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

The Education Design Lab just concluded the latest phase of our 21st Century Skills Badging Challenge. Building off of 2015-16’s work with George Mason University (Resilience Badge) and Georgetown University (Catalyst Badge), our primary goal during the 2016-17 academic year was to “complete the suite” of digital badges that represent the skills employers hope to see from college graduates but currently have difficulty identifying on a resume or through other hiring practices. For 8 badges, with 11 schools, we continued designing the framework and learning outcomes and piloting with students. We continued to imagine the future hiring ecosystem in which the badges could be currency and played the role of advocate for a future state in which students are intentionally learning these skills and employers are hiring based upon skills as opposed to pedigree.   

To do this, we worked with a larger cohort of colleges and universities (including two in Africa!) and expanded our outreach to subject matter experts who could inform us about the skills, employers who could pressure test the badge designs, and technology companies like Riot Games, MURAL, and WRANX building in this space.  

Now that more than 300 university students have been through our pilots, and 50 plus employers have weighed in, we are more convinced than ever that the intentional development and assessment of 21st century skills can be a game changer to bring applicants and hirers together. Beyond having the ability to display this in the form of a digital badge or micro-credential, students develop a deeper understanding of themselves and a new narrative about their skills. The “pop-up” learning community helps them horizontally make sense of all their learning and weave key soft skills through the vertical formal discipline instruction. Employers are excitedly weighing in as well about the prospect of being able to use 21st century skill badges as a filter early in the hiring process and a way to better understand the potential of a recent graduate.  

We are also seeing the light bulb go off with students, administrators and employers when we ask them to imagine a world where the paper resume is obsolete, and they are buying and selling jobs through keywords where machine readable systems match candidates with employers. The concept of the T profile, where the horizontal T is 21st century, or mobility, skills and the stem is increasing levels of technical skills, is also being very well received when we ask both sides to use it as a framework to chart skills and job descriptions.

Below are the Lab’s top 5 insights from students and from employers from this past year’s work.   

5 Things We’ve Learned From Students…

1. Transparency and purpose drive student engagement.

Students take many courses in the pursuit of their degree and are also immersed in various activities and employment outside of the classroom. But do they know which skills they are developing along the way? By being explicit about the skills they can practice as part of a class, during an internship, even as part of a team, we can heighten their awareness and help them recognize that these skills are useful everywhere. We have to own the task of connecting the dots for students (e.g., tagging courses and activities) almost to the point of being gratuitous, so they know what skills they’ll be acquiring, and why. When K-12 wanted to move the needle on college enrollment, they invested energy to create a “college going culture,” which often meant hanging pennants of aspirational colleges, having teachers wear sweatshirts from their alma mater on a given day, even naming hallways or spaces after colleges. A culture shift and wholesale strategy in higher ed will help students understand just how central 21st century skills are to everything they do now and in the future.

2. Reflection makes badges (and their content) stickier–including techniques that ask the learner to critically analyze their current practices (and have others do it with them) can spur change and improvement.

Last year, students told us how powerful it was to include reflection as part of the badge earning process, so we made it a core component. This year, it became clear that reflection and meaning making when done with others is even more powerful than when it is done alone. For one, you are forced to do it. “Thinking about your thinking” can easily get pushed down the priority list if you’re asked to find the time to do it on your own. Having a peer or peers to partner with makes you more accountable. We found that watching a video of yourself giving an elevator pitch presentation (one of the practices associated with the Oral Communication Badge, co-designed by Tunis Business School and Makerere University, in partnership with international NGO, IREX) and critically analyzing it with peers generated insights you would not have surfaced on your own. Participating in a meetup to discuss a learning module (one of GMU’s successful practices) challenges you to consider other perspectives and reframe your own. A meeting with a mentor to discuss the 360 evaluation completed by 4 adults you know well pushes you to consider your strengths and confront your weaknesses. These impactful moments become memorable ones for students. They increase self-awareness and drive transformation. 

3. A focus on the sub-competencies drives learning in the areas that matter most.  

Ask a student to define “collaboration,” and it often sounds like group or teamwork, the division of labor needed to complete a task. If you ask a subject matter expert or consult the literature, collaboration is far more nuanced. Effective collaboration requires active listening, understanding diverse perspectives, strengthening relationships and being solution focused (the core-four sub-competencies the design teams have identified as part of the Collaboration Badge co-designed by University of Arizona). There is an art and a science to collaboration. Therefore, if we want to build collaboration skills for students, we have to change our eye level, stop talking about “collaboration” and start talking about the development of the core sub-competencies of collaboration. Practicing and developing those are the starting point.

Participating universities told us at the end of this year that they are willing to agree across all schools on which sub-competencies roll up to signify each of the overall 21st century skills. They are also willing to come to agreement on the learning outcomes for each one, so that employers and universities can start to align the supply and demand sides with a common language. Schools want flexibility to determine how they will best achieve those learning outcomes.   

4. 21st century skills can be developed in an online environment but curriculum requires human engagement.

