10 Possibilities: Badges for Progressive Credentialing in Academic Programs

What is progressive credentialing? It is pretty much what it sounds like. Instead of just getting one massive credential at the end of an extended degree program, this is about issuing smaller credentials along the way. Each credential represents acquisition of new knowledge or skill, building up to that final degree or completion of an overall program. How much this help improve upon the current educational system? Here are ten possibilities.

1. More Immediate Job Opportunities

You go to college, graduate from college, and use the diploma/credential to see if it will open some doors for employment. At least that is how some people think about it. Yet, that is not what happens for most college students. As I’ve referenced elsewhere, 85% of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree don’t follow this recipe. They are post-traditional learners who are already in the workforce, or they are looking for employment before or during pursuit of a college degree. As such, the current academic credentialing system is less helpful. What we need instead is a system that gives out credentials as people make progress in a program. The moment someone demonstrates a new skill or new knowledge, a credential in the form of a digital badge is issued, and the person can update a résumé with the new credential and a new skill.

2. Documented Skills for Potential Promotions or a Chance to Work on a New Project

Similarly, even if someone already has a job, what if we could build a system where that person can share evidence of new knowledge and skills gained to the boss. Perhaps this could be enough for the boss to trust that person with a new project, or it might even be enough to give that person a chance at a promotion in the business.

3. Help Employers in Areas Where There are Employment Shortages

From the employer side, what about jobs where there is a shortage of qualified employees. In some cases, perhaps that is because there is a minimum degree requirement. Instead, what if the employer could increase the type of work that an employee could do once that person demonstrates a new skill as shown by a progressive credentialing system. This is sometimes done with medical interns, allowing them to earn credentials to take on more tasks as they demonstrate competence. In fact, this might even lead employers to consider hiring people without the previously required bachelor’s degree under the condition that the employee earn progressive credentials in a college degree program, eventually culminating in the full degree. This model might even decrease the unemployment rate in specific contexts while giving employers the needed skilled workforce.

4. It Helps to Address Motivation

By using progressive credentials, each new visual symbol becomes a milestone. It breaks mastery or competency into manageable sizes. This provides short and quick wins as one progresses toward a larger and more cumulative credential. These progressive credentials become a sort of progress bar. Each new credential becomes evidence that the learner has what it takes to finish the entire program.

5. It Helps the Learner See and Understand the Big Picture

By providing small and discrete progressive credentials, it can become easier for a learner to understand how knowledge and skills build up to broader levels of competence. Detailing the learning with these micro-credentials may be an effective way for the learner to see how parts of a course or program lead to the entire degree. These can show how everything fits together. This can be enhanced if the progressive credentialing system uses a series of small competency-based badges to lead to a larger badge. Those larger badges lead to yet another level of competence or the entire degree.

6. It Allows Drop Outs to Walk Away With More Than Debt

Yes, our goal is for people to complete a degree, but we know that life doesn’t always play out that way. In such instances, a progressive credentialing system still leaves the drop out with an updated resume, with a set of credentials that did not exist before. This might just be enough to gain new employment and pay off debt that was incurred from the college coursework.

7. It Allows for Individualized Programming

If a college degree program were divided into a progressive credentialing system, it would create new opportunities for personalized or individualized learning plans. Suppose a person arrived with knowledge or skill equal to one of the micro-credentials. Why not let them test out of that credential, earn it, and move on? This could speed up a person’s study or allow that person to focus on those areas that truly need to be mastered instead of “jumping through the hoops” with aspects of the learning that person doesn’t need.

8. It Creates New Opportunities for Nano-Degrees

The Udacity nano-degree experiment involves mastery a set of skills that lead to something like a 1-year certificate, but it also connects directly to the needs of a given employer. Several nano-degrees could potentially lead up to a traditional bachelor’s or master’s degree.

9. It Allows for Easier Revision and Updates to Curricula

I’ve written elsewhere about competency-based badges as curricular building blocks, and this would work well in a progressive credentialing system. Especially in more applied fields, there are new skill sets and there is new knowledge that becomes valuable over time in a given domain. By having the program broken into distinct competency-based badges in a progressive credentialing system, it becomes easier to see where updates and revisions need to take place. Updates are often just a matter of revising one or two competency-based badges or adding a couple more layers/levels of competency-based badges.

Consider how this also helps with analyzing learning progressions. Most educators recognize the importance of scaffolded learning. Some skills are better mastered after other skills are learned. Breaking up a program into a progressive credentialing system allows one to explore and experiment with such scaffolding. While one option would be to establish a set and required sequence of micro-credentials, another option would be to leave some flexibility, but to analyze the results from students. Over time, this data could drive important advising or revisions to the curricula (like suggesting that certain credentials be pursued and earned before others. This would not be based on hunches, but real data about past learner success).

