With different standards in digital credentialing now evolving, Paul D Jagger FBCS asks how we can assess badges’ relative value and merit.

Digital credentialing, particularly open digital badges, have recently become a hot topic among employers, vocational awarding organisations and further / higher education providers keen to provide or verify evidence of educational attainment. But are digital credentials really a promising new model for a common currency in skills across education, training and employment?

The City & Guilds of London Institute has awarded more than 20 million vocational qualifications since 2000 and has recently begun exploring the potential of digital credentials to provide independent, verifiable evidence of attainment (City & Guilds, 2017). Another awarding body that has already embraced digital based is Pearson Education. Pearson supports over 75 million learners in schools, colleagues and in employment but only a handful of its qualifications have yet been transitioned to digital credentialing (Pearson, 2019).

Leading employers have also embraced digital credentials, for example IBM has deployed an extensive digital badging program of ‘badge families’ linked to acquisition of knowledge and skills in subjects such as Analytics, Cloud computing, Mobile Computing, Enterprise Design Thinking and more. This program has driven up learner engagement and provides concrete evidence of the success of digital badging as means to transform skills.

Other employers including Cisco, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, SAP, and the US Department of Defence and educators such as edX (founded by Harvard and MIT) along with the awarding bodies Pearson and City & Guilds, have all adopted the Mozilla Open Badges standard as the basis for their respective digital credentialing programs.

Employing open standards sounds like a useful thing, but it’s only half the story where digital credentialing is concerned. The Open Badges standard defines how to associate evidence of achievement with the currency of a badge, how to encode that into a digital badge image and further defines the infrastructure to validate that a badge has been awarded.

Considering currency

If we think of digital badges as a form of currency, then the Open Badges standard defines how to ascribe value to a currency and bring the currency to market. It does not define the denominations, how to earn the currency, nor how to ensure that different currency issuers assign the same value to the currency at comparable levels that can be exchanged.

For example, if organisation A issues a badge for verified learning in the domain of cloud computing at the first level in a tiered series of badges, is that worth the same as organisation B issuing a badge for verified learning at the first level in its Cloud Computing badging programme? What if organisation B sets a far higher standard for attainment of its badges than organisation A? Now we have two currency-issuing bodies, one issuing coinage in base metal, the other in precious metal, both issuing coins with the same face denomination in the same market.

In the world of currency, Gresham’s law says that bad money will drive out good. Where two or more forms of commodity qualification circulate in the same market, the lower value qualification will eventually push the higher qualifications out. So, how can a means of comparison between these qualifications be established? While the Open Badges standard ensures portability of the meta-data, it does not define a hierarchical taxonomy of knowledge, skills, behaviour and experience (i.e. a competence model) for any subject domain; neither does it specify the requirements for attainment of a badge, nor the methods of verifying attainment. In truth, this is not the role of digital badges, but they should be mapped to a competence model that enables digital badges to be used as a common currency across organisations.

Linking to competency

Without linking digital badges to a competency model (e.g. SFIAplus, IISP, NIST NICE, ECF or others) it is very difficult to determine if a badge awarded by organisation A has any comparable value to that issued by organisation B. If a company wishes to employ someone with cloud computing qualifications, how can they compare between candidates who have cloud computing badges awarded by different organisations when there is no means of exchange?

Does this really matter? If there is only one awarding organisation issuing digital badges, clearly not, as those badges are implicitly linked to that organisation’s own standard. However, the defining feature of digital badges is that of the Open Badges standard, which means any organisation can design, create and issue its own badges for any subject domain, set any awarding criteria it choses and then validate attainment by any means it wishes. In the currency analogy, this is akin to multiple banks issuing different currencies, perhaps with different denominational values, each trading freely in the same market.

Returning to digital badging - the absence of a common competence framework means that the comparative evaluation of digital badges must be done by the employer; the only way to make an objective comparison is to look at the awarding criteria for badges that validate evidence of what appear to be a comparative set of knowledge, skills, behaviours and experiences. It is not such a worry if there are only a handful of badges and a small number of badging providers, but again, the defining feature of digital badges is their open nature. There are already many organisations that award digital badges, and all of those badges are capable of being displayed on an Open Badging platform for any potential employer to view.

Providing evidence quickly

What has been achieved with the Open Badges standard is the digitisation of credentials in an externally visible form, which enables employers to rapidly confirm that a digital badge has been awarded through verified assessment. This is an entirely positive thing since it cuts out the need for evidence of attainment to be gathered by other means.

It cuts out the need for evidence of attainment to be gathered by other means - but does an employer check the attainment of an educational qualification or vendor certification if a potential or current employee puts it in their CV, submits it as evidence for a performance review or promotion case? For those employers that do, the verification is likely to be nothing more than asking the potential or current employee to present their certificate.

Digital badges certainly make it quicker and easier to verify attainment. That said, the only way to conduct an objective comparison among qualifications from different awarding organisations, is to compare the attainment criteria and level across each awarding organisation that issues badges for the same subject. Since none of the digital badges are tied to a competence model, this becomes an unwieldy task for anything beyond a handful of badges and awarding organisations. As the number of awarding organisations and badges increases, the exercise rapidly becomes unmanageable.

In the realm of physical credentials, this problem also exists, but here the brand of the awarding body acts as a proxy for comparison of qualifications. That’s because awarding organisations in the formal education arena use comparable models. These can have a structured progression (e.g., GCSE, AS Level, A Level, Degrees) and many vocational qualifications are linked to one or more of the industry skills taxonomies. For example, a degree in Information Technology awarded by a UK University and accredited by BCS can be compared with an A Level or BTEC in the same subject domain.

No doubt some of the larger employers that have established job role skillset taxonomies will be able to map badges to specific skills that are important to the organisation, and others may try and map badges to publicly available skills models such as SFIA, but these mappings will usually exist only within an organisation rather than across a marketplace, at least for the time being.

Answering demand

It’s inevitable that hot skills which are in demand in the marketplace will cause a proliferation of different badges from awarding bodies, especially those who are in the business of selling courses and credentials. No better example of this exists in the IT industry than the field of Information Security, where demand for qualifications is driven by the scarcity of resource in the talent market.

Digital badges have all the potential to grow into a truly exchangeable common currency for skills across educators, training organisations and employers; however, they need to be tied to an open skills taxonomy for the industry in which they operate, otherwise their value will be tied to the brand of the awarding organisation rather than the verification of attainment they evidence. There’s nothing wrong with that, but badges are designed to be exchangeable.

Digital Badges definitely have immense value, and many employers have proven the value within their enterprise. Some are moving to externalising their badging programs which is a positive step. As the market evolves it’s likely that Digital Badges will become a truly exchangeable form of skills currency.

Copyright Paul D Jagger 2019