Gimme a B! Gimme an A! Gimme a D! Gimme a G! Gimme an E! Gimme an S! What’s That Spell? Learning!

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released an entire report on credentialing. The Educause Learning Initiative has published several articles on the subject. Similarly, ACRL held a forum in September to discuss its role in a growing national conversation about badges and credentials.

So what are they and how can you begin the conversation at your own institution? Credentials refer to a general body of certifications that are typically awarded outside of traditional degree programs. They include continuing education credits, certificates of achievements, and more recently, digital badges.

More specifically, badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or even individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience. Learners fulfill the issuer-specific criteria to earn the badge by attending classes, passing a quiz or exam, or completing other appropriate activities. The grantor then verifies that the criteria for completion or mastery have been met and awards the badge.

But there are several issues that need to be taken into consideration when thinking about a credentialing program:

1. What is the institutional context for the badges-is there one?

If no one other than the library has interest in awarding badges, that might prove problematic as students might not see the value in having a library badge, nor would it have much transferability. If on the other hand several units on campus work together to create a broader credentialing program, that might prove to incentivize the institution to lend support behind the program and offer some type of endorsement which increases the credentials’ validity.

You would then be able to collaborate with the other areas on campus to create a systematic and holistic program that would clearly delineate what competencies and skills are included, how they will be assessed and validated, how the badges will be awarded and how they would be displayed.

2. How are these credentials recognized beyond the institution?

This is a difficult question because as the literature listed above mentions, there is no widely accepted standard for how badges are administered, valued, and synthesized into the academic record of a student. That problem becomes compounded when these certifications make their way to employers who are trying to discern their validity and accuracy. Is a badge from one institution for the same skill set just as good as from another? The answer will depend on the outcomes and methods used in determining whether or not someone has achieved mastery of the skills in question.

3. Does badging really engage students in the learning process?

This too, varies by student. Some thrive on the intrinsic motivation badges provide as a way to gain increasing knowledge and skills and try to increase their chances of achieving either added academic or professional success, others simply want to earn the badge if it involves receiving a prize, or added points in a course. It will be important for any institution thinking of offering these credentials to balance these two elements and make sure that both are well represented within the program.

In the end, credentialing and badges are still new territory in higher education. Some institutions have fully embraced this model and have created both the infrastructure as well as the conceptual framework for supporting this type of learning. Others are still grappling with some of the issues discussed above. No matter at what stage of credentialing your institution finds itself, starting the conversation is the first step in taking the plunge into credentialing and digital badges.