On education credentials

Last year, at the Drumbeat Festival, I first heard of badges as a form of education credentials.
The initial assumption of most participants was that current education is broken. So is the diploma model. And badges were presented as one alternative.
It made its way to becoming OpenBadges and the recent launch of the Open Badge Infrastructure.

In plenty of occasions i try to engage people to make them think about education, skills, degrees and I discuss about badges. I would like to take an occasion to write about the common questions and comments I receive on these topics.
In this article, I will try to state the problem that badges are trying to address (focused only on hiring while i’m aware, badges are of interest beyond this single aspect), the current existing solution, its downfalls and try to explain how badges are not worse as some may think.

The problem of hiring

When it comes to hiring, the person who hires has an idea (sometimes not accurate enough, but that’s another issue I won’t go into now) of what the company needs in terms of skill. Before hiring an applicant, the recruiter needs to know whether the person fits the expectations.
The best way would certainly be to spend days, weeks, (months?) with each candidate, but this is unrealistic (in some way, that’s what trial period could be considered as). Recruiters aren’t an army, their time is limited, so choices have to be made. Based on what?
Usually, this falls under 2 categories: education and past professional experiences (other experiences for open minded recruiters). Experience mostly speaks for itself or can be explained through an interview. But for people without or with few experience, only education remains.

What does it mean to hire based on education?

If a recruiter has the time for one interview and has to choose between 2 candidates based on their education, the recruiter makes his choice not based on actual skill, but on expected skill for people having this diploma. Even more accurately, the choice is based on the trust the recruiter has on the institution delivering the degree.
But recruiters don’t know all universities, degrees, they don’t know the exact experience and curriculum someone who graduated from such or such school followed, so most of the time, the trust is not on the institution itself, but rather on the reputation of this institution.

Limitations of a diploma

Relying on reputation and trust has the immediate problem that the reputation could be false. Even if the reputation was right, the trust could be betrayed, because the students may graduate without filling all the requirements. For instance, students may cheat at exams. During team work, they may find teamates who’d do all the work and get the same grade in the end. We’ve also heard in the press of cases of people paying to get a degree, etc.

To be clear, I am not saying that all degrees are worthless, but only reminding that making a decision/judgement based on a degree is based on the trust one has on the delivering institution with the usual problem with trust which is that it may or may not be betrayed.

Besides the trust problem, a diploma, like a coin, is a symbol. A symbol of some skill set. One unfortunate aspect is that this symbol is a strong reduction of the set of skills it represents. Indeed, a diploma is a binary entity, either you have it or you don’t. Diploma lacks of information on what they represent exactly, but also lack of granularity.
Regarding this topic, I can’t help quoting Laura Hilliger’s excellent article

I have a BA in Digital Graphics and am earning a MA in Media and Education. What do you know about those degrees? Did you know that I took Statistics and did well? Or that I have taken 6 different Art History classes? Or what about that I won a debate on Human Sexuality in Primitive Cultures?

Problem of the “diploma-only” culture

Worse than the problem inherent to diplomas themselves is the culture around them which is that they are expected to be sufficient to know someone and make a decision based on it. This is problematic, because it forgets that learning happens outside of schools, outside of places where diplomas are delivered. This cultural problem gives the impression that people without degree are ignorant and stupid and that two people with the same degree are alike. Both are completely false.
As I mentioned, this problem is cultural and not inherent to diploma. It may reproduce with badges.

Where badges come in

Badges aren’t a perfect one-fits-all solution. However, they try to address the different aforementioned problems.

Trust

In order to strengthen the trust a badge viewer can have on the badge, Mozilla’s open badges contain a link to how the badge was earned. This doesn’t solve the trust problem. This proof could be faked. If not fake, the person claiming the proof may not be the one who created it, etc. Since, like a diploma a badge is a symbol, there is a trust issue. But trying to provide a proof is a start to enforce the trust.

Badges offer a trust VS cost trade-off. In a blink you can see all badges but not verify that they’ve properly been earned. Or you can check the proof of each badge at the expense of spending time understanding how the badge got earned. In case the badge issuer is considered as trustworthy, trust can be delegated. This delegation is almost compulsory with diplomas, badges offer the choice.

It has to be noted that neither badges nor diploma are inherently more trustworthy. They just address the trust issue differently.

