down its value as a differentiator. According to an analysis by Burning Glass Technologies, degrees are now to be found among the qualifications of workers in jobs that rarely demanded such a level of education. Clerks, service workers and assistants are now almost “required” to be degreed.

Impact on Employers

Companies, complaining loudly that they are unable to divine what they need to know to avoid bad hires from the “degree”, have resorted to tactics of their own to find the flashing lights that will identify the right candidates. Some have worked to research and identify specific institutions that reliably turn out graduates with “grit,” which is quite apart from factors like grades, majors, and transcripts.

There is an ongoing quest to locate better metrics for highlighting the most desirable candidates. Not surprisingly, employers look to the colleges to isolate the transferable skills that will have a common currency.

The Answer: Micro-Credentials and Badging?

So, why are micro-credentials, most notably badges, worthy of serious consideration now? Simply, they provide clear, digestible information about what the learner knows and has done (and therefore should be able to continue to do) in language and classifications that are portable and easy to consume and trust.

Open Badges issued by learning institutions are especially valuable because they carry encrypted information about what the learner had to demonstrate to earn the badge as well as the context for the badge itself. It is also the important job of the institutions and organizations to frame and certify badges. Without that, there would be no value.

Potential Issues with Micro-Credentialing and Badging

Despite the hope that credentialing and badging will solve the challenges that employers face in their attempts to identify the best candidates, there are some potential concerns:

1. The Fear of Reductionist Thinking

It’s no surprise that most colleges, even in the face of massive retention issues that fuel billions of dollars of remediation, are hesitant about the new badge culture. They fear it will become an exercise in reductionist thinking about the meaning of the traditional academy which has tended to stress the holistic nature of a liberal education. It seems difficult to avoid laying the college degree alongside a list of known attributes of successful employees to reveal apparent correlations. Without badging, such a correlation is nearly impossible and employers could make the claim that higher education is failing to be transparent.

2. Experiential Learning IS the Proof of Concept for Education – Will it Get Lost, Even with Badging?

When students make judicious use of skills and knowledge to address unpredictable problems for which there is no single right answer, they are collecting data for others about how they will make out if left to their own devices in an ill-defined situation. This process has a time-tested scaffold: The Rigor Relevance Framework® .

This schema has served to drive professional development and curriculum design for several decades. Many questions arise:

  • Can the academy adapt to teach less content to allow for more time to apply new learning?
  • Can it adopt new assessment practices that call for a higher level of trans-disciplinary application?
  • Will badges be used to represent the higher value of real-world applications of classroom learning?

If not, the opportunity to enhance learning, engage students and to drive learners to see how they can use their learning will be lost.

3. Will More Just Become Less?

Another worry is that, even with micro-credentials, a steady progression to the mundane and eventually to entropy will be the inevitable result – something that some critics argue happened to the degree itself.

For example, a badge that attests to “Critical Thinking” lacks situational specificity. On its own, it fails to underwrite a sense of rarity and rigor. A student can learn structures for making comparative decisions and how to employ them to solve a problem. This does not mean that the student, given an unfamiliar, authentic situation can make an effective comparison between unknown options and make a recommendation for action.

This involves the effective collection of information for each option, breakout of what is known into comparable criteria (assuring parallel information is noted for each), judgement about the impact of what is known, weighting of the criterion and then a mathematical calculation to suggest the most promising choice. This must then be judged against the basic principles, goals, and ethics of the organization seeking to make the decision to arrive at a final compelling argument for action.

This is the stuff of the real-world. Badges could attest to this level of thinking and provide evidence of competence.

The question is… will institutions risk adding a distinction, a higher badge designation, wherein the learner must also apply the knowledge and skill in a real-world situation, successfully reflect on that experience in a way that proves she knows she is thinking and acting differently, and can link this experience to others? Unless competency is examined via reflective practice, formally taught and practiced, there is no reliable evidence of the habit of mind that employers seek.

Micro-Credentials and Badging Can Allow Educators to Clearly Communicate Their Students’ Competence

Micro-credentials run the genuine risk of becoming just another a system of low-order rewards for modest tests and assignments. They could easily just aggregate to become a less-than-transparent diploma with more frequently-awarded parts, which will only make things worse. We would be right back where we started!

Issues notwithstanding, it is clear that micro-credentials can be innovatively structured and applied given the stimulus of the open source work of IMS Global and Open Badge initiatives. We are indeed entering a hopeful era wherein there will be the tools to earnestly rethink how educators and their organizations communicate that their students are competent.

At Chalk & Wire, our experience leads us to be optimistic and believe that verified digital badging will be the solution needed to successfully chronicle students’ skills development and allow employers to understand and trust their academic and soft skills achievements. By leveraging the power of Open Badges, we have developed MyMantl to allow educational institutions and other organizations to create their own badging programs, allowing them to illuminate and document competencies and desirable skills that employers seek, over and above a “degree”. Find out more about MyMantl.

In order to break the cycle of commoditized degrees, educational institutions need to bravely take on the challenge of verifying and documenting student learning in a way that allows employers to seek and find the candidates they need. The call to action is simple: Audaces fortuna iuvat – Fortune favors the bold.


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