Earning badges isn’t just for scouts anymore. Now they are a way to build up college credit or to prove one has mastered a concept or skill, giving a person a career boost.
This fall, Wichita State University will offer some 50 short, self-paced online courses as part of its new badge program. Badges and microcredentials in general are a growing trend in higher education, providing students with opportunities for professional development in shorter, focused coursework.
A second component of WSU’s microcredentials program is certificates, which are earned by completing 12 or more hours in a core area. Mark Porcaro, executive director of online learning at WSU, reports that while WSU has offered certificate programs in various disciplines for a number of years, this fall, the university will have its widest range of offerings to date: 37 certificates, including the latest one in data analysis.
At least four of those certificates – in leadership, public finance, educational technology and public health – can be completed entirely online. While a college degree is considered a traditional credential, badges and certificates fall into the category of alternative credentials. They serve as a way to instantly show current or potential employers that one has obtained competency in a certain topic.
“Often, people have degrees, but they need a specific set of skills to move up, or they need more education in a certain area for job movement,” says Kimberly Moore, director of WSU’s workforce, professional and community education division. Earning microcredentials – either as a supplement to a degree or while working toward a degree – can be a pathway for that upward job movement.
That’s why RN Adrianna Seward ’14 enrolled in the badge class Care of Populations: Leadership last fall. Earlier in 2016, she switched from working with mental health patients to working in public health, as a nurse provider with Healthy Babies, a prenatal health and education program with the Sedgwick County Health Department.
While her undergraduate classes touched on public health principles, Seward felt she needed a more concentrated focus. “When you go through school and you don’t have real-life applications, you tend not to relate to those concepts as much,” she says.
For Seward, the badge class was particularly timely: While she was working on the course, she became the nurse coordinator for Healthy Babies, overseeing five other registered nurse providers in the program.
When Moore and Porcaro started researching how Wichita State might offer alternative credentials outside of a traditional college degree, they found several different models. “The badges at Wichita State are unique from what other universities in the United States are doing,” he reports.
Through WSU’s program, students will not only earn the credential, but they also earn college credit for each badge. Also, by taking the entire series of classes offered within a badge category, a student can “stack” those credits so that they can eventually translate to the equivalent of a college course.
Wichita State’s microcredentials program is being deliberately designed to provide stackable credit. Badge courses can lead to enough credit for the equivalent of a college course, then perhaps a certificate in a core area and, ultimately, a college degree. In other words: “You can scaffold the knowledge,” says Amy Drassen Ham, a College of Health Professions instructor who teaches one of the Care of Populations badge classes. An early convert to online-only classes at WSU, Ham has helped oversee the college’s badge offerings, ensuring the classes have similar academic rigor as traditional classroom offerings.
For example, in the Care of Population badge series, six courses are offered. Each course is worth .5 credit hours. After completing the badge series, a student will have earned three credit hours that can be applied to WSU’s online-only degree program that allows registered nurses to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.
Wichita State initially rolled out its badge program in fall 2015, with just a few select courses. It has been rolling out more classes in more categories.
All six of WSU’s academic colleges, plus the university libraries division, now offer badge courses. About 60 students so far have taken advantage of the classes, Moore says. Courses fall into seven categories: behavioral sciences, business, creative, education, engineering, general workforce and healthcare.
The badge program is ideal for professionals who need to achieve competency for career movement, but it’s also great for a non-degree student who wants to explore options. “You’re not committed to a semester or a degree,” says Moore, who visited with area employers and others to get a sense of what skills or competencies are needed. Many of the badge classes were designed to also meet contact and credit hours for relicensure. “It’s also a safe way to go back to school. If you’ve been away from education for awhile, you can try it out on a small scale,” she adds.
Badges have been developed to cover a range of topics: from how to do library research, which can be useful for the high school student whose school no longer employs a librarian to teach those skills, to an educational technology badge to help teachers stay current with the latest technology. Badge courses not only offer flexibility for students, but for the university to respond to changes in the workforce, Moore notes. If there’s a regulatory or relicensure change, a course can be more quickly developed or adapted to address those changes.
In Seward’s case, it was the change in her position that prompted her to take the Care of Populations badge. She realized she would be asked to lead the change, not just manage it, and the badge class helped boost her effectiveness on the job. “I’m still growing and molding my abilities,” she says, “but I think I was able to start out with a stronger sense of the difference between being a manager – and being a leader.
Badge Program Highlights
• The course timeline is flexible. Students can enroll either on the first day of the traditional semester up until shortly before the end of the semester. Each course provides about 22 hours of instruction and videos, plus there are assignments to complete.
• The course is self-paced. “You’re not tied to a schedule, so you can be very industrious and charge ahead, or if you have something happen that might slow you down, you won’t fall behind,” says Kimberly Moore, director of WSU’s workforce, professional and community education division. “It’s designed for people who have major demands on their time.”
• No geographic limits. Because it’s an online course, students can take the class from anywhere in the world.
• College credit is awarded. “It’s actual academic credit earned from an HLC-accredited institution,” Moore says. Each badge course is worth .5 credit hours. Credits can be scaffolded, in academe parlance, to create enough college credit and competency to equate to a comparable class offering within the badge’s discipline.
• It’s affordable. As an example: while the cost for one credit hour of an online class, including fees, is $312, taking two badge classes to equal a credit hour might cost $200 (costs per class may vary). Designed to use open educational resources, courses require no textbooks – and scholarships are available to help drive the cost even lower.
• The badge is digital. WSU works with Credly, a digital credentialing company, to provide digital verification of the badge. Digital badges are also a growing trend, allowing the student to immediately note the completion of a badge on social media profiles, such as LinkedIn.
• Coursework can apply toward credit and contact hours for renewal of a professional license.