Saturday, April 18, 2015

Cost of broken promises

Join me at THE Performance Improvement Conference in San Antonio, April 26-29.  I am presenting Weds, Apr 29th on Digital Badges Validate 21st Century ID Skills. Come to my session and introduce yourself.                   
What is the cost of  breaking the public promise?  At the bottom of this column are a series of links related to publicized cases where students have refused to pay their college student loan debts or have asked the college to return their fees plus hardship.  These are extreme examples or symptoms of a broken promise.  The promise?  That these students will be employable after completing their education.

This could just as easily be a certificant of a professional association, who spend thousands of dollars and months or years studying for a high-stakes exam only to find that there is no work for them, even though they are certified.

Alternatively, it could be an employer suing that professional association for damage caused by a credentialed member.  They hired with the belief that the individual could do the work because that individual held the associations credential.

The issue of broken promises comes to a head in litigation.  Professional associations manage these expectations carefully in order to prevent or minimize litigation.  As other types of organization (schools, libraries, museums, and community centers) enter the market with microcredentials and badges, leadership needs to consider the issue of promises.

The specter of broken promises and litigation does not go away or lessen when the credential is a microcredential (a.k.a. badge).  Just because it is NOT a certifications, does not mean that due diligence can be ignored.  The issue of public promise for a microcredential is muddled by a variety of factors such as information availability (access), the ability to evaluate that information, and whether this is a singular phenomenon or not.   These, too, may be considered to be part-and-parcel of the public promise of a digitally branded credential.

The best defense will be a well-constructed information campaign that includes factual data about each credential’s promises [insert link to previous blog] and performance against promise.    

Who has expectations of our declared and implied public promises?

  • Individuals awardee who receive the credential or microcredential
  • The field within which you and the awardee work
  • The general public 

Individual Expectations

What might individuals expect of their microcredential when it comes to advancement?  Where are the potential places that a microcredential’s promise might break down?   We need to take time to find out what is expected of our credentials.

Individuals working toward and eventually receiving any credential expect that it:
Is honored, valued, and recognized
Adds financial or other value to their livelihood or lives
Leads to advancement

Credential is honored/valued/recognized

Performance-based credentials derive a certain amount of their value simply from the act of performance and the follow-up recognition of that performance.  This is where microcredentials shine. They are discrete, skill-focused in nature and they create a personal value from the goal accomplishment inherent in the completion of a performance standard.  

With a microcredential, advancement may be related to tackling a higher skill level, rather than career advancement.  Many microcredentials aggregate to ‘level up’ to a more advanced credential.
What does your microcredential promise the individual credential holder?  Is that promise different for the individual with one microcredential versus individual with many microcredentials?


The portability and accessibility of a microcredential is inherent in its structure.   For digitally branded microcredentials, there is a built-in promise that this credential can be found and share.
So what happens when an organization can not support the cost of the chosen badge software platform and administrative staff to support software?  What happens when the badge receiver believes that their badge will be digitally available for “the rest of their life”, when you only meant that it would be available this calendar year?


Let’s also consider the adult market for digital badges where many adults do have the ability to follow complex technical instructions required to upload and manage their digital badge in a social media site.  It’s promised share-ability has been compromised. In addition, the badge holder feels devalued because they were unable to follow those directions.

I recently worked with an associate who is a small business owner.  The Better Business Bureau had awarded her an A+ and had provided her with a digital badge to use on her website.  We managed to get it up and running because I understood how to copy-paste a snippet of code.  This was not in her vocabulary at all.  It was easy to do, but without me as interface, she never would have figured it out. Would she have felt letdown by a promise that was not full-fillable?  I suspect so.  Would it have caused something as a lawsuit?  Probably not.  Though she may have become less of an advocate of the BBB.

Financial Value

Income is, perhaps, the easiest financial value to see.   However, other career related values accrue as well – confidence, professionalism, credibility, or even personal satisfaction of goal attainment in our field.  (Consider the fact that receiving a Ph.D. seldom qualifies one for a higher pay scale, but thousands of people choose this path anyway.)

