Digital credentials: A new solution for skills recognition

Training seminar on the Joy of Learning. Copyright: Quality House Consultancy (November 2018)

A key challenge in the African continent is the lack of skills. This critical factor has been affecting the growth of companies in a negative way. 

When companies lack access to skilled labor, their opportunities for growth is severely hindered. According to a recent study carried out by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and titled “The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa”:  

“Employers across the region already identify inadequately skilled workforces as a major constraint to their businesses, including 41% of all firms in Tanzania, 30% in Kenya, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria. This pattern may get worse in the future”.

Even though more and more people obtain at least a secondary level education, it is not sufficient to fill the gap between the need of the skills provided and the skills required. To this end, it is now vital to develop new solutions through which employers and educators are enabled to better understand new and emerging skills requirements. As reiterated by Shem Bodo, Acting Executive Secretary of ADEA during the ICQN-TL & NALA Technical Education Expert Meeting held in Rwanda in late November 2018: 

“African countries need to change the assessment system from national examination to competence-based system that focuses on identifying talent at an early age".

With the rapid technological changes, most countries struggle in keeping their education provision relevant and meeting the evolving needs of the labor market at a fast enough pace. For that, countries are developing solutions merging formal education with informal learning and opening up new ways to include learning happening outside the formal education sphere as part of qualifying studies. The traditional approaches for recognition of prior learning and prior skills have been time and resource demanding.

The launch of Open Badges

In September 2011, the Mozilla Foundation with funding from the MacArthur Foundation launched an open technical standard called “Open Badges” to create and build a common system for the issuance, collection, and display of digital badges on multiple instructional sites. The Open Badges standard describes a method for packaging information about accomplishments (i.e. Skills, engagement, etc.) embedding it into portable image files as a digital badge, and establishing an infrastructure for badge validation. Open Badges are designed to serve a broad range of use cases, including both academic and non-academic cases. Today, for instance education institutions and larger companies from all over the world use the standard. Examples include IBM, Red Cross, City of Chicago, CNTE in Tunisia, University of Caen (France), HAAGA-HELIA Teacher training college (Finland) along with numerous other companies, schools and learning institutions. 

For a long time the debates in learning have focused on discussing learning provision, how to have enough schools, teachers, materials and so forth for all the people in need of training. Today the trend, especially in skills development for youth and adults is shifting more towards recognizing the skills people already own, and building learning provision to fill in the gaps. 

How can formally and informally acquired skills be recognized and assessed?

For this to become reality, new innovative approaches need to be developed and tested. The UN Global Compact for Migration is the latest document stressing the importance of developing innovative ways for recognizing and assessing formally and informally acquired skills. The Compact Objective 18: Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences, calls for a number of actions to be taken to develop innovations in skills recognition.

This is an important paradigm shift. There is a fundamental difference as educators to shift focus from planning curriculums and courses to identifying and recognizing small practical skills people have. The traditional methods for recognition of prior learning are slow and costly, while badges can be the first scalable solution in this area.

Thinking of competences, badges can embrace several skills. With badges, we can split every competence to a number of skills and recognize them individually. That means that every person can find skills they have and be recognized for them, also building gradually their skills portfolio. For educators, we need to break our large goals to simple skills and abilities, which is not always easy. 

Why should we shift to the digital badging approach?

A badge represents a single skill and a competence comprises of many skills put together.  This could be transferred to a badge being a single star on the sky and the different constellations being the larger competences. 

Picture 1: Badges (individual stars) and badge constellations (interconnected shapes)

For the end user, this means that they can browse through numerous skills, find some that they possess and send their applications for that skill to be recognized. At the same time, some of the other badges representing skills related to the one they applied for are easily accessible, with limited effort. From a pedagogical viewpoint, the use of badges is very close to the Lev Vygotsky theory “Zone of Proximal Development” and has similar elements to instructional scaffolding, where the badge constellations and hierarchies in addition to very clearly set badge criteria act as support mechanisms for learners to independently advance in their learning path. Here is a link to a webinar from the topic of badges as a tool for self-directed learning.

What I enjoy about this badging approach is how it makes differentiation easier. The issuer defines the skill a person should have but not how that skill should be acquired. The end users can find the way of picking up the skill that fits their best, such as videos, reading, discussions, practical experiments… There are no limitations. 

At the end, digital credentials turn formal learning into a game of gathering digital proofs of skills and accomplishments that have key value in the real life. All accessible online and portable through an email address. 

From an education-administration viewpoint, there is another benefit to badges: the badge issuing organization retains information of who has earned badges, gathering data on the different skills areas by location, by skills and so forth. Information, that can be used to direct training programs to areas where the lack of skills is significant. Badges for organizations are a way to gather a continuously updating database of skills, updated with each badge application.

The mission of SkillSafari

At SkillSafari we work in defining badges and their criteria with and for our partners across the globe. We have created badges in ICT skills for teachers, basic coding, game development, entrepreneurship and volunteer work. So far, the best feedback has been from the end users, who are recognized and seen as competent and skilled professionals. 

As “seeing is believing”, a badge will be awarded to those readers who read this blog post and left a short comment about their view on open badges . In order to apply for your badge, please read the criteria and fill the application form here below: