Are Badges the Future of Education? – Charlie Collins

What’s the future of higher education and training…and what does it have to do with your business?

You’re familiar with diplomas, and the education requirements that your employees need. You’re probably also aware of CE credits, so that your team can stay certified.

But are you aware of badges? Bite-sized, certified, specific pieces of training that can help your employees grow and become more valuable.

Today we’re talking to Charles Collins of the Maine Community College System on how badges are changing education, and how they can change your business as well.

Rich: Our guest this week is Deputy Executive Director of Workforce Training for the Maine Community College System, MCCS. He provides management of the Maine Quality Center, MQC, projects, develops business leads and connections and provided operational management to several workforce initiatives. With more than 20 years of leadership experience within MCCS, he has served as Associate Academic Dean and Director for Workforce Development at SMCC. From 2006 to 2013, he served as a state director for the Maine Community College System, Early College for Me program. In this position, he provided leadership, strategic and budget planning and continual research on best practices for a statewide high school to college transition program. We’re very glad to have on the show today, Charles Collins. Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charlie: Hey, thanks, Rich. I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation, Yury. Thank you.

Rich: Well, we are excited to have you. And without further ado, could you tell us how did you get involved with the Maine Community College System?

Charlie: Sure. Well, I’ll tell you, coming into Maine pretty much two years after I graduated college, I did a couple of years of sales positions and it taught me a wonderful set of skills that I think everybody should learn. With that, I had a chance to jump into early on with SMTC, which was Southern Maine Technical College at the time, jump in using my background to help with continuing education courses. It was sort of the night school at what we would’ve called SMTC, and then during that time, I learned a lot about workforce training and I worked with adults transitioning them into school.

Charlie: So that’s how I got started. That was back in 1993 I’m going to say, if my math is accurate on how long I’ve worked there. So that was in 1993 and then from there, opportunities just progressed. I went from there to become a director of admissions, a dean of students. Went on to become the State Director for Early College for Me, and then had the opportunity to sort of come almost full circle more recently and come back to workforce training for the system, as this has become really a big area of worked for the community colleges. We’ve been shifting a lot of resources and some folks towards what do employers need in the state and how do we help them with our traditional certificates, our degrees, but also with workforce training.

Yury: Well, with the years of experience and the expertise that you bring into this space, do you feel that Maine lacks that or requires more focus on workforce development?

Charlie: Yeah, I think it has always been here, and one of the things we’re seeing what’s old again is new again. We literally, if you go back not too far, you had a lot of people apprenticing. You had a lot of people being able to get into jobs without what we would call formal, traditional, higher education. The community colleges course came from a vocational technical institute to a technical college, to a community college. And in that journey, changing that, we sort of formalized more of traditional learning and got away from more of what I say the hands on training.

Charlie: And in fact I think through that we may have been criticized back in the early 2000s when we made the switch to the community college because people thought we weren’t doing the hands on vocational type training. In fact, today we’re doing more of that because of that transition. People look at us as a place that, “Yeah, my child could go there. That’s a place I would send my child, to the community college.” When they get there, they’re starting to understand it’s not just chalk and talk. There is a lot of hands on learning that goes on. As a result of that, it’s even becoming important for us to understand that companies are saying, “That’s great. I’m glad you have an associate degree or maybe a certificate, but what I need right now is this skillset.”

Yury: A specific skill.

Charlie: A very specific skillset. And so that’s what we’re transitioning a little bit to. We’re not abandoning our mission of associates degrees and certificates at all. What we’re doing is we’re helping people understand that learning can happen in smaller packets and smaller chunks and that our colleges can help string together your background, your learning, and then put it together for some sort of formal certificate or credential of value that the employer’s looking for.

Rich: Now you and I had a conversation offline, Charlie, about badging. I’d like to tell us a little bit more about badging. This is something I’d never heard of before, although I’ve certainly heard of CE credits and college diplomas. So how does badging fit in with these other certifications or recognition?

Charlie: Exactly. It is something that has been coming along now for I’d say almost a decade when you talk to people. I think one of the newest innovations in education is this idea of people needing to learn at the time they need to learn that information. That conversation prompted me to talk about just in time manufacturing, which we all learned about in the ’80s and the ’90s. I think we’re in an age where it’s just in time learning and both employers and people understand that they want to learn something specific for a job because they know in a year, two years, five years, what they learned five years prior has already changed.

