Digital credentials are a relatively new technology, which means businesses might not have a firm grasp on how they should be used, could be effective, or might be necessary for their recipients. We sat down with McGraw-Hill’s Wyatt Morris to get an expert’s take on what digital credentials are, how you can use them, and some sage advice on planning and implementing a digital certification program.
Check out the entire conversation, or jump to a specific question below.
Q: What does your organization do, and how is certification involved?
I work for SIMNET, a program in McGraw-Hill that teaches and assesses students on using Microsoft Office – all 4 applications. It is primarily used in higher education, with some high school use. In total, about 500 schools use McGraw-Hill’s SIMNET, with about 300,000 students per year. Badging is important to us because:
- We wanted badges to be able to provide motivation for students to finish the course, so we set up completion based credentials which were a pat on the back to move them forward
- The final certificate. There is a certification that Microsoft basically provides, but it’s expensive and you have to take it in person. So, we saw this as an option for someone like a community college student, that can’t afford the final exam but they can have it on their resume.
- Everyone can say – and everyone does say – that they are proficient in Microsoft Excel, when they aren’t, so courses like ours are really valuable.
Q: How would you define digital badges and credentials?
A badge is something you can put on a resume or put in a digital wallet that proves you attended something, completed something, got assessed on something. Think about it this way – anything you typically get a certificate for, you can get it digitally now and it travels with you forever. You can use them for so many different things – training, continuing education, whatever you want.
Q: What types of credentials do you issue?
We do badges for completion of our 4 levels. Two badges are completion based, one at the beginning level and one at advanced, and the other two are tied to assessments, and those are certificates.
Q: Did you or your colleagues have any concerns around digital badges before you launched them?
Yes – I was completely anti-badging for two or three years. I even said that to customers, “I’ll never do badging”. I didn’t see the merit in it. I thought no one was going to care about a badge from SIMNET and McGraw Hill so it felt like a waste of time. But, I had one customer change my mind at a customer event. He stood up and said, “Look, I’m going to stay with this competitor because of their badges. I’m in a poor, rural part of Texas. My students are in a community college and this credential is what they are gonna get. And if this badge makes their resume rise up even one spot in the pile, I’m gonna do that for them”. That really opened my eyes.
Q: How do digital badges fit into your organization’s marketing strategy?
It’s a big thing. There are three major competitors in my market. Pearson already had badging, so we were the second, and the third player doesn’t have it at all yet. It was a big deal when we developed this to make it more of a complete program, and way better than what our competitors had. So, we marketed that as such – not just, ‘Hey, we have badges’, but we have the complete comprehensive program that will take your learners from the beginning all the way to the most advanced credential. We market this as a competitive advantage. Badging helps you communicate that journey, from the starter ALL the way to the expert.
Q: How do digital credentials compare to paper credentials?
I think digital credentials are more secure than paper. I think universities need to move towards it. I wish I could get a credential from Mississippi State University – where I went to school – so I can put it on my resume, so I don’t have to verify transcripts and degrees and all that.
Planning a Program
Q: Who should be involved in planning a badge program?
My advice is to try and keep it small to get it launched. Talking to other companies that had implemented badges was really helpful. It helped me communicate to our leadership after I launched it, so now it’s expanding within McGraw-Hill. The other departments are getting into badges now.
Q: What key considerations should an organization have when planning a program?
The first thing you have to know is what you’re trying to achieve with this. Work backwards – you can do a badge for anything, so what are you really trying to achieve? Then, figure it out from there. The way our program is set up is vastly different from an organization like a Skillsoft – they are wanting to get people in from the outside and retain them, but our students are assigned the work, so we don’t think as much about retention and for us, it’s more about employability and giving them another option to the Microsoft certification. Our goals were very different – so identify those needs and work from those as a starting point. E.g. – listing all the skills from a credential was a top priority for us.
Q: How did you decide on Accredible’s software?
We wanted really good, fast, smart people on both sides. My team and my development team are small. We only have 20 to 25 employees. I had my lead engineer set up a call with Credly, and I reached out to Accredible. It was important for us to have a company that would be nimble and move quickly on the tech side, and Accredible was that. I have really good tech people, you have really good tech people. I put them together and said, ‘you figure this out’. And they did, in a one hour conversation. You have a really sharp tech team that won’t slow us down with a bunch of nonsense. Once we picked Accredible, we had a wireframe within 10 days. I’d say it took 3-4 months from ‘I want to issue a badge’ to ‘I used a badge’.
Q: How do your badge tiers work?
We have 4 levels. The idea is that if you go through an Excel course that takes you a semester long – 15 weeks – we want that student to progress through to get all four. It’s based on Karate and our highest level is black belt. Our lead programmer was taking his kids to taekwando lessons, and he wanted to have a distinct name from the Microsoft options. He came up with using the karate belts, and we loved it, so we ran with it. Plus, we didn’t want to confuse the market. This isn’t Microsoft, this is McGraw-Hill. If we are going to say students have a black belt in excel, it’s got to mean something, especially coming from McGraw-Hill. It’s a high bar, by design. We really wanted to show employers that.
Q: How did you design your badges?
For us, it was easy – but it depends on what you’re using it for. The colors were easy because each course in Microsoft has it’s own color. Word is blue, Excel is green – so that was easy. We knew the colors right off the bat. The other thing we needed to make sure we included – which we did after the fact actually – was people might not know the order of karate belts. They might not know that white is before yellow, so we added L1, L2, L3, L4 to the bottom of the badge and we circle which one it is. And we wanted to make it look good – we had the logos and colors so it was making it reflective of that. The ability to update even after we issued a badge was a big deal.
Implementing your Program
Q: What were the hardest parts of your implementation?
[The implementation] was super easy, no big deal at all. We didn’t have any snags on the technical side. The hardest part was educating our sales people. They had heard about badges, but we were helping sales people to communicate the benefits, not just saying ‘hey, we have this too’. We want them going in saying, ‘here’s why we did this’.
Q: Was your launch successful, and did you reach your launch goals?
Oh, it’s been hugely successful. We have some built-ins that really help us juice our numbers. You’re gonna get a white belt pretty much as a starting point, so that really helped us show a significant amount of badges, but then you also see people getting a significant amount of higher badges. We’re issuing a quarter-million badges a