Badges? We don’t need no … Or do we?

As employee and executive education evolves, so too does the way we acknowledge student achievement and proficiency. Tear up those paper certificates and say hello to digital badges, a new form of micro-credential that’s making waves.

College diplomas may make the cut and adorn your office walls, but what about that certificate recognizing your completion of an eight-week management course or the one noting your participation in a refresher course on the latest industry software?

Those probably ended up in the same place as that participation ribbon you got from the fourth grade spelling bee — in a dusty box or, more likely, the trash.

While continuing education and professional development are important, even vital, components of career growth, that piece of paper you “earned” rarely tells the whole story. As little value as it may hold for you, it probably means even less to an employer.

A growing trend aims to change that in the form of digital badges. Locally, Madison College is at the forefront of this trend.

“Discussions on the concept of badging began appearing in higher education publications in late 2011, which is how I became aware of them,” notes Kate Radionoff, dean at the School of Professional and Continuing Education, Madison College. “I immediately saw how they could be used to document noncredit vocational training. Previously, the incumbent adult workers who typically take these classes would receive a grade of Satisfactory on their college transcript, which most noncredit students would not access. Badges could specifically document what granular skill sets the noncredit student mastered. Badges could then be electronically shared with employers, as well as posted on social media sites such as LinkedIn.”

Madison College began issuing digital badges on a test basis with the noncredit Dietary Manager Certificate program, says Radionoff. “The first challenge was finding a software vendor for badges. It took a few months but we located a startup vendor based in New York and issued our first badges in 2012. We believe that Madison College was the first technical college in the country to issue digital badges.”

According to Radionoff, the college’s biggest takeaway from the implementation process was to view the badges and skills that badges contain as if employers were viewing them. “What would an employer care and want to know about? After a year we also realized that we needed badge technology that could scale up and was secure and reliable. Pearson Vue noticed my work in this fledgling field and approached me about becoming a beta site for their in-development badging system.”

As of Aug. 1, 2017, Madison College has awarded digital badges in 115 noncredit courses, including courses it’s helped develop for Cleary Building Corp., to a total of 3,154 students, says Lesley Voigt, faculty curriculum and digital badge director for Madison College.

So far just one credit program at the college has implemented badging, but it’s proven successful there, as well. The college’s Medical Assistant program has awarded 252 badges as of Aug. 1.

Other local employers that Madison College has provided training and learner badges include KGW Management, North Central Group, Clarion Suites, Food Fight Restaurant Group, Hilton-Madison, Best Western, The Edgewater, EVCO, Hampton Inn, Hotel Red, AgSource, Verona Hotel Group, and the Madison Concourse.

Badge of honor

One of the primary appeals of badging, Radionoff explains, is that the digital platform each student receives with their badges can provide so much more relevant information about the concepts and skills the students acquired and mastered than a piece of paper that may only indicate a student participated in a course.

To earn a digital badge for noncredit courses, a student must have successfully passed all “badge tasks,” Voigt explains further. “Depending on the course [this could] include a wide variety of assessments, but [at a minimum] it must include an assessment [that all coursework was] passed at an 80% or above. In addition, the student must earn an 80% or above total final grade for the course. With this methodology, a student could technically still earn a satisfactory in their course, but not earn the digital badge. We did this deliberately as we will not issue a badge to students with low proficiencies.

“To earn a digital badge for credit programming, the student must not only pass all assessments, but pass them at the “Exceptional” level of 93% or above,” Voigt adds.

Madison College uses the Acclaim badging platform from Pearson, which launched in 2014 to apply a new web standard for verifiable digital learning credentials to the full range of employment-focused skills, competencies, and certifications.

“Acclaim is focused on working with reputable organizations to confer recognition for resume-worthy achievements,” says Peter Janzow, senior director business development for Acclaim. “What this means in practice is that the groups who issue badges must be accredited and must invest in the quality of their learning and certification programs so employers can trust those outcomes.

“We rely on our issuing organizations to apply the kind of rigor to their badges that make earning one something that really helps an individual move forward in his or her career,” Janzow continues. “But the key to ensuring acceptance in the job market is really active collaboration between issuers and employers. For example, Madison College has engaged its local employer advisors and industry partners to shape and validate its badges. The expectation is that those same employers will then give preference to learners who present their credentials in the form of Madison College badges that they helped to create.”

In a nutshell, students aren’t getting lauded simply for showing up. With the way Madison College has set up its digital badging program, an employer sending its employees to the college for continuing education will know which employees truly mastered their coursework compared to those who simply passed. It opens up a whole new world for employers to track employee growth and performance.

That was important for Verona-based Cleary Building Corp.