Charlie: And so instead of giving somebody a longterm, even two to four year learning path, which is probably going to change several times what they need to know, schools are starting to add, not get rid of their mission of offering degrees, but add these ideas of badging, which is essentially a micro credential. And a micro credential is something where you’ve taken some specific competency or skill and put it in a traditional curriculum that you and I may have experienced in our college years where you got a syllabus, you were in there for 45 hours to earn your three credits and you were going to follow this learning path. What a badge is just a broken down micro credential of content that may be from that.

Rich: So if we think about, you need so many credits to graduate, are badges equivalent to credits or is this more like it’s a very small specific bite-size skill that may be temporary, like you may learn how to use a piece of software that may be gone in two years? How does it fit in with the colleges? I guess I’m just trying to see how it fits in the entire ecosystem. What’s going on there?

Charlie: Well, to answer you directly, it’s both of what you were just … this or that. And it really is a small micro part of a bigger course, a three credit course. So what’s happening with the badges that are getting developed now within our colleges is faculty can say, “That’s an interest in competency and skill that I want that student to get out of my three credit, class accounting class.” You’re learning a specific accounting software or a couple of them. You could put a badge and embed that skillset in your class. And that student not only will come out with the three credits for the accounting one class, but we’ll have badges that say, “I’m competent and I’ve got the skill sets to run this particular software.” But you could string together three or four of these micro badges and make it a course.

Rich: Okay. Actually, to keep on this thread, I find it fascinating. So are businesses recognizing these badges? Does everybody go like, “Oh yeah, badges”? Because I had never heard of it until a few weeks ago. How are they recognized? Everybody understands CE credits, everybody understands diplomas. So do I recognize this as a business owner?

Charlie: Most probably don’t at this point. And I think that’s what’s exciting about what we’re doing in the community colleges. We are trying to get out ahead of this. We really have looked at it. We know it’s an example of the micro learning that’s changing throughout not only this country, but the world. People want smaller packets of learning and a badge is a form of that. It’s one form of it. You can break down a class and make certificates out of one class and come out with certificates to show a person.

Charlie: The other thing that’s really driving this is employers, and it happened to me when I got my first job, they said, “Sure, you have a degree, but tell me what can you do? What can you do?” And it’s that what you can do question that a badge allows a person to articulate very specifically and then after they’ve articulated it and left the interview, the employer can turn around to their computer and go, “I’m going to go look up Charlie Collins. He just said he could do X, Y, and Z.” There’s going to be a representation of that badge that shows my name that I did this, I passed this, put so many hours into it, and one of those, it’s a third party sort of independent group platform where employers can then go verify that you actually earn that badge and you’ve earned that.

Yury: Well, I think it’s a very timely kind of approach or some way of innovation in terms of how we educate and develop workforce. I’m thinking about e-learning platforms like Udemy, Skill Share, LinkedIn Learning. When you were talking about badges, they actually allow you to earn a badge. For example, with LinkedIn Learning, you can select a specific learning path that may take 12, 15 hours to complete. It’s a very, very precise type of information that you require for a specific skill, and at the end of that learning path, you get your badge and then if you’re applying using LinkedIn looking for jobs, employers can verify, “Oh yeah, Urie, on top of his four degrees, he actually has badges in X, Y, and Z.” So that’s very innovative and very competitive in terms of what’s going on in the learning space.

Charlie: Absolutely is. And we recognize that, and we recognize the fact that learning as we know it through the traditional gateways, right, colleges and universities, that’s getting disrupted. It’s getting disrupted everywhere from LinkedIn to companies like General Assembly that have campuses all over in the major cities around the world, the Udacitys of the world. Heck, Harvard and MIT have separate bootcamp style, or MOOCs, as you’ve heard, where they just start as a massive class, massive open online course … That’s what MOOC stands for … and the idea was when MOOCs came about, you put a rock star professor that everybody wanted to take a course with online and they got thousands, thousands of people registering for one class.

Charlie: The whole idea was as you progress through the class got progressively harder and what they’ve seen and they’ve researched is that students drop off and then finally at the end, you’re sitting there with like the 100 brightest folks who could keep up with the curriculum, and then guess who comes knocking? The Googles of the world come knocking and said, “Who completed your course? We’d like to know who they are.”

Yury: It’s the hunger games [crosstalk 00:11:21].

Charlie: It’s not far from that.

Rich: So talk to us a little bit about some of the types of education or knowledge that can be badge-ified.

