Badging & Certification

Badges Need Rigor! (Or do they really?)

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By David Leaser

The debate about Open Badges has shifted from their use as a signal of achievement to a dialog about rigor and the qualifications to earn a badge. In the process, the value of Open Badges may be lost if we prescribe a fixed set of expectations and present assumptions to constrain their enormous potential.


Is rigor important for Open Badges?

Early in the development of the IBM Open Badge Program, we settled on a design point that continues to guide the program: IBM badges represent resume-worthy activities and our badges require an assessment component. We wanted to make sure we protected the IBM brand, provided valuable, trusted credentials with real business value, and we wanted earners to share them frequently to improve their reputation. If they don’t have value, why bother claiming them? We developed standards, badge classifications and governance to guide our program and created process that would scale across the complex, vast world of IBM activities.

But, even with stringent processes, definitions and governance in place, I am frequently asked about rigor. “How much rigor is involved in this badge?” It’s the wrong question, because Open Badges were not designed to be relegated to activities with an arbitrary definition of rigor; they were designed to do much, much more.


Open Badges ≠ Certifications

Open Badges emerged as a standard in 2011 when the Mozilla Foundation, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, developed a method for packaging information about accomplishments, embedding it into portable image files as a digital badge. Now, the standard is managed and improved by IMS Global Consortium and supported by a robust ecosystem of developers and issuers.

From the earliest days, many have considered Open Badges synonymous with digital credentials, like certifications. They have frequently been equated to “mini-certifications.” It’s easy to understand why. We often look at innovation through the lens of the metaphors of the past. Digital cameras were compared to analog cameras. Early automobiles were called “horseless carriages.”  But badges are not exams – badges are not even activities. Open Badges are digital representations of information.


Open Badges ≠ Skills

Open Badges are not just about skills, even though they can be.  A meeting with inner-city teenagers in Washington, DC opened my eyes to the possibilities. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at an Urban Institute conference to share a corporate point of view of badges. I described the IBM program, the value it provides and how to earn an IBM badge. After the panel, audience members came to the stage to mingle and ask questions. I expected to find myself engaged by industry and higher education leaders, but a group of inner-city teenage boys approached me first. “How can I earn an IBM badge?” “Do you have badges for music?” “How about sports?”

A lightbulb went off in my head: Badges are about connecting people to opportunity. It’s that simple. These boys wanted to find a way to a better life, one where they could use their passions to earn a good living, contribute to society and become the next generation of leaders. How can we use badges to do that? We cannot be constrained by a single use case which limits possibilities.


Badges = Valuable information

Why would we not want to capture passions and interests so we can connect people to careers, and how can we turn oft-dismissed information into something marketable?  If I know a person has a passion for fishing and I can provide her with technical skills, I can prepare her for a rewarding future working at Cabela’s or in a conservation role.  I left my encounter at the Urban Institute realizing Open Badges can — no, must – be leveraged to capture passions and interests, as well as achievements.

And, of course, that was the original intent of Open Badges. You’ll learn that first-hand from Connie Yowell, one of the founding architects of the Open Badges standard. Yowell’s LRNG uses Open Badges to help the disenfranchised find better lives. By creating “playlists” that incorporate passions like music and fashion with soft skills and business focused education, LRNG connects a person’s passions with a pathway to a great life.


Badges = Information you don’t even know you need

Open Badges should also capture information about abilities which fall outside traditional assessment, and many of these abilities have real business value. Wayne Skipper, founder of Concentric Sky and an early thought leader in the Open Badge Community, was asked a question at an IMS Global conference I attended. The question was something like this: “So, are you saying you would badge activities without an exam or rigorous assessment?” Wayne answered, “Who’s to say that dexterity isn’t going to turn out to be the most important skill of the 21st century and all of those video game badges are actually the most important signals of all?”  He’s right: In a virtual reality environment, is dexterity more important than a PhD in botany? If we capture that information, we can make better decisions and provide more opportunities for growth.

Speaking of the future, who will raise their hands to tell us which skills will be needed in the next workforce? A new study finds 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. And if the World Economic Forum is correct, the skills for the future look very different from the skills today, and they are changing in front of our eyes:


How many badges are too many? Is there a limit?