Attaining certain microcredentials may allow the individual be tapped for special projects or career advancement, which in turn may result in increased income.  We can see this best in the military where specialized career paths are displayed with pride in stripes, stars, medals, and ribbons on their uniforms.

At the lowest financial denominator, keeping one’s job may be the value of some microcredentials.

The “it is required for employment” may be the inherent value.  This often shows up in customer service programs where gamification and digital badging is focused on whether the individual meets minimum work standards… and, woe be the person who does not meet minimum standards. s

Personal Value 

The term ‘bucket list’ has recently become ubiquitous for all those goals we have awaiting our ‘someday’ plan… that photo safari, the trip to (name a place), quilting a blanket, baking a complex dessert, or as the Tim McGraw song says ‘Riding a bull named Fu Manchu for 2.7 seconds.’ We have our own personal badges for these activities – photos, memories, tchotchkes – no organization needs to provide us with a digital souvenir.  Trying may be enough.  Any advancement is inherent as personal goal attainment.  Once done, we move on to other things.  It may be more advanced skills in the same area… or trying something else… or not (thinking of bull riding, here).

For which goals do we need acknowledgement by an organization?  Which do we do for ourselves? How does that acknowledgement create advancement for us?

Perhaps we need to ask our microcredential and badge recipients how this works for them.  

The Field: Standards of practice for practitioners

The second group that receives value from defining one or more microcredentials is the field in which that microcredential is situated.   Defining the performance(s) required to attain a microcredential creates a certain degree of validity for the field, by the field, and in the field.

Standard setting is a deliberate practice of defining measurable, observable behaviors, their outcomes, and the contexts within which they occur.

However, ‘the field’ is a bit abstract. There are fields inside of fields and stakeholders often cross many fields. We tend to use some touchstone groups as judges of whether the field is getting its value – employers, educators at the next level of education, parents (where badge earners are young), and recruiters for employment, education, or other services.  When individuals in these groups buy into the value of a microcredential or series of microcredentials, the microcredentials’ value takes off exponentially.  Think about the excitement that badges, patches, pins, and paraphernalia denoting successful microcredential completion has in youth associations.  Success breeds success.  Most children continue with the program for several years, or until another fascination presents itself.

Youth programs have been carefully crafted over many decades of experience in pacing these recognitions for encouragement, skill development, and increased sense of self-confidence and self-respect.  Adult community programs have a long way to go to catch up.  Professional associations have still further to go, since their model is about end-states rather than progressive development over time.

What does your field need?  One credential that opens the door for everyone or many credentials that recognize specific skill subsets?  Does it need to show a developmental pattern as youth groups and the military do?  How do we bring these perspectives together? If we are not able to do so, will there be a set of broken promises?

The Public:  Everyone everywhere

The ultimate winner (or loser) is the general public – the person or person’s at the other end of the process who expects a specific skillset and does not receive it.

That reminds me… many years ago, I took vacation in late September and wandered up to Northern Minnesota for the fall color.  I ended up at a hotel on a reservation near the border.  The hotel provided a nightly bonfire.  I joined the fire circle one night to find that the other members were from various Canadian tribes attending an inter-tribal meeting.  They brought with them hot dogs, buns, marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate.  Each of them tried to cook a hot dog on a stick… and failed.  They tried to toast a bun… and failed.  They tried to toast a marshmallow… and failed.  I was not part of their group, but they offered me food.  Eventually, I could no longer turn them down politely. I toasted a hot dog on one fork and my bun another.  Both came out perfect.  My companions wanted to know if I was Indian (I am not) and were confused about how I had these skills and they did not.