Charlie: Yeah, absolutely. We have a couple of neat examples. For the last two years, we’ve had two of our campuses, Eastern Maine Community College under the leadership of Lisa Larson, and Central Maine Community College in Auburn under the leadership of Scott Knapp, President Knapp, have been leading initiatives, pilots, if you will, of developing badges that the rest of our campuses around the state will be able to emulate and follow when they’re done.

Charlie: An example of a simple badge that you’re hearing out there in the world is a macro badge in what we call 21st century skills. This is a set of skills that folks want, and they include things like collaboration, creative problem solving, critical thinking, intellectual fluency, oral community resilience, empathy. This has been a list of what they call 21st century skills that the employers of the future are saying, “We want to have in our our thing.” You can’t find a class called 21st century skills. I haven’t seen a three credit class in it. But we could develop a badge that a communications course at Husson or at the community college or at the University of Maine could say, “We’re embedding a 21st century skills badge within our communication 101 class,” so that even that college student can come out and show that they’ve shown these skills to an employer.

Rich: How do we know that these universities are whoever ends up developing these badges, that they’re any good? I mean, obviously different colleges may have different recommendations or different reputations out there. So how do we know that the badge has any value? Is there a certain number of hours that people need to study? Is there a certain course load? Is there homework requirements for people to accept that this badge has merit?

Charlie: Yes. So if you think of the traditional way we get courses now at institutions, whether two year or four year, there is a process in place where there’s an assessment process that once you design a course and you designed a learning, a piece of learning, you’ve got to have an assessment plan to say, “How do we know the people know what they learned? How do we know that?” And badges follow the same exact protocol as designing courses. They’re just smaller pieces of learning that are happening.

Charlie: So an example is when you walk out, and I use the example of my accounting software skills that I learned in accounting one, that badge will be tied to me through a third party platform from a company called Credly. And they’re a third party group that allows you to basically say, “This person earned a badge,” and you can go, and it’s an independent body to say, “Here’s the assessment. This is what that person did to learn this,” and all the details about that learning, how many hours and so on and so forth, and the fact that there was a competent person to go through and check them off is what a company can go to verify.

Charlie: And at the end of the day, it comes from after a week that I’m on the job or six weeks I’m on the job, I either know it or I don’t. They’re going to figure that out pretty quick. And like anybody who went to college, that reputation of that college only got built from the graduates that left who went to work for a company, a company that said, “I want more like you.”

Yury: So speaking about badges, as an employer or a business, what do I need to know about those badges? Is there a central database of the badges that are currently available and is there a statewide mandate for current graduates to possess certain badges at the time of graduation?

Charlie: Yeah, there’s nothing specific that colleges are mandating. Again, we’re looking at this and trying this to say, “We’re going to create badges specifically for workforce skillsets that people need and we’re developing badges that faculty can embed in traditional academic coursework.” So we’re doing both pathways.

Yury: So are there ways for the employers or businesses to get involved with that development or kind of like throw into the topics and the ideas?

Charlie: They absolutely do. In fact, if you go visit the sites of Eastern Maine Community College and Central Maine Community College, they state, they tell you that the badge development is informed by both faculty who have content knowledge as well as local business people. So when they develop competencies and skillsets, we are taking input specifically from folks in those regions that they serve.

Yury: So for those of you who are listening to us as a recording, please, please, please do yourself a favor. Go to this website. Check it out. See what’s available and become the agents of change by participating and collaborating with the educational [inaudible 00:16:16].

Charlie: Exactly. And I’ll just add one more. Go check out Credly. Just type in Credly. And they used to be two companies. One was called Acclaim, one was called Credly. They merged last year. So they’re one big company now and they are actually the ones that are helping colleges, universities and others sort of develop the pathway to badges and how to build the credibility around those.

Yury: There was a interesting company several years ago I played with called Degreed, and basically you can select a path and they use their artificial intelligence or some moderators to kind of build a stack of articles to read, blueprints to check out and some online activities to participate in, in order to gain some kind of proficiency in a specific topic.

Charlie: Those are great and there’s more coming. So what Credly offers to the user, so Credly offers up an independent voice or platform for employer to say, “Do you have really what you say you have?” What it offers to the learner is that learner can, once they’ve got badges up there and they’ve got their own account … It’s a cloud-based account … that’s connected to jobs that pull out through the data analytics, the skillsets that you now claim you have and they align you to, “You might want to look at this job. This company is looking for this,” and it aligns your skill sets that you just learned or gained. And it allows you to immediately apply for that job.

