Back in 2012, The New York Times published a long article heralding digital badges as a likely supplement to—or even replacement for—traditional credentials like grades. Badges document skills and competencies, particularly those learned beyond classroom walls, and are gathered in an online portfolio. In the story, a software engineer described how he received many job offers from employers who saw his badge collection.

Four years later, digital badges haven’t quite wedged their way into the workforce the way advocates expected, but they have momentum. A recent U.S. News article lays out the prevailing attitude among employers: one part excitement, one part unfamiliarity. It cites a new survey of human resource managers in which 62 percent said they were interested in badges but needed to learn more.

The article takes a worthwhile look at whether employers are embracing badges as alternatives to traditional resumes. What’s missing is a discussion of their potential for learning innovation.

“Education is accessible anywhere you are, any time of the day or night.”
Digital badges were created to reflect and recognize nonconventional—often out-of-the-classroom—learning. A teenager graduating high school has likely amassed a slew of skills not evident in an SAT score or transcript. Maybe it’s documentary skills from messing around with a parent’s camera on weekends. Or game design chops from taking a free class at the local public library. It might even be an ability to engage the community, cultivated by bringing neighborhood kids together for a regular open mic night.

It does a disservice to both the student and the employer or college admissions officer to leave those skills out of the picture.

“Education is accessible anywhere you are, any time of the day or night,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking at the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers last year. “And we have got to create a system around that.”

Such a system, ideally, promotes both the skills young people have and the skills employers need. At the same forum, hosted by The Sprout Fund, Chris Arnold from the game design company Schell Games voiced many employers’ frustrations with the current credentialing system.

“Employers suffer from not being able to really accurately assess people’s skills and, worse, not being able to assess people’s passion,” he said.

Recent efforts like Cities of Learning (and it’s next evolution LRNG) in Pittsburgh and a handful of other cities brings badges to the people in a big way. Organizations use these platforms to design and issue specific badges to young people who gain knowledge and devleop skills through summer programs, classes, online activities, and internships. There are options for those who are passionate about politics, those who want to build robots, and those who want to hone their artistic practice.

The movement to adopt badging has stirred controversy. Some wonder whether badging does harm by turning every act of learning into something to be measured and assessed. They ask if we should be quantifying curiosity.

“Skeptics argue that introducing digital badges into informal education settings—where most agree they would have the greatest impact initially—could bring too much structure and hierarchy to the very places students go to seek refuge from formal achievement tracking,” writes Katie Ash at EdWeek.

But proponents say kids are either gaining these skills anyway or are motivated to do so by the badges, and deserve to be recognized for them. Badges can be particularly helpful for kids who don’t thrive in a traditional school setting, or whose families cannot afford enrichment programs.

Even with everyone on board, there are a lot of moving parts that present challenges to badging becoming the norm. Badges have to be standardized enough that they are meaningful, yet they have to be varied enough to correspond to different industries’ needs. Everyone from young people to parents, teachers, community mentors, administrators, and employers need to be part of the process.

That understanding was the genesis for the Sprout employer badging forum.

“Badging today is an exciting experiment,” said Cathy Lewis Long, The Sprout Fund’s executive director. But until it is embraced by higher education and industry—not to mention young people—it will remain just that. The answer, she said, lies in an “ecosystem” approach that brings everyone to the table.