They chatted among themselves and then slyly handed me the marshmallows, which also came out perfectly brown and gooey on an unbroken and perfectly assembled ‘Smore.  (Anyone who has tried to do either hot dogs & buns or ‘Smores over a fire, knows that this level of perfection is unheard of and unrealistic.  I was astounded at results, myself… and wondering where this would go.)
Eventually, they gave in and asked how I could do something that they, with their native heritage, could not do.  I said, “Well, cooking over a fire is in my training, was it in yours?”  They agreed it was not.  So, I showed them the technique and explained that I belonged to youth organizations that taught this skill (Camp Fire, Inc.).  They tried again and got successful (though typically variable quality) hot dogs and marshmallows.

Was cooking over a fire a high-art skill that changed the world.  Probably not.  Where was the broken promise?  For them, the broken element was their own training or lack of training in a skill that they felt should have been accessible to them based on their heritage.  We healed that breach with a few minutes of sharing around the fire, a skill that was in their experience base and heritage.
Who is your public and what do they expect from your microcredential?  The reach should be long.

Preventing Broken Promises & Managing Expectations

Your public may be very hard to access or it may be as close as your customer service desk.
What standards have you set for the skills that your microcredential expresses?  Those standards are an essential element of your promise.   It may take some work to reach your public but information from them can be value in tracking the value of your public promise.

In creating credentials (micro or otherwise, digital or otherwise), we often forget to consider the implied promises that we make along with the reality of the award credential.  Managing promise expectations may be the field of the future where communication skills combined with analytics and political savvy must come together to keep our recipients and stakeholders informed and realistic in their expectations.  As a side benefit, defining and managing promise expectations will keep us grounded and focused on whether we are actually making a difference or not.

News Article Links

News articles on debt strikers and debt relief for college students who cannot get jobs -- the broken public promise of higher education.

Coming soon… 

Elementary, My Dear Microcredential Provider (Apr 23)
Digital Badges Validate 21st Century ID Skills (ISPI Conference Presentation) (Apr 30)
Scaling, Scaffolding, and Badging (May 6)
Leveling Up and Career Paths (May 13)
Discovering Expectations and Promises (May 20)
… unless a better topic unfolds, of course

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Digitally promised: What do digital badges promise their public?

Is there an implied and implicit promise made by digital badges simply by their existence.  That is, does a digital badge promise the badge holder something?  Does it promise the viewer of the badge something?   If so, what?

Consider these four (4) cases.  What is the perceived value of the microcredential and related badge in each? Is each microcredential and related badge living up to its promise?

Case #1:  Rad Teen Skills

Rad is a 17-year old high-school exchange student in the United States. His US school offers participation badges.  While in the US, Rad is very active in school programs (a drama production, the school’s online newspaper, the video club).  Rad’s host family has other teens who participate in weekend programs at the library and at a museum.  So, during the year of the exchange program, Rad acquires badges in drama, online newspaper editing, video production, kitchen chemistry from the science museum, star-gazing from the planetarium, and library teen council member from the library.  Rad’s espoused goal is to go to college in the US.

What do these badges say about this teen’s abilities?  How will they help Rad transition back into his native country’s education system?  Will they help him get into college in the US? 
In effect, badges are not an international currency for which there is an exchange.  Those badges do not provide Rad with much assistance in transition back her home country, applying for or getting accepted into college at home or in the United States.  However, they do show the ability to apply skills (in a non-native language) to produce results in communications (drama, newspaper, video), in science and technology (chemistry, astronomy and video), and in community participation (drama, newspaper, and council member).

A perceptive US college admissions recruiter would look at the badges and compare them to SAT, ACT and TOEFL scores and, hopeful, decide that this was one very motivated learner.   Do we have college admissions’ recruiters on board with the idea of using microcredentials to supplement test-data?  This could be as important for any traditional high school student as it is for a non-tradition student.

