by Adam Reger

On Tuesday, July 21, the Sprout Fund hosted the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers. The meeting brought together representatives from more than 50 employers, government agencies, and workforce development organizations from across the region to discuss the opportunities and challenges surrounding digital badges, an emerging educational technology tool.

Digital badges represent the skills and competencies achieved by learners. “Badging” is at the heart of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a Sprout Fund–led program including thousands of young people in more than 50 summer learning programs. Pittsburgh is one of just four cities nationally to participate in City of Learning during the summer of 2015, its second summer of participation.

At the core of badging’s appeal for educators and employers is the way it allows learners to demonstrate—and employers to evaluate—achievements and skill sets in ways that conventional academic metrics like grades and standardized test scores often can’t measure, or at least not meaningfully.

One forum participant underscored this point by describing a student who may not earn an A in a math class, but whose consistent hard work and mastery of core concepts earn her a badge that represents both a set of mathematical competencies and a consistent work ethic. To an employer, such a badge might be more informative and useful than a letter grade on the student’s transcript.

Photo: Ben Filio

Forum participants broke into small groups and worked to identify some of the challenges standing in the way of incorporating digital badges into the hiring process.

Many Forum attendees pointed to a lack of standardization surrounding badges. Jeff Ritter of LaRoche College questioned how a hiring manager would compare an applicant who earned a badge in C++ programming from a community college with a candidate with the same badge, but issued by Carnegie Mellon University.

Other groups zeroed in on the challenge of encouraging “buy-in” from employers.

“What happens if you build out 100 badge programs without knowing if employers really want it?” asked Eric Harvey of Imagine Careers. Ensuring that the badges being issued are relevant to employer needs is crucial to badging’s success.

Other groups discussed the problem of institutional resistance in fostering buy-in: for some hiring managers, badging may be seen as “just one more program to learn.”

After identifying challenges, the groups worked to articulate actions that could be taken, with the ultimate goal of incorporating digital badging into employers’ hiring practices. Armed with markers and poster board, the groups wrote out—and occasionally drew—their own visions of how to include badging in the workforce pipeline.

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

They then reported their visions to the entire Forum, presenting a number of innovative approaches to making digital badging a meaningful part of employers’ hiring processes.

With titles like “National Badgestry,” “Take the Badge to Work,” and “Badge.com” (inspired by the dating website match.com), ideas ranged from starting with employer needs and working backward, to testing badging within a single employment sector and creating demand for badges by partnering with key industries and leading brands.

The Forum concluded with remarks by Sprout Fund executive director Cathy Lewis Long, followed by a surprise guest: City of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Peduto described sharing a ride into the city earlier that day with President Obama, and the President’s remarks on Pittsburgh’s national reputation as a city of innovation.

“I hope you guys understand that what’s being started here is getting national attention,” Peduto told Forum participants. “When the President comes back, he’s going to be talking about this.”