Rich: So this feels like it’s kind of like a marketplace for people who are looking for specific skills or people who have them and are looking for specific jobs. So as the new owner of a digital agency, if I wanted to bring on somebody who I knew had Google Analytics training or Google Ads training, there’s probably a badge in there, I’m guessing. I don’t know. There’s a badge in there for that. And that might be somebody who I could reach out to as well.

Charlie: Rich, you’re right on it. That’s exactly what’s happening.

Rich: And it sounds like it’s not just the schools that are doing badges. There are other organizations out there, too.

Charlie: Correct.

Rich: So if I am a student or just a person out there in the workplace and I want to get some more badges, I can go to something like Credly and start finding out where these badges are available. How might you recommend if somebody is out there and they’re going to go through this process, is this something that goes on a resume? I’m just concerned that too many business owners and HR people are not as familiar with badges as they may be in say two to five years.

Charlie: That’s exactly it. We’re at a point where it’s going to be a mixture of how people portray and communicate it. We’re having discussions within our community college that we’re going to transcript the badge. In addition to their traditional courses, how are we going to transcript the fact that you’ve got this other type of learning that’s outside of the three credit, four credit model? We’ll figure that out so you could say, “Send me a transcript,” and you’ll have your traditional transcript, but at the bottom you’ll have this thing that has badges that show you the specific, the name of the badge, what you learned, where you got it from, and again, with a link directly to how you verify it all.

Charlie: Now obviously, that’s the purpose of colleges, right? That we are institutions for which people say, “You’ve been here a long time. We’ve seen your graduates. They do good work.” So you build up that credibility because you’re a college and people know you’re accredited. You’re accredited through some other independent body that’s visiting you every 10 years looking at your institution saying, “Everything’s A-okay,” and that the public can trust this institution.

Charlie: Badging is going to go the same route. I think badges that attached to institutions that have already that accreditation will instantly, employers will just say, “Oh, okay, you’re just breaking down the skillsets. I don’t have to figure out looking at a course name, the skill sets you have through a badge. You were actually telling me the skill sets and the competencies.”

Rich: Well, and also, what resume tells me what core classes the person took anyways? But if there were badges at the bottom and badges become the coin of the realm, then I think that’s very specific, so I think it makes sense.

Charlie: Yeah, it does.

Yury: Speaking about specific, is this a Maine-specific thing or do other states do badging?

Charlie: Oh, it’s being done all over the country and the world, actually. I was at a conference earlier this year and sat through a badging presentation by a Midwestern college who has been doing it for, again, I would say nearly 10 years. They’ve been poking away at this. I think as a community college system, and I will tell you, the university is doing badging as well, and we’re talking with each other through this process so that there’s kind of an ecosystem developing in Maine about what are badges, how do you decide that this quality meets this quality? Well, we’re going to work together. And not just the university and community colleges. Adult eds could have a badges. And what we want to do is have a large Maine ecosystem where people, when they see a badge and they see competence, they know it’s following some level of quality standard that got established because we’re all talking.

Rich: And that’s the part that I’m interested in because I’m thinking about the fact, yeah, there may be colleges and Udemy type places that can do badging, but I’m also thinking that many businesses might want to start offering badging for on the job training. And then to be completely self-serving, I’m thinking about the Agents of Change conference and the workshops that we teach there [inaudible 00:21:59]. I have no idea if that comes anywhere close to that, but I wonder what it would take for events to start offering badging as well. Again, I assume they all have to be accredited at some level. So what would be the process for a business or an event that would want to get into offering badges?

Charlie: Sure. That’s a great question, Rich. So an example I brought along with me is one of the early pilot or groups we worked with was the Appalachian Mountain Club. It’s a membership organization. In fact, I didn’t realize this until recently. They’re out of Boston. I never realized that they’re Boston-based. They’ve got 200 full time employees, 400 seasonal employees. They’ve invested about $75 million in the Maine Woods, including construction of three eco lodges and nearly 100 miles of trails.

Charlie: And so when they were looking for something to help the folks who maintain the lodges, who help people out on the trails, they wanted some form of hospitality, something to put them through a formal training program. When they reached out to EMCC, EMCC got back to them within a month and said, “We can do this for you,” and they were so impressed. They’ve developed what they call the Mastery Pathway, the AMC model, and I brought along just a picture. I know where I’m online here, but it’s basically a badge. It’s an icon sort of a looking thing that says Maine Community College System of Food Lodging. It has the Appalachian Mountain Club logo on it and then associates with the college.

