Paul Wurster
Four women gather around an urban garden plot admiring the lettuce that's growing.

When Amanda Nguyen tallied up stats for Thomas College’s new digital badging program, she knew something big was sweeping campus. The school had had badging programs in the past, but it had never seen participation like that of fall 2021.

More than 80% of the school's first year class earned a badge that semester, with 635 badges awarded campus-wide. Not bad for a school with about 1,000 students. Pair that with the participation of more than 60% of the school's faculty and staff, and Thomas's revamped badging program was off to a great start. 

“You can tell from the campus size and the numbers there, it’s a huge percentage of the campus that jumped in,” says Nguyen, who serves as program director at the rural college, located about 90 minutes north of Portland, Maine. 

In the past, the school’s badging program was micro-credential based and focused on courses. For example, attending all the sessions of a multi-week leadership class and earning a passing grade on the final exam earned you a Leadership badge.

Today, the campus has shifted to a competency-based model that recognizes the diversity of learners and their variety of experiences on campus. For example, students can earn the Leader badge by working with a variety of stakeholders to build a community garden or even through projects they do as student leaders or interns.

Students earn badges for a variety of activities

By offering a wider selection of pathways to earn badges, supported by more faculty and staff, a greater number of students are getting involved. Becoming a club leader, taking an internship or even doing things off campus, such as participating in a service organization can earn a badge, Nguyen says.

This approach will resonate with many educators in the K-12 system who have worked to incorporate project-based learning and make the shift toward a more proficiency-based system.

“It's a very different approach to badging than what we had before,” Nguyen said. “It's an opportunity to develop skills through experiential learning, and if you can articulate those skills and demonstrate those skills, you can earn a badge. It’s not about seat time; it's not about taking an exam.”

Giving students choice in how they learn and demonstrate skills, as well as helping them to see the relevance and value to future careers has dramatically increased participation in the program, and led to stronger (anecdotal) outcomes, such as students saying how proud they are of themselves or how their confidence has grown.

Students get validation for transferable skills

A key feature of the program is that it reframes learning outcomes in terms of transferable skills that are highly sought by employers. This aligns with the college’s Guaranteed Job Program, which aims to get all students employed within 90 days of graduation. The school boasts a job placement rate of 92%.

Employability resonates particularly well with Thomas's students and their families because it acknowledges the commitment of time and money college represents. Many Thomas students come from surrounding rural communities and more than half are the first-generation college students.

Nguyen says that the development of a shared vision played a significant role in the program's initial success. The challenge was agreeing on what the learning objectives should be. Faculty and staff, along with an employer advisory board came together to figure this out early on.

From that came a long list of things people felt students should know and be able to do. This required everyone to step back and look at learning objectives in more general terms. Instead of targeting specific skills, such as using Microsoft Excel, the team moved to categories of skill that allow students to demonstrate such things as computational thinking and critical thinking, Nguyen says.

“Really stepping back and agreeing on what those skills are and what is developmentally appropriate is the biggest hurdle. Also getting everyone on board with this idea of students owning the skills is critical,” Nguyen says. “Everything we did to develop this system for college learners can also be done to develop a robust system for K-12 students. They key is in the willingness to have a system that is inclusive of the many ways students learn and then later demonstrate transferable skills.”

Focus on program goals to choose the right platform

This early visioning took place before the college settled on the tech tools it now uses to facilitate the program. Putting learning first and technology second helped staff focus on program goals and select the ideal platform for their school. This approach was helpful, considering how many platforms there are to choose from, Nguyen says.

“There are a lot of platforms, but start with what you want students to know and be able to do first. When you call a company, share what you want that outcome to be for your students, and ask, 'How does your product get us there?' Their answer will help you choose a tool that fits your needs,” she says.

Thomas chose the Badgr, in part because it had simple features that could be used on the spur of the moment. When students articulate skills, the system allows staff members across campus to provide students with QR codes that award badges on the spot. This provides students with instant feedback and it allows staff to track student progress over time. By offering easy ways like this to engage with the program, more students and staff participated, Nguyen says.

“The program is designed so that by year two, every student will have had some engagement with the badging program. That is a pretty big scale up. To do that, you have to give students multiple ways to learn about the badging program, learn the skills, demonstrate the skills and share the evidence,” she says.

Nguyen says there is no perfect badging program right out of the box. It takes a diverse support team, careful planning, and the expectation that you’ll learn things along the way.

It’s also important to approach the project with a sense of curiosity, a concept she plans to discuss in an upcoming ISTE Expert Webinar called “Designing a Digital Badging Program That Drives Student Success.” The presentation, slated for Tuesday, Feb. 22, will highlight elements of the Thomas College model that can be incorporated into other learning environments, including K-12 schools. ISTE members interested in learning more can sign up to watch live or view the recording later.

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Paul Wurster is a technical writer and editor based in Eugene, Oregon.