Cleary started working with Madison College on its employee education programs in 2015. It started with conversations about the Corporate-to-College program, which lead to further discussions about digital badges, explains Mike Wuennemann, director of marketing for Cleary Building Corp.

Cleary invests more than $250,000 annually in training to enable employees to obtain specific knowledge or skills required to excel in their jobs. The company chose to test the badges on training courses for its new sales employees.

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Cleary currently utilizes the badges to track the accomplishments of its sales and manager training programs. It offers three different digital badges:

  • Cleary’s Maximum Value Pricing (MVP) course provides new building sales specialists with a unique combination of classroom instruction and real-world examples.
  • Cleary’s 7 Week Sales Training Program teaches new building sales specialists how to deliver the best solution for each customer’s unique set of needs while providing the best service throughout the entire process.
  • Cleary Building Corp. Branch Managers attend a rigorous week-long training school to earn their Masters of Branch Administration (MBA) degree. For a new manager, or someone who has been with Cleary for years, “MBA School” provides management personnel with the necessary tools to thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.

“The benefits to Cleary include preparing employees with competencies they need to advance within the company,” Wuennemann says. “Badges also illustrate proficiencies in certain skills that are important to customers.”

“As a company, Cleary encourages participation in continuing education for all employees,” Sean Cleary, company president, says. “The use of Madison College’s digital badges provides us with a proven and verified method of showcasing our educational efforts and achievements.”

In the past, employees would just hang a certificate on their wall but now a digital badge can be included on social media and in an email digital signature, notes Wuennemann.

“I posted the badge on my LinkedIn account,” says Blake N., a Cleary employee in Fremont, Neb. “I think the badge could be a great resource when I am looking for a promotion with Cleary. It demonstrates what I know and that I took the time to learn.”

To date Cleary has 170 employees who have earned digital badges.

Show me your badge

Badges are completely virtual, notes Voigt, meaning they live entirely online and thrive within the social media world. “Our students can easily and securely post their digital badges to just about any social media outlet – LinkedIn, Facebook, email, Twitter, WhatsApp, or utilize the embed code to post anywhere else they wish.”              

Students decide whether they want to accept the badge or not. Once a student makes the decision to post his/her accomplishment online via the digital badge, anyone who clicks on the badge image will be able to see:

  • Who issued the badge;
  • What the badge is for;
  • What the student had to do to earn the badge; and
  • Any outside standards that the badge aligns to. That badge will also link back to both the issuer (Madison College) and the student’s digital badge account.

“Digital Badges are a form of micro-credentials,” Voigt explains. “By issuing digital badges, we have allowed our students to market themselves by showing off the specific skills they are attaining while attending class at Madison College. Without digital badges, a student could only tell and employer that he/she took the Adobe Photoshop Intro course and satisfactorily passed it. With a digital badge, the employer can see and verify that the student not only passed this course, but learned about and was assessed on color modes and color correction, creating, organizing, and copying layers, and more.”

Additionally, a student could earn a certificate in web design, but may be really interested in the analytic side of web sites, Voigt says. 

“While there is no specific emphasis on web analytics at this point, by earning a series of badges by taking courses related to web analytics, the student can create his/her own emphasis to portray to potential employers. Whether it’s showing their leadership skills, specific skill interests, or simply the fact that they are willing to update skills and keep learning, digital badges help build our students’ stories.”

Digital badges can also help employers more correctly align job applicants with specific job skills, says Voigt. “We’re hoping this better alignment will assist with employee retention and turnover. Additionally, by knowing specific skillsets up front, the employer may save time reviewing applicants.

“Our health care employers really like our soft-skill badges,” continues Voigt. “They foresee utilizing these badges to help determine those students who might be ready or at least assigned a position that could lead to a leadership track or position. 

“Employers can utilize badges to help track employee training because badges are housed in an already existing database system. The badges stick to the employee’s account, and the employer has the opportunity to run reports to analyze the badges, see who has earned what badge when, and how individuals are utilizing the badges — where they’re being shared and how many online views the badge is receiving.

“Additionally, employers can be assured that if they send their employees to a course that contains a digital badge, the employee had to pay attention and be assessed on skills in order to earn that badge.”

Any academic program or employer can utilize digital badges if their courses are aligned with learning outcomes and assessments, or if the program is willing to put in the work to align their courses with learning outcomes and assessments, notes Radionoff.

“All employers — small, medium, or large — would benefit from badging their employee training,” Radionoff adds. “The main difference is that large companies would want to run their own badging system as part of their HR or training departments. Small- to medium-sized companies would most likely want to outsource their badging program to a third party.”

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