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Online Education "Badges": What They Are and What They Mean for Students

Apr 23, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Inspired by the Boy and Girl Scout badge program, where participants earn badges for learning certain skills, online learning outlets all over the country are experimenting with a similar system that provides a badge-like credential for taking a course, displaying a certain talent, or picking up a certain skill-set.

Online educators are introducing badges that indicate skills employers are looking for—like collaborative teamwork, digital design, or management and leadership. Students can earn badges in a variety of ways—by watching videos, passing standardized tests, contributing to class discussions, and completing classes. The push is led by cutting-edge tech firms such as Mozilla, the online education provider Udacity, and by respected traditional colleges such as MIT and funders such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The badge system appears to be an innovative way to combine the Open Courseware aesthetic with a meaningful credentialing system that does not require the financial or time commitment of a full degree program.  Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the
badge system compared with a more traditional diploma.

Student Wearing a Badge

Technical certifications aren’t a replacement for a Bachelor’s degree, but they can demonstrate highly targeted skills.



Advantages of the Badge System

It’s cheaper

The cost depends on the program. In many cases, courses are free—often relying on existing Open Courseware materials—but the testing process and the credential itself is not. Costs may be upwards of several hundred dollars, but this is still much cheaper than a full degree program or many professional certification programs.

It’s more efficient

A online Bachelor’s degree takes four years to earn; a Master’s two or three; and a PhD degree can take anywhere from three to seven years on top of that. Compare that to the timeframe of weeks it takes to earn a skill badge. The badge may not demonstrate years of training, but it also doesn’t take years out of a student’s life to earn—and students can start translating that badge into workplace benefits much sooner.

It’s more agile

If students need to earn a credential quickly to take advantage of a surprise opportunity, learn new job skills online to switch careers, or respond to employer needs, they can do it much more quickly and cheaply with the badge system.

It allows graduates to demonstrate skills not always obvious with a degree

A Bachelor’s degree might tell an employer you spent four years studying engineering or history. But it doesn’t tell the employer which computer languages you know, whether you’re a natural leader, or about specific demonstrated skills. The badge system gives employers much more detailed and targeted information about a candidate.

Drawbacks of the Badge System

Employer response may be mixed

To employers, a degree is a quick and easy way to evaluate and sort through the hundreds of resumes they may receive for a job posting. The badge system has the potential to serve a similar role—but first it must earn employer trust. Employers in more cutting-edge industries, such as the tech industry, may be more receptive initially to this system—and the tech industry is already used to evaluating employees based on individual technical certifications and credentials. But other fields are more conservative, and acceptance there may be a challenge.

Cheating is still a problem

It’s very difficult to cheat your way into earning an entire Bachelor’s degree—but it’s easier with badges. The badge program is still new, and there are few mechanisms in place at some organizations to prevent cheating. This presents a credentialing problem, because for the credential to be trustworthy, it needs to effectively guarantee that expertise—which it can’t if there are multiple opportunities to cheat. In some cases, students will open more than one account—one to practice, and the other to take the tests and earn a higher score. Udacity and MIT are both looking into developing a network of proctored test sites throughout the US.

It’s unaccredited

In the US, the independent accreditation system serves as a guide to students and employers, assuring the competence and quality of the education they receive. As such, there is no current independent accreditation system to evaluate online badge programs. This means that the same badge from two different organizations may or may not demonstrate the same level of skill—and there is no outside guarantee of the quality of education students receive.

The online badge system is still new—and it’s unclear whether it has the potential to truly replace a diploma’s cache in the job market. However, the technical certification systems offered by Microsoft and other companies already do something similar in the tech market—and these are currently well respected by employers. Technical certifications aren’t a replacement for a Bachelor’s degree, but they can demonstrate highly targeted skills—and are often required in technical jobs. It’s possible the badge system may become just as vital in other industries.


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