Case #2:  Boot-strapping it

A young adult immigrant working third shift for minimum wage and trying to raise a family as a single parent finds herself able to speak and read sufficient English for work and life purposes, but does not write English.   She joined a literacy program that builds skills in writing and offers badges for those skills.  She is a success story for that program.  She recently started working for them as a mentor and coach for others in the program.  However, she continues to work her third-shift minimum-wage job.   She posted a Facebook message with the link to her badge on the day that she earned it.  To date, she has less than a dozen clicks on that badge and does not know whether her current employer has seen it.

What value do community-driven badges have?  What is the exchange currency in her workplace?  This young woman has seen additional work value in that she has a second job (also at or near minimum wage), but the job is less physical and carries more prestige.  She is more confident and is an advocate for the program.    
Have her badges met her need?  Are they helping her “pull herself up by her bootstraps”?

Case #3: Colligate Badges

A well-known university decides that digital credentials are the wave of the future.  They provide digital badges for their recent degree earners to use in social media.  University graduates can promote their degree through a shared digital badge for their degree program.   They can check their online badge portfolio to see how many clicks they received.

The university also decides that an assortment of participation badges should also be available for campus community activities such as drama, athletics, music, government, campus sponsored clubs, and leadership position such as dorm residence assistants.  In addition, the college creates a series of badges for completion of key degree-readiness steps such as STEM Requirements Completion, Communications Requirements Completion, and Health & Physical Education Requirements Completion.   Again, students receive the badges into their badge portfolio.   

The university is also trying to be more assertive about positioning their students for job-readiness.  They provide badges in resume-writing, interviewing, job application prep, practicum completion, internship completion.  

Teachers may also offer badges for key projects during each semester that integrate courses and skills – public speaking, writing for a community newsletter or blog, analysis and reporting.  Badge earners are encouraged to share their badges in social media.   Eventually, they will receive a degree and degree-related badge.

With all the variance in skill level, how do these microcredentials and leveled up credential (degree)? How are they fulfilling a need for students?  For parents?  For the community?  For future employers?  Is there a potential for ‘overkill’ creating a devaluing of the badges provided here?   

Case #4: Professional mastery

A professional association develops a series of microcredential certifications for professionals within a given field.  Professionals can earn one or more microcredentials with marks (the letters after a name, e.g. CPA) and digital badges.  Over time, they can ‘level up’ to an advanced level certification.  The program has yet to hit its five-year mark and only a handful of people are certified.   Employers have yet to request the credential as “preferred” on a job listing.  In the meantime, the association offers the credential and digital badges.  They can show that potentially interested parties are clicking on the social media or email links to access information about the credential and the credential holder. 

Is this series of microcredentials and badges living up to its promise?  


Digitally Promised Milestones & Markers

  In each of the instances, the promise of the microcredential may be somewhat different.  And, yet, in many ways, the promise is the same.  Each badge gives the badge-holder:  
·         The right to share a key milestone and self-promote
·         The ability to show milestone markers of successful performance against a defined standard (different standards, true)
·         The possibility of feeling successful and discovering the increased self-respect and confidence that comes from working toward a goal and succeeding to meet it.

Beyond those promises, there may be other implied promises – jobs, wages, skilled workforce, career readiness, college readiness, degree readiness.  Those promises are harder to define, track, and manage.  However, tracking the public promise of each credential (micro or otherwise) is the challenge of each credentialing program.   

It will be important to know which stakeholders (college recruiters, parents, employers, credential holders, etc.) expect what from the credential as promised by the digital existence of a badge.  Uncovering these expectations and putting them to metrics to share with the public will be the challenge of the future. 

Coming soon…

Cost of Broken Promises (Apr 16)
Elementary, My Dear Microcredential Provider (Apr 23)
Digital Badges Validate 21st Century ID Skills (Conference Presentation) (Apr 30)
Scaling, Scaffolding, and Badging (May 6)
Leveling Up and Career Paths (May 13)
Discovering Expectations and Promises (May 20)
                                       … unless a better topic unfolds, of course

Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Publishing and Presenting Microcredentials and Badges

My proposal to write two textbook chapters has been accepted and will be in a new textbook, Evaluating the Public Promise, for Foundations of Digital Badges and Micro-Credentials to be published by Springer, New York, ed Dirk Ifenthaler, Nicole Bellin-Mularski, Dana-Kristin Mah. Draft version is due late June.  Publishing due 2016.

