Just over a year ago, I wrote a column about badges, those digital displays of hyper-focused competency that migrated from foursquare, gaming, and e-commerce to education. I noted then that badges “won’t supplant transcripts, majors, degrees, and resumes anytime soon,” but that “they are a free or low-cost way in which job-seekers can demonstrate hyper-specialized competency in lieu of, or as an adjunct to, a certificate or diploma.” I also mentioned in an earlier piece on MITx that badges might be a way for a free online Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) to verify competency.
Since I wrote those earlier columns, badges have come of age. Instead of being sophomoric demarcations of inane competency — such as “Great Listener!” — badges have expanded in breadth and depth. As a result, badges are now offered by an increasing number and variety of credible schools and programs, including the Kahn Academy, Carnegie Mellon, and, yes, MITx and edX.
According to Manhattan-based non-profit, Professional Examination Service (PES) — the self-proclaimed “most experienced organization in professional licensure and certification services” — badges have also grown more sophisticated and secure. According to a PES press release, badges now come packaged around credentialing ecosystems, such as PES’ ProExam Digital Micro-Credential (or DMC) service, which was recently unveiled at the Association of Test Publishers’ annual Innovations in Testing Conference in Fort Lauderdale.
Through its new DMC Program, PES hopes to support its more than 60 professional organization and over 100 licensing board clients — think HR Certification Institute, Project Management Institute, and the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards — in providing additional, highly specific micro-credentials as a precursor for, or an add-on to, an existing credential. Say an information technology credentialing organization wants to inspire careers in IT among high school students, but knows its full credential is out of reach. Working with PES, the organization “chunks” one part of its full credential in an area of both interest and high utility, such as “iOS App Programming.” The organization then creates a separate professional-grade assessment for this new micro-credential. This new micro-credential is consequently considered a precursor to, and counts toward, a full “Programming” credential.
One conundrum associated with badges in the past was how to ascertain consistent validity and security. Organizations like PES now enable educational institutions to issue an industry-standard micro-credential that recipients can easily display, manage and share without fear of denigration.
These digital credentials are not mere images (see above). Rather, the badge image links back to verification information on servers that enable anyone looking at the badge to quickly verify the issuing institution, the person to whom the badge was issued, the criteria for receiving the badge, and even evidence and testimonials related to the credential. This is superior to the old self-report system associated with badges because now a potential employer can verify the authenticity of badge information through a third party system rather than just by trusting the applicant.
Moreover, badge information has become more granular and objective than is possible with transcripts and diplomas. For example, with improved badge technology, a prospective employer can quickly and easily compare test and grade results among applicants in say a specific subject, e.g. HTML programming. Two candidates may have the same GPA from the same credentialing institution. They may even have taken the exact same courses in the exact same major. Still, a prospective employer has a hard time ascertaining which candidate is best prepared for the highly specific job at hand. With the more detailed, and objectively verifiable, information provided via improved badge technology, the employer can identify which applicant is better prepared in the discreet competency for which they are hiring.
In addition, as startups like Open Study are valiantly trying to prove, badges, when done right, can now demonstrate vital soft skills — such as teamwork, problem-solving, initiative, passion and engagement — that are empirically far better predictors of career and life success than mere transcripts. At this stage, such soft skill badges are still too easy to attain, but they will hopefully get more rigorous over time.
Finally, thanks to the oversight and insights of organizations like PES, institutions can now offer secure web-based testing that is remotely proctored. This dramatically expands the possibilities associated with free online courses because distance and language will no longer be obstacles in testing for knowledge accrued in massive open online courses (or MOOCs).
There are still just as many questions as answers when it comes to online learning, including whether it is best suited for rote, more easily commoditized, “training” as opposed to more complex and nuanced “education.” Nevertheless, at least my call for “free education for all” finally has some credentialing meat to it.