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Millions of American adults lack the basic reading, math, and technology skills needed to succeed in college or advance in the workforce – but that does not mean they lack skills altogether.

“Adults have a great wealth of experience,” says Steve Quann, a former adult education instructor who now designs e-learning projects for adult learners. “I’ve taught everyone from doctors all the way to students who struggle with reading, but can run circles around me in math.”

These experiences, and the skills gained as a result, often don’t come to life on a resume. Micro-credentials, displayed as open digital badges, could allow adult learners to show – rather than tell – employers what they are capable of doing.

“The adult learning space is screaming for a new way of thinking about learning recognition, discovery and communication. It’s screaming for badges,” Erin Knight, coauthor of “The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners,” wrote in a recent blog post.

Knight, executive director of the Badge Alliance, outlined four primary ways digital badges could benefit adult learners.

    • Badges can liberate adult learners from lengthy, required prescribed pathways, and allow for more a la carte choice. This also potentially shifts the power balance a bit so that teaching and learning institutions are competing for the learner, versus the other way around.

 

    • Badges can recognize more incremental learning so that a learner has something to show for the time they could put in, even if they couldn’t finish the course or complete the program at one particular time.

 

    • Badges can offer a map – a way for learners to better understand the skills they have, the skills they need, and where to find learning opportunities.

 

  • And finally, badges can help learners build their complete story and identity (including representing experience they already have) and connect that directly to employers.”

Colleges, universities, and other organizations are already exploring ways to give students academic credit for prior learning. Digital badges could be a compelling way to measure and reward the skills adult learners acquire through work, hobbies, and other personal pursuits.

While the potential for digital badges is tantalizing, several questions remain, including:

  • How would digital badges connect with other credentialing systems?
  • How can badges be incorporated into state and federal accountability systems established for adult education programs?
  • What are the incentives for earning them and incentives for accepting them?

Additional questions were raised during an online discussion hosted by the Literacy Information and Communication System, a virtual community and professional learning space for adult educators sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The group explored how digital badges would differ from previous credentials and what issues could arise in both the public and private sectors, among other things.


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