Along the way to writing an academic chapter, I’ve uncovered lots of valuable ideas.  The next several months of blogs will be a less than academic look at the public promise of microcredentials and digital badges.

In mid-March, I presented a short meeting briefing, Discover the Power Behind the Badge, to sixty or so people attending the March Certification Network Group (CNG) event in Washington, DC.  (Go to the TIfPI home page where you can download a copy of the presentation).  The purpose of this presentation was to open a dialog with CNG members about the difference between digital badges, microcredentials, and certifications.  Essentially, we discussed six key points:

  • Digital badges are images that represent the credential.  They are marketing collateral for the organization and the badge earner.  Whether the credential represented is a microcredential, certification, certificate, degree or accreditation depends on the processes behind the credential and its purpose.  “A badge is just an icon” was the theme of the dialog. 
  • Digital badges have information embedded in them.  One layer of information exists in the graphical, visual nature of an icon (a badge with an airplane on it is presumed to be related to airplanes). Additional information links the icon to a cloud website displaying an individual’s portfolio of icons.  That website also shows specific information about the terms of the credential, the individual’s relationship to it (active vs inactive, for example), what was done to achieve the credential, and who sponsors it.  This meta-data provides the after-market value to employer, recruiters, and other interested parties.  (See my portfolio as an example of how badges work.  Click on the ribbon shaped badges to see the data related to each.)
  • Microcredentials are actually well known and respected tools for the credentialing trade, as well as education.  We know how to create them and use them. We use them with youth programs, in the military and para-military (think sheriff’s badge), in juried shows (arts shows, county fairs, athletic competitions and more), and in business via access badges an other paraphernalia that provide recognition and status (flight attendant pin vs pilot’s captain’s hat, stagehand shirt, etc.)  Each has standards and specific meanings based on those standards. We know how microcredentialing works   
  • Microcredentials are focused on specific aspects of the field, rather than the entire field. 
    • If we were to create an approach to the CPA, today, we would probably start with areas like Small Business Accounts Receivable, Small Business Accounts Payable, Small Business Inventory, Small Business Taxes, Small Business Audits, and then do similar ones for mid-sized businesses, start-ups, internationals, etc.  There might be additional credentials in import/export, contracts, compensation, etc.   
  • Microcredentials tend to be performance-based requiring microcredential holders to demonstrate skills in specific ways.
  • Microcredentials have built in relationships to other microcredentials and credentials.  Such relationships might include required completion order (mastery) or not (patchwork self-selection), advancement through leveling up.  
    • That CPA alternative idea might have a Certified Small Business Accountant that is an intermediate step to the Certified Public Accountant.  
    • There may be endorsements added to certain levels create things like the Certified Small Business Accountant specializing in imports/exports or in contracts or in compensation.  

I truly enjoyed the presentation and ensuing discussion, because we actually got into a multi-directional dialog in order to work through some of the credentialing field’s scrambled perceptions about microcredentialing and badging.  Getting a room of sixty some professionals to talk and question each other is a bit of challenge.  Once talking, though, they really got into the dialog. That was great fun.

I will be giving a similar but different present in a 75-minute education session at the San Antonio ISPI conference, THE Performance Improvement Conference, on April 29th.  This one is Digital Badges Validate 21st Instructional Design Skills has two co-presenters from TIfPI, Andrea Moore and SiatMoy Chong, Ph.D.  We will be discussing the practice analysis that The Institute for Performance Improvement (TIfPI) did on instructional designers and the ensuing microcredential certifications for IDs.  Join me at the conference and come to this session, Weds morning.

Now, to get focused on book chapters.

Coming next week… Digitally promised: Just what do digital badges promise their public?