The Palazzo Gnudi within the university town of Bologna, Italy, was the picturesque setting for the e-portfolio and identity conference. This meeting brought together academics, educationalists, higher education institutions and companies to discuss digital badges currently and beyond. Home to the world’s oldest university, Bologna was the ideal venue to discuss this recent approach to recognising education and skill development in a classic case of old meets new.
My own presentation on behalf of the University of Derby was based on our badges validation process and I showcased how badges have been implemented at the university. In particular, the university’s distribution of badges in our series of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) was discussed with regards to recognising ranging degrees of learning and engagement. However, it was our validation process for badge implementation that attracted significant attention and interest from other higher education institutions, particularly from within Europe, as did the differing and interesting designs of our badges. It became apparent that compared to other higher education institutions and industry, the University of Derby was working in the right direction for badge design and implementation.
Many in attendance presented their own badge designs and how these had been used in practice. However, a particular focus, and arguably issue, was based on what can be done to increase their worth and recognition beyond the institution in which they are awarded. Most were in agreement that learners accessing education believe that badges will showcase their achievements and enhance their training and qualifications repertoire. Yet, the current reality is that badges are unrecognised by employers. Moreover, many raised the point that whilst institutions are looking to issue badges, they themselves will not accept/recognise badges as credible receipt of educational qualification from other institutions. Indeed, the learners who achieve a badge from an institution may be hard pressed to get that same institution to value the badge if they applied for a vacancy there. Essentially, it is left up to the learner to sell the credibility of their badge to employers and this is perhaps the biggest challenge facing their wider application.
There was agreement that progression was needed in order to change the current situation, but what exactly can be done? A discussion emerged that was based on education providers using badges to bridge the gap between learners and potential relevant employers, thus giving worth to badges whilst simultaneously creating career pathways. ‘Endorsement’ soon became the buzzword in the room that I now associate with the conference and it encouraged me to think a little deeper about how this could be achieved.
As an example of possible practice, learners may need to compete for a limited number of recognised industry badges by producing projects that reflect some elements of priority areas that have been agreed to by a cluster of key employers. This would add value to the achievement of badges and also create career pathways that are of benefit to students and employers. If employers had a platform to enable learners to work towards areas that are of priority to them, they would effectively be promoting the necessary skillset and knowledge in potential new recruits. This would be a key benefit of their involvement with badges and can be likened to a PhD student starting a research project and being regarded as an expert in that area on completion.
As with so many theories and ideas that sound entirely feasible and limitless on paper, the reality of this process may take somewhat longer than one might anticipate. It seems inevitable that external companies will need to be convinced of the viable nature of badges and that requires extensive piloting and implementation. Moreover, there also needs to be a relatively large shift in how educational institutions award educational development and other, perhaps unrecognised skills.
Nonetheless, supporting badges will encourage a move towards hybrid curriculum vitaes of which the inclusion of badges will enable employers to link back to the evidence of achievement, criteria and authenticity. In this way, employers can have more confidence in the abilities of candidates and be more certain that they meet their essential and desirable requirements.
Following on from conversations with colleagues and others in attendance at the e-portfolio and identity conference, it seems safe to assume that there is a future for badges, and potentially, a star studded and celebrated one at that. Yet, as we still negotiate their foundations, there will need to be a degree of forcing the issue through trialling and trialling again. Finally, this leads to the consideration of something that only time will answer:
“Change is not always growth, just as movement is not always progress” – William Pollard
Dr Dominic Petronzi
Innovation Hub Researcher & Associate Academic
University of Derby