Colleges Offer Resume-Boosting Digital Badges

 Courtney Rubin

Besides their transcript, graduates of Western Michigan University's Haworth College of Business can show potential employers that they've earned a digital badge for Event Leadership or Mobile – as in mobile programming.

At Santa Barbara City College, students can take free courses through the School of Extended Learning – usually eight to 16 hours – to earn badges in Blogging for Business or Workplace Essentials, such as business writing and time management. The badges can be shared on social media, LinkedIn profiles and personal websites.

In the race to boost graduates' employability, a growing number of colleges are offering the digital version of that old Boy Scout or Girl Scout felt patch to document the sort of 21st-century skills rarely shown on an undergraduate transcript. One in 5 schools has issued digital badges, according to a 2016 survey by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

The value of badges is still being debated. Because there are no universal standards, "anyone can give recognition for anything based on any criteria," says Peter Janzow, the senior director of Pearson's Acclaim, one of several platforms in the growing alternative credentialing business. "That creates more work, not less work, for an employer. It's 'Is that the same as this?'"

Still, digital badges are gaining traction in one sector you might expect: technology, where they're often being processed as job qualifications. They're also spreading to health care and finance, where a college degree may not map directly into a new hire's role.

You wouldn't get hired to be a sociology major, for example. Instead, you might be expected to think creatively.

Badges for these sorts of skills are being tested: At Georgetown University, students in a pilot project could earn a "catalyst" badge for demonstrating a willingness to embrace challenges and take action. George Mason University developed a resilience badge that could be earned in a combination of online and in-person sessions that highlighted problem-solving and adaptability.

One way to avoid the issue of what the badges mean – and heighten your appeal to potential employers – is to earn badges validated by a third party, such as Microsoft or IBM. IBM's Digital Badge program includes free classes for anyone who would like to take them, some of which can be done in an afternoon, and issues digital credentials for more than 1,000 activities. IBM's Cognitive Class, for example, focuses on data science and cognitive computing and offers some 25 different badges.

"College students come out with a good foundation, but do they have the most relevant skills?" says David Leaser, senior program executive, innovation and growth initiatives at IBM, who points out that technology now changes at least every 60 days. "Badges are how you show the world you have the latest skills."

Some schools are now aiming to map undergraduate courses directly to third-party badges. Northeastern University, for example, is currently working to match up courses like Forensics in Informational Technology and Software Vulnerabilities to badges of corporate partners.

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