You can learn anything you want on the Internet, so the adage goes. But even if that’s true, even if it’s now easier than ever to learn about almost any subject online, there are still very few opportunities to gain formal recognition — “credit,” if you will — for informal
learning done online.

In September, the Mozilla Foundation launched its Open Badges Project, an effort to develop a technology framework that would make it easier to build, display and share digital learning badges. These badges are meant to showcase and recognize all kinds of skills and competencies — subject matter expertise as college degrees are meant to indicate, for example, as well as “soft skills” that aren’t so easily apparent based on traditional forms of credentialing. (We examined some of the technology infrastructure of the Open Badges Project in a story earlier this year.)

When the Mozilla Foundation announced the Open Badges Project, it was in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC, as “Badges for Lifelong Learning” is the theme of this year’s Digital Media and Learning Competition, an annual contest that supports research of how digital technologies are changing the way we learn and work. Onstage at the formal unveiling of the Open Badges Project were representatives from not just Mozilla
and the MacArthur Foundation, but from the Departments of Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs, NASA, as well as other businesses.

When the Open Badges Project was first announced, some educators questioned whether “badges” were a form of gamification of education, just another way, they said, to force learners to think more about certification and credentialing than about the learning process itself. But participation in the Open Badge Project from businesses and agencies like the Department of Labor has given it credibility. And whether we like it or not, many learners are extrinsically motivated to pursue certain educational endeavors — they need skills and often certification in order to demonstrate their mastery to employers.

But what will it mean for employers?

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But even with the Department of Labor’s involvement in the Open Badges Project and in the DML Competition, will employers recognize badges?

As informal learning opportunities grow, gaining employers’ recognition and acceptance may well be one of the most important challenges of the coming years.

Having a formal degree — whether it’s a high school or a college diploma — still carries the most weight with employers, and in some ways, badges may simply serve to complement these. But even with the emphasis on degrees, having some way to highlight other skills, competencies, and experiences is important in setting one potential hire
apart from another. Indeed, many job descriptions do frame the necessity of a college degree this way — “or equivalent experience” — so the task ahead for the Mozilla Open Badges project will be, in part, to be seen as a valid “equivalent.”

A number of the badges that were submitted to the DML Competition, for example, serve to highlight the accomplishments of teens. As youth unemployment remains high — 16.8% in the U.S. and upwards of 50% in Spain — alternate forms of credentialing might be able to help those without any higher education and often without substantial work experience find ways to showcase the skills they do possess.

Similarly, a badge proposal from the Department of Veterans Affairs — Badges for Vets — may help veterans translate their military experience into civilian job skills.

On the cusp

While badges might help employers better identify and recruit qualified employees, there are still some questions about whether this would actually function any differently than current hiring practices. But a shift may already be underway, evident in other new forms of credentialing that the Internet is providing. The recent announcement from MIT about its plans to offer a certificate for its new online learning initiative is just one indication that informal learning is on the cusp of more formal recognition.

This is already happening, to a certain extent, in the tech industry where the right programming skills aren’t necessarily correlated to college degrees. (It’s quite possible, for example, to have your bachelor’s in Computer Science and not know a particular programming language.) Stack Overflow, for example, launched a job recruitment site
this year, allowing job hunters to highlight not just their resume but to showcase their best answers from the larger Q&A website. And TopCoder, another tech company, offers programming competitions whereby participants have long had the ability to share their scores with potential employers, something that CTO Mike Lyons said is helpful during job searches: “Rather than saying ‘look me up,’ people have this transportable widget at their website.”

Showcasing these sorts of accomplishments on one’s own website is becoming increasingly important as job applicants find ways to leverage their online presence — their blogs, digital portfolios, LinkedIn recommendations and the like — knowing that employers are prone to Google them. As such, it seems clear that the resume of the future will likely contain lots of digital links, whether they’re Open Badges or otherwise. What’s less clear is how much of this digital profile will matter to employers, or if they’ll still look for that formal piece of paper, a college degree.

Open education advocate and university professor David Wiley is optimistic. “Say I’m Google,” he wrote on his blog, “and I need to hire an engineer. My job ad requirement says ‘BS in Computer Science or equivalent.’ I get two applicants. The first has a BS in Computer Science from XYZ State College. The second has certificates of successful completion for open courses in data structures and algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning from Stanford and MITx. Do you think I’ll seriously consider candidate two? You bet I will.”

But Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is less certain that the Open Badges Project, in its current manifestation at least whereby anyone can create a badge and offer a credential, will actually mean anything to employers:

If a “badge” is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I’m not likely to take it seriously, and most others won’t either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill “degrees,” the whole endeavor will — obviously, I think — not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of “badges,” but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Of course, we have a long way to go before badges are ubiquitous the same way that college degrees are. As it currently stands, the Open Badges Project is too young to elicit much attention from human resources departments. (The HR officials I talked to hadn’t heard of the project.) But as alternative credentialing efforts — whether from Stack Overflow or from MIT — take off, it’s likely to be an issue that more employers (and employees and higher education institutions) are going to have to face.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O’Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

i-e8972c04bb50d1e1ff98a13097161b6f-mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED’s MindShift,
which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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