How many colleges are too many? How many websites and web pages are too many? Nobody asks those questions because they see value in having high numbers. In fact, people ask the opposite question concerning regarding learning: How can we expand the number of learning options?

As Open Badges have increased in adoption, the number of issuers and badges issued has risen dramatically. While some have expressed concern there are now too many badge issuers and too many badges, Serge Ravet, president of the Open Recognition Alliance, said he believes the opposite is true. Badges, he says, develop trust. Because they are transparent and provide information about the activity, a person viewing a badge can instantly determine the value, unlike resumes which frequently contain falsehoods.  “If badges develop trust, how much trust is too much?” Ravet asks.


How do we expand the value of badges as the number of badges proliferate?

As the number of badges has grown, we hear calls to reduce the number of badges and increase the rigor. But, if you believe badges which capture passions and other non-assessed capabilities can provide value, how can we make sense of them and expand their value with out diluting their impact?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop calling credentials “badges.”  Jim Daniels, senior manager for IBM’s Global Learning and Credential Strategy, is rebranding the IBM program to properly represent its activities. IBM issues digital credentials, which include learning activities, skills activities, certifications and certificates. Badges, he says, are simply the mechanism to represent the activity and make it consumable.

Filter.  Nobody complains there are too many web pages. That’s because we have excellent search engines, like Google and Bing, to make sense of all the noise. The most relevant pages surface first.  With badges, you should be able to identify and isolate the badges that matter to you — without having to sift through badges that may be valuable to someone else.

Differentiate. We must make it easy to identify and distinguish badges for soft skills or self-identified passions from rigorous activities, like certification exams. At IBM, each badge activity type is distinguished by a color scheme. For example, green represents knowledge, while blue represents a certification. It was our way to create differentiation early on, but as the information in badges is now more often consumed by machines, colors won’t matter. In the near future, we must find better ways to differentiate and classify badges.


Badges don’t need rigor, and they don’t need to be arbitrarily limited

Open Badges are simply a digital representation of an existing activity or information. They are not mini-certifications, and their immense value to society cannot be defined by a single, sometimes arbitrary criterion, like rigor.

By limiting Open Badges to a single use case (the representation of an assessed learning activity), we miss the tremendous value they can bring in improving the lives of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. And we miss the opportunity to connect people to great careers and opportunities.


IBM is democratizing IT with its skills programs

By focusing on skills over degrees and geography, IBM wants to shift mindsets in the IT industry and make tech more diverse and inclusive. We want to bring in people with non-traditional backgrounds who build skills through coding camps, community colleges or modern career education programs like our P-TECH model or apprenticeship program. We want to attract people re-entering the workforce or relaunching their careers, and we want to create more jobs for people in parts of the world where tech jobs are scarce. This is about creating tech career opportunities outside the traditional areas. The big picture: IBM has a program for anyone seeking a role in IT.

IBM has a broad strategy to rapidly build skills through multiple channels:

IBM Skills Gateway: Hosts one of the largest IT training programs in the world and a network of Global Training Providers who provide skills development programs at every level.
SkillsBuild: Provides jobseekers, including those with long-term unemployment, refugees, asylum seekers and veterans, with assessments, training, personalized coaching and the experiential learning they need to re-enter the workforce.
Coursera: Certificate Programs, like the IBM Customer Engagement Program, develop skills fast to land a good-paying job.
P-TECH: Extends the typical four-year high school to create a seamless six-year academic experience to earn an industry-recognized, two-year post-secondary degree, as well as a high school diploma.
IBM Skills Academy: Provides IT training through a network of higher education institutions.
IBM Apprenticeships: Allows candidates to develop skills and make real-world contributions – all while earning a paycheck.


David Leaser is the senior executive of strategic growth initiatives for IBM’s Training & Skills program. Leaser developed IBM’s first cloud-based embedded learning solution and is the founder of the IBM Digital Badge program. He is a Fellow at Northeastern University and a member of the IMS Global Consortium Board advisory group for digital credentials. David has provided guidance to the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Education as an employer subject matter expert. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Pepperdine University and a Master’s Degree from USC’s Annenberg School. Connect with David on LinkedIn and on Twitter.  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of IBM.

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