Charlie: What this does is this tells their members and anybody else who wants to earn this badge, there’s an online pathway that they can go and they start by exploration and discovery. That’s sort of your entry level, first level badge. You’re going to learn, what are you talking about here? Then they have something called engagement and skill development. That’s where you have to show. So if you’re going to do food service on the trail or at an eco lodge, you’re going to have to go through a course on how you prepare and how you do it safely and with sanitation and all that. There’s an introduction to lodging operations, a wilderness first aid course.

Charlie: That’s the second level. The third level is a leadership, and that level of the badge means that you are going almost on an internship, what we would call job shadowing, right, where we would go on an apprenticeship or internship. And once you complete all three of those levels, you’ve got a mastery badge for AMC. That gives that organization an opportunity to say, “We want to do it right. We know you want to volunteer, but to volunteer correctly, let’s put you through this badge.”

Charlie: That’s something, if they left the Appalachian Mountain Club and went out west to work for the Sierra Club or whoever else, that’s going to mean something to them. So that’s one example of, it’s sort of an association if you will, or a membership group, but a large company could do the same thing. They’ve got a culture that they want to develop with people.

Yury: I was just thinking about, a few weeks ago, my family and I, we went to a local restaurant and it was a very hyped place. But unfortunately, the experience was pretty terrible. The food wasn’t that good. And I was thinking to myself, “What if there was an opportunity to train the people that handle the people experience?” Because that was very disappointing at the end. In this case, we’re helping businesses to ensure the longevity because the employees that they have, it’s not just who filled out the application and showed up. You’re actually saying, “Hey, do you understand how to handle customer complaints? Do you understand how to welcome and greet the individuals while they’re standing in line.” Those types of things, they may sound like common knowledge and common sense, but unless you’ve been exposed to it or have been trained by an expert, you may not really understand what to do with all that.

Charlie: That’s absolutely right. I’ll give you an a second example of that employer. Hospitality Maine brought together the Restaurant Association and the hotel folks under one organization. It’s a membership organization. They’re trying to help their members get professional folks trained and see the hospitality field in the state of Maine as a professional career for people. So in doing that, they’re looking at an apprenticeship model, which is another way to allow people to not go through the traditional culinary or hospitality programs, but to jump in with an employer and earn while you learn. And we can see badges being implemented within that apprenticeship. So as they’re going through and earning and learning certain things, they’re earning badges that add up.

Rich: Yeah, it’s like the Eagle Scouts for grownups.

Charlie: It’s not far from that. It’s not far from that.

Rich: Charlie, if you could wave a magic wand and improve the business ecosystem in Maine, what would you do?

Charlie: I would love for us to better understand and have every, both educators, folks who support people who are on a career pathway and are trying to find their way and then of course bring that employer voice. That employer voice is huge. If I can wave that wand, I would triple if not quadruple the employer voice in how we do education.

Yury: Fantastic. Well, let’s get proactive. Let’s get louder and make the difference in the ecosystem of Maine. So to wrap up the show, I know we can go on and on and on and I feel like we definitely need to have part two because it’s a fascinating subject, so can you help our listeners to know where they can find you online? And if there are any specific resources that you want them to check out, please feel free to mention.

Charlie: Well, first start with sort of this, honestly, to learn about … Credly does an incredible job with videos and everything else to show you in very short snippets, they walk the talk. When they teach you something, they do it. It’s quick, short, two minute things. And then when you have time, click the next one. You have time, click the next one. So that is a great place to start in understanding badging. They’re trying to educate people what badging is.

Charlie: The next step would be your local institutions. I’ve mentioned central Maine Community College and Eastern Maine Community College. Those are two institutions that have badges. They have a website that talks about them. And then look at other … There’s other colleges. I’m not claiming we’re the only ones doing it. The university is doing it, and there could be the privates, whether it’s Thomas or Huston and others around the state, could be offering these badges, and go digging on their websites. Go to that search button on the website and put in digital badge and see what what comes up.

Yury: Fantastic. Thank you.

Rich: Charlie, this has been great. Thanks so much for coming by and teaching us all about badges.

Charlie: Hey, thank you for the opportunity. Appreciate it, both of you.