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Are Badges College Ready?

10 Things We’ve Learned from the 21st Century Skills Badging Challenge

We’re just about six months into our 21st Century Skills Badging Challenge. This cohort-style design challenge brought together seven local universities and many employers and experts to develop and pilot badges that help students display 21st century skill levels to potential employers.

So far, we’ve convened two “Studio Team” sessions of experts and leaders in industry to help guide the design process, three cohort meetings that brought together member schools and select partners to codesign badging pilots, one student session and two employer sessions. 50 organizations across the country have weighed in with comments.

The complex world of digital badging is at a turning point. The experimentation of the last decade and frameworks emerging around competencies are starting to show us pathways – both what is and what could be. Below are ten insights we want to share with the larger community as we attempt to merge employer and student design criteria. All of them come from our primary research and design sessions with various stakeholders. Hats off to the many learning institutions and entrepreneurs who have embraced this challenge. You all deserve a badge.


1. Employers Get It.  Employers are excited bythe fact that badging can make a student’s resume three-dimensional. 21st century skill badges, specifically, help employers find the skill sets that are predictors of success, but are often the hardest to discern, especially from a transcript or resume alone. The badges we’ve heard that employers are most interested in cover skill areas such as:

      • Empathy
      • Teamwork
      • Initiator / Self-starter
      • Critical thinking (though this is one example of where employers and universities really diverge in how they define this)
      • Resilience
      • Communication

10-things-affinity-mapping-Dawan2. Students Sort of Get It.  What gets students excited about badges during college is not employability. The value proposition of badges must be readily apparent for students to pursue a badge at all and students are more interested in personal development. Most college students haven’t yet faced the reality that their list-based resumes won’t get them immediately hired.


3. Make Them Do It. If badging is “opt-in” for students, and they don’t realize the value of these credentials until they graduate, then they’re not going to opt-in early enough for badging to become a developmental tool. This could be a case for making 21st century skills training mandatory, to build development  into the curriculum in ways that employers can see levels of mastery (similar to grades).  New university models such as Minerva are doing this, but it’s hard to convince traditional registrars to open the vault and let colleagues redesign their most valuable currency, despite estimates that 95% of learning that occurs in college is not captured on a traditional transcript.


10-things-schools-with-employers4. A New Way To Define “Successful”  Employers believe these badges could be most useful for finding those candidates who aren’t necessarily Type A high-achievers. “If you get a bunch of Type A’s on a team, that’s not going to end well.” Badging could be a way to solve for this – i.e. finding the non-Type A’s that companies need to fill out effective teams.


5. Access for less advantaged students? Top companies, like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs,  see this as a way to recruit  “beyond the Ivies” without having to physically go to campus. Universities see this as a way to showcase different students, who might demonstrate amazing levels of grit or teamwork, but their 3.0 GPA doesn’t make the cut for top level company interviews.


10-things-gallery-walk6. No soccer trophies, please. Employers are not interested in badges that students achieve just by participating. Employers want badges to signal competency, preferably at different levels. Every student may be a winner, but probably in different ways.


7. KISS.  Keep it simple, stakeholders. We scanned competency frameworks across industries and presented several that have worked in other contexts.  Our schools felt that it will be too complicated to start out with 3 or 4 levels and students felt it would be de-motivating to have them badge to different levels of expertise, like the black belt system in karate. Both groups said. “In the early days, just have one level and one badge for each competency type.”


8. Talk like TED. To help give badging credibility, employers are interested in external validators (for example, if TED validated the competency levels behind a Verbal Communications  badge that lots of schools would map their own courses and activities to).


10-things-stickies-progress-map9. Who controls your competency dashboard? Picture every worker having access to his/her Google Analytics-style performance and capabilities data. As new “people analytics” companies (think Knack, Careerify, Pegged Software, Saberr and Cornerstone) drive employers’ expectations to increasingly granular levels, workers will have to manage their personal competency dashboards, much like we manage our medical records. This could pose opportunities and threats to schools and students as employers predict candidates’ success using algorithms and testing.


10-things-Karen-lots-of-designing10. How to Drive Adoption?  Employers say: “If you can get our competitors to do it, we’ll do it, too.”  Get two or three giants among the stakeholders to try it first, like Starbucks and Arizona State University.   For badges to become currency among millennials and the employers who hire them, the early national models might well come from Uber-style disruptions, rather than scalable pilots at individual traditional learning institutions.  However, K-12, community colleges and universities feel the power of micro-credentialing and early testing at universities, from competency-based programs to co-curricular swipe cards that build “credits” for experiential learning.  Everyone is looking for the implementation roadmap.