To reach all students, it is necessary to leverage online environments. In our pilots, traditional learning management systems like Blackboard and D2L provided students with the opportunity to access the learning modules when their schedule permitted and engage in online discussions associated with the modules. But to “enable the interplay between offline activities and digital augmentation,” learning modules designed around and/or leveraged what students were already doing on a daily basis provided added value. This practice encouraged students to take what they learned and apply it elsewhere, creating intentional, real-world application. Even a private Facebook page (a no-cost strategy used by Tunis Business School) served as both a learning platform and a community of critical friends, providing students with the necessary “human touch.”

5. A 360 assessment has been more valuable to students than other forms of assessments. 

A raw score on a standardized assessment does not tell students how to improve and can even be unclear on what to improve upon. An assessment that provides a disposition (e.g., DiSC or Foursight) is engaging and more meaningful in that it provides a snapshot and detailed language about a student’s relationship with the skill. Checkster’s 360 assessment, however, is proving to be the most valuable type of assessment for students. The 360 provides ratings directly related to the sub-competencies from adults who know them well and a comparison point to the way in which they rated themselves. These data establish a needed (and scalable) baseline, provide insights that carry weight because they are from trusted sources, and allow students to develop a plan of action, particularly if there is consensus from their raters about an area of weakness. The 360 assessment can also be used as a pre-post assessment to better understand if students actually “move the needle” based upon the work they did to earn the badge.

…and 5 Things We’ve Learned From Employers

1. Employers are hungry for ways to assess 21st century skills.

Every year that we’ve run a pilot cohort (since 2014), employers have become more articulate about what they are not getting from traditional resumes and cover letters. The incumbent self-reported resume is a blunt instrument filled with lists of activities, but few ways to gauge competency about the skills you really have. As a result, we are witnessing the increase in pre-screening assessments like Knack, Pymetrics and other homegrown tools that measure the skills that correlate to high performance. The problem with most of these tools is that they don’t share with students and schools a roadmap for how to develop what employers are looking for. Many of the tests are a black box. You don’t know why you did or didn’t get hired. This effort to filter and de-risk hiring suggest employers see room and need for a more informative, transparent credential [like a 21st century skill digital badge] that provides validated demonstration of a prospective employee’s skills.

2. Show me the money.  

Individual employers are not likely to take the lead in helping the entire hiring ecosystem get to a common language for these skills. But industry associations are stepping up, such as the National Network’s Common Employability Skills, and the National Retail Services Initiative Competency Model. Foundations and non-profits need to push new alignment models, as Lumina Foundation is helping Connecting Credentials, a consortium of 115 organizations. As they see business gains or efficiencies from early tests with 21st century skills, employers tell us they will come to the table. (The Lab is co-leading this summer’s work group on Aligning Supply and Demand Market Signals for New Credentials.)

3. Show, don’t tell.

Employers do like the fact that students are going “above and beyond” to earn a badge [the “disciplined practice” of earning a 21st century skill badge], but they want to see evidence that you know how to apply the skill, not just talk about it in an interview; how having earned a 21st century skill badge will help you complete the task they are going to give you. Digital badges with metadata that include machine readable artifacts that help trigger the keyword searches of employer tracking systems, and then become the “show and tell” evidence to bring to an interview if you get to that stage. Providing employers with an understanding of how what you’ve done will translate into outcomes when you’re on the job (e.g., video of an elevator pitch to demonstrate Oral Communication) are most valuable.

4. 21st century skills may trump technical skills.

There is no shortage of advice for recent college graduates entering the job market and little of it has to do with applying your degree to that first job. Several employers, in all but the most technical of companies, tell us that they are currently emphasizing technical skills because their screening systems via keyword searches struggle to capture the broader skills. They “get” that the broader skills are more determinant of long term success for employees. Dre Voelkel, Marketing and Business Development Advisor for Illume Advising, says, “Since it is clear that the work force of the future will increasingly demand creative, flexible, big-picture workers, greater emphasis will be placed on social skills such as personal integrity, cultural awareness, empathy, tenacity, and grit. However, these are skills that don’t always come across on a resume.” We see tech boot camps, for example, now adding in discrete training on 21st century skills in response to employer demand.

5. Keyword hiring may become the new norm for larger companies.  

As more sourcing and screening is occurring through algorithmic keyword searches by employers, keyword literacy becomes an important gap to fill for students, college career centers and workforce programs. Digital badges provide visibility as we move to a “Keyword hiring” economy. So, language to describe a candidate’s soft skill qualifications and evidence become tools to make him or her more visible to hiring managers. When you’re a recent graduate, without much of a track record in the workforce, making sense of what you bring to the table is even more challenging. Because the transparent nature of these badges provide a window that hiring managers are currently lacking and leaves less room for interpretation, “21st century skill badges” could become an important access tool, particularly for students who lack personal employment networks and useful digital records. Potential employees need to be smart about what online data could be helpful (and not helpful) to their competency and skills reputation profile.

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