Micro-Credentials & Digital Badges

Traditional physical badges have been used for many years by various organisations to give members a physical emblem to display the accomplishment of various achievements.  While physical badges have been in use for hundreds of years, the idea of digital badges is a relatively recent development drawn from research into gamification.  A growing body of evidence has found strong consumer interest in recent months in skills-based, online credentials that are clearly tied to careers, particularly among adult learners.  So, what are micro-credentials and how do digital badges work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented upheaval across all industries, with higher education especially impacted. A lot of people will need more education to get back into the workforce, and they’ll need to get it quickly, at the lowest possible cost and in subjects directly relevant to available jobs.


It is clear to all that the pandemic has further underscored the digital divide, while some companies saw their supply chains disrupted and demand for products fall, others reaped the benefits of spikes in consumer demand from e-commerce and home deliveries. After the pandemic an unemployed, yet skilled workforce will emerge. Many will need to retool their skills through additional education to remain employable as businesses reconfigure. There is a growing body of evidence to show that students are turning to skills-based, online credentials that are clearly tied to careers to fulfil this need.  Potential students’ increased focus on career relevance, academic quality and flexible programming is giving micro-credentials a huge burst of momentum.

While physical badges have been in use for hundreds of years, the idea of digital badges is a relatively recent development drawn from research into gamification.  As game elements, badges have been used by organisations to reward users for accomplishing certain tasks. In 2005, Microsoft introduced the Xbox 360 Gamerscore system, which is considered to be the original implementation of an achievement system.  The use of digital badges as credentials remained largely under the radar until 2011, until the release of ‘An Open Badge System Framework,’ a white paper sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation.  This report asserts that badges ‘have been successfully used to set goals, motivate behaviours, represent achievements and communicate success in many contexts’ and proposes that when learning happens across various contexts and experiences, ‘badges can have a significant impact, and can be used to motivate learning, signify community and signal achievement.’

What are digital badges and how do they work? Unlike traditional academic degrees that tend to communicate what subject you studied and where you studied it, most digital badges are more granular in scope. They point to specific knowledge and skills you’ve acquired, and in most cases, demonstrated. For example, instead of going to a reputable business school and leveraging that institution’s MBA to get a job, you would earn a series of badges that would demonstrate your business acumen—such as your mastery of Business Model Canvas, Innovation Design Thinking or Digital Marketing. The educational institute does not need to issue the badges itself, rather most schools choose an independent trusted source allowing the badge to be verified, secure, portable and shareable.

In this article we look at micro-credentials and digital badges in a little more detail.


What is a micro-credential?

A micro-credential indicates demonstrated mastery of a specific competency. It has a more focused scope than a traditional credentialing program, such as a certification. Learners earn micro-credentials in a number of ways, for example, after successful completion of a course or series of modules, skills demonstration, traditional assessment, or submission of a work product.

Micro-credentials can be stacked or combined to demonstrate mastery of a larger knowledge and skill set. Learners can advance from one micro-credential to another along a learning pathway. This pathway could lead to certification, or it might lead to a certificate instead.


What’s the connection between a micro-credential and digital badge?

Education Providers issue digital badges to learners who have earned micro-credentials, typically through a third party. A digital badge is the visual representation of a credential. Recipients can display their digital badges on CVs, social media profiles, email signatures, websites, and digital badge backpacks like OpenBadges, Credly, Accredible and Badgr.

The metadata contained in the digital badge verifies the learner’s mastery. It includes data about the learner, credential, issuing organization, date issued, criteria to earn the credential, and a web address with supporting information. Importantly it is a way to verify the credential and counter the growing problem of fraudulent certificates.  This information helps an employer understand the criteria met to earn the micro-credential as well as the authority of the organization issuing it.


Benefits of micro-credentials for the learner

A micro-credentialing program provides a focused curriculum that meets the needs of learners and their employers (or prospective employers). Learners get the opportunity to acquire and demonstrate mastery of practical—and immediately applicable—skills. They can develop a portfolio of marketable skills by acquiring additional micro-credentials.

Micro-credentials, along with their corresponding digital badges, make it easy for professionals to show exactly what skills and knowledge they bring to a new position or project. If a respected trade or professional association backs the micro-credential, it makes an even stronger impression.


Benefits of micro-credentials for industry

Micro-credentials help employers identify job candidates who have the required skills. The proof is in the digital badge. Employers can also rely on micro-credentialing programs to provide the right type of focused training to new or transitioning employees who need to improve their skills.

Digital badges can also serve to motivate and reward learners across an organization. These visual, shareable, and portable records of accomplishment inspire learners to continue their professional journey and can add significantly to created and developing a learning culture within an organization.

While how we best prepare and adapt for a post-pandemic world is open for discussion. One lesson learned so far from the pandemic is that education cannot be totally dependent on delivery models bound to a specific time and/or location. Advances in technology to include faster broadband, interactive & adaptive learning platforms and use of gamification are combining to closer replicate the traditional immersive classroom experience.  Furthermore, the existing linear, terminal degree structure will not work in this new relational world; it is too restrictive and does not recognise what people really know and can do.  The trend of students turning to skills-based, online credentials that are clearly tied to careers to retool and remain employable as businesses reconfigure is here to stay.  



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