10. It keeps everyone focused on progress.

Each new credential is a step in the right direction. As noted in some of the previous points, this provides understanding and potential motivation for some learners, but it also keeps the instructors/advisors/facilitators focused on student progress.

Progressive credentialing is a largely unfamiliar term among most, but as noted in these ten points, it has some promise to help learners, instructors, learning organizations and current/future employers. This requires significant groundwork in many contexts, but given the building of an adequate trust network and a carefully planned system, it has promise to offer interesting improvements to many current systems leading to an academic credential.

Helping Post-Traditional Learners With Badges & Progressive Credentialing

According to Louis Soares in Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Post-Secondary Education, only 15% of those pursuing a college degree today are seeking a traditional residential college experience. The other 85% are what some refer to as post-traditional. They are working people who want a post-secondary credential but they don’t have one. As Soares points out in the article, this is also the population of college student that is less likely to complete. Life challenges, family circumstances, the demands of work and other factors combine to create barriers to achieving a college degree for some people. It is this 85% that most benefits from the many higher education innovations over the past fifty years: night school, one-day-a-way programs, weekend cohorts, blended learning programs, low residency programs, competency-based programs, as well as the many online programs available today.

It is not that this population is unwilling to work hard. It is that the traditional full-time college structure does not align with their needs, nor is it flexible enough to allow them to meet the other significant demands in their lives. However, the “non-traditional programs” make college a possibility: allowing students to to work at their own pace, to study and learn during evenings and weekends, or to do the bulk of their work after 10:00 PM each night (once all the kids are in bed).

Even with such flexibility, there is a greater chance (than with many traditional undergraduates) that these post-traditional students will not persist and graduate. That is why many top programs targeted at this population invest extra time and effort in retention plans: adding teams of success coaches, building advanced learning analytic tools that trigger automated alerts to advisors and faculty when a student is “at-risk” of dropping out (as indicated by the student having one or more at-risk behaviors: not logging into the online course often, missing due dates for assignments, not clicking on or viewing important documents or sections of the course, getting one or more failing grades, etc.).

Along with this, the design of programs, courses, and learning experiences play an important role. These learners often have rich and diverse life experiences that they bring to the classes, they seek knowledge and skill that they can readily apply to life and work, and they benefit from the confidence-building and input that comes from frequent feedback on their work. Of course, this is not specific to post-traditional learners. Most of us value and benefit from such features.

What else might be distinct about educating this post-traditional population? If they are already in the workforce, possibly full-time, part-time, or underemployed, they are in a place to leverage their new knowledge and skill right away. They might use it to solve problems on the job, improve the quality of their work on the job, to gain the knowledge and skill necessary for a promotion, or to get what it takes to be eligible for a similar or altogether different position (if they can show what they’ve learned). This is where I see a potential affordance to the use of competency-based digital badges, progressive credentials, within degree programs for post-traditional learners. As a learner demonstrates new knowledge or a new skill, a micro-credential is issued to the students. The students have not even finished an entire course or program, yet they have earned a credential, one that they can push to their backpack and display online. In other words, they can benefit from progressive credentialing (a concept referenced in the Soares article mention at the beginning of this article). These micro-credentials can build up to progressively larger credentials (unit level, course level, and finally program level). Courses and programs are already divided in such ways at times, but adding credentialing to each new knowledge or skill acquisition provides a visible sign of progress, adds new and identifiable credentials to a learners resume, and potentially helps the learner recognize that coursework is not just about getting passing grades or jumping through hoops. It is about developing real, valuable and documented competencies.

The goal is typically for each student to progress through and entire program and walk away with both new knowledge and a valued credential called a diploma. However, with the use of progressive micro-credentials, even when life’s challenges leads one to set aside the goal of earning a degree, the learner does not walk away entirely empty-handed. That learner still has micro-credentials to show for the time and effort, not to mention the actual knowledge and skill that can be demonstrated right away. Such an approach adds a new dimension to the questions about the value of a partially completed degree, which many students may see has having nothing to show for their efforts.

This does not mean that all employers will trust or assign value to these micro-credentials. That is larger issue of trust networks. However, this approach has potential benefits even in the absence of such trust networks or perceived valued of badges by employers. By structuring the programs around such competency-based badges, we are also designing the learning experience in a way that makes it easier for learners to recognize and be able to represent the discrete knowledge and skill acquired along the way. Even without displaying badges, such knowledge and skill can be explicitly listed on a resume. This approach might make it easier for the learners to verbally communicate what has been learned an what evidence they have to provide evidence of that learning. From this perspective, progressive competency-based credentials are giving the learners the vocabulary to represent themselves well to current or prospective employers. 

This is not a claim that progressive competencies will solve the issue of dropping out of college, but such an approach does seem to provide some help, especially given the distinct needs and life circumstances of the post-traditional learner. What do you think?