Granularity

Since they are defined by the issuer, badges are of arbitrary granularity. With the downside that work has to be done in order to determine the proper granularity and skills for each domain. In domains where badges would be too numerous, having “meta-badges” could be a good idea.
Once again, choice is offered by badges and come with a cost.

Questionning what is taken for granted

My take on “the current education system is broken” is more moderate than what I can be read in the open education community. But I’m glad an alternative exists. I’m glad my assumptions about education have been questionned. Badges, just by existsing as an alternative form of credentials force the questionning of the current system and everyone’s assumption on diploma and what they really mean.

Final thought on my own diploma

At the end of November, I will receive a diploma. A piece of paper I do not really care about to be honest. I remember the experiences, people I have met, discussions in or outside of class and it was a good experience, all what I’ve learned, technical or not. In a way, it’s unfortunate the piece of paper i’ll receive won’t represent any of that.

Conclusion

Despite the common belief, there is no reason to put more trust in diplomas delivered by universities than badges delivered by anyone else. Moreover, badges offer very pragramtic solutions to the issue of enforcing trust by showing a proof as well as a potentially better granularity. Of course, none of these benefits are free and will come with an additional effort on the badge issuers side and on the people who want to verify the trust they have on the badge. Like in many cases, badges and diploma aren’t better or worse but rather offer the potential of a trade-off and it is to the people who have to make the choice to carefully decide where they put their cursor.

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2 thoughts on “On education credentials

  1. Is this something you see for young students, or more for college students? Is it a possible alternative to University?

    Personally, I’ve never used my diploma to get me a job – and from what I understand, the entire programming industry could care less about your diploma. I know that France has close Alma Mater relations, but it seems that the two (badges and diplomas) serve the same purpose to hirers – evidence of drive.

    I feel that, at least in the tech and startup industry, unless your Diploma was signed by Steve Jobs saying “thanks for the tip about the iPhone idea… I owe you one!” It really is just a piece of paper saying that you are willing and capable of learning. But that is not sufficient material for employers. They are always going to grill you on pre-requisites to the job..

    It doesn’t seem to me that a ‘badge’ that says I know mathematics is any better than a diploma that says I know mathematics – does an employer really want to go back and look at your “midterm” just to make sure you really know Calculus like you say you do? I’d be much more interested in spending my time seeing if you were able to do the things I need you to do in my company, instead of verifying you actually learned the other things you said you did…

    • I’m sorry to have not made it clear. Badges are for everyone. Young, college students, adults, whoever. Learning happens everywhere all the time, but only in Universities there is a “formal proof” that you have aquired come knowledge/skill. “Everywhere, all the time” is the alternative to University. Badges are just an alternative to diplomas.
      Is it a “possible” alternative? It’s all about trust. Either you trust the badge/diploma or you don’t. As you mentionned, company have their own internal way of certifying that an applicant has the right “pre-requisites”

      Regarding people or industries who do not care about diplomas or badges, well, they don’t, end of story. Badges and diplomas are for people who care about it, that’s an initial assumption.

      Badges do not carry more authority than degrees. They are inherently neither better nor worse. It’s just a different approach. However, in a badge, there will often be a link to some “proof” (the equivalent of the midterm). Maybe a recommandation from someone trustworthy, maybe a link to a github commit, maybe a tweet, maybe a photo.

      “does an employer really want to go back and look at your “midterm” just to make sure you really know Calculus like you say you do?”
      => Maybe. If it costs less for an employer to check midterms rather than set up some tests to make sure you have the pre-requisites, it sounds like a good choice.

      Regarding your concerns about who you’d hire, the good news is that YOU could be a badge issuer and ask people to earn the badge showing your needs are taken into account.
      In return, maybe earning this badge could be a proof to another company or another institution that you have some skills. Maybe some companies could gather to define badge they find relevant in common rather than relying on University degrees.
      As it turns out, companies from the same domain often have the same needs and often fall in the same traps (http://devinterviews.pen.io/ ). A common badge for all of these could be a cheap way to prove that some applicant has the required qualifications.

      In the end, it really is about who you trust in term of badge issuer. If you can blindly hire someone with a degree, you trust the degree issuer. If you need to set up some other “exams”, then, you don’t trust the degree, but you trust your exam. All about trust.

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