Digital badges in college admissions may not be far off but work remains

July 10, 2018
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—The use of digital credentials in college admissions holds the promise of helping universities assemble a more diverse class and better identify students that are prepared for advanced and lifelong learning.

But more work needs to be done to make them useful across higher education, a new report from a National Science Foundation-funded workshop indicates.

Digital credentials, otherwise known as digital badges or micro-credentials, are electronic records to demonstrate skills, abilities and knowledge experienced inside and outside of the classroom. Think Boy/Girl Scout badges—with higher stakes—earned, recorded and shared digitally.

Proponents say badges go beyond grades or test scores in demonstrating a student has achieved learning objectives by including information about performance criteria and learning outcomes.

To understand the potential for using digital badges for admissions and what is needed to get colleges and universities to a place of universal use, U-M School of Information researchers Barry Fishman and Stephanie Teasley and graduate Steven Cederquist conducted a two-day NSF-funded workshop involving leaders from informal STEM organizations that award micro-credentials, college admissions officers and experts in the assessment of learning.

Fishman and Teasley explain takeaways from the workshop that reveal what is needed before digital credentials become a common part of the admissions process:

How can these digital badges be used in admissions?

Fishman: Our hope is that digital badges will be used as a new form of evidence of student qualification and potential. If used thoughtfully, these kinds of credentials could be used to expand access to higher education by representing a much broader range of student capabilities than is possible through measures like standardized test scores or grade point averages.

How close are we to seeing these employed more in the admissions process?

Teasley: We could be very close to seeing digital badges as part of the admissions process, and there are already multiple different experiments taking place with ideas like portfolio based-admissions and competency- or mastery-based transcripts, each of which is related to the core ideas involved in digital badges. The main hurdles to using badges right now are related to existing admission processes and social conventions surrounding how we understand and describe student accomplishments and readiness for college.

With the current state-of-the-art in digital credentials or badges, we believe that they are ready for experimental use in higher education admissions, much as there are now widespread experiments with using badges to enhance traditional transcripts during college and to enhance college-to-work pathways. The “college application industry” is highly responsive to the requirements of selective institutions, such as the rapid rise of private college admissions counselors and expensive test preparation services. If influential universities and colleges said they will start using digital badges, secondary-level organizations (both formal and informal) would respond.

What key factors are standing in the way?

Fishman: Admissions officers are clear about two competing aspects of their jobs: First, the need to admit a class that both represents students with a broad range of different skill sets and interests, and that all students admitted to the institution are prepared to succeed. The second key issue is the need to evaluate a large number of applications as efficiently as possible.

In thinking about how digital badges might support admissions officers in addressing these two areas, our report highlighted a range of key design tensions: the challenge of using badges in a way that increases equity; challenges related to establishing the meaning and validity of different badges or badge systems; creating badge systems that encourage and highlight the authenticity of student work and give agency to learners; designing systems that promote lifelong learning (useful not just for admissions, but as part of college and work); and building a badge infrastructure that is scalable and sustainable. We go into detail about the meaning of each of these challenges in the report.

There is a statement in the report that says using micro-credentials won’t work if the same issues around democratizing education persist. Does this system offer promise to level the playing field for students from under-resourced communities?

Teasley: Throughout history, innovation within the U.S. educational system has tended to benefit the “haves” more than the “have nots.” There are multiple reasons for this, among them the fact that families with more resources are able to respond more rapidly and flexibly to changes in the requirements of the system. Given this tendency within the system, it is essential that work with digital badges as tools for college admissions proceeds with an intentional focus on enhancing equity and access. In the report, we discuss how digital badges could add to the admissions “arms race.” but examples such as Mouse and the Chicago City of Learning show how, by focusing on underserved students (as well as their more resourced peers), we can use digital badges to represent the learning of all students.

Where does the work go from here?

Fishman: Our report addresses the work that needs to be done. We feel that the most important thing now is that influential institutions of higher education—such as the University of Michigan—begin to experiment with the use of digital credentials or badges in their own admissions processes. We won’t get it exactly right at first, but we need to start somewhere to see how digital credentials can be used to reimagine university admissions and support equity in access to higher education.

Fishman is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies at the School of Information and School of Education, Teasley is a research professor at the School of Information and Steven Cederquist works at the Ford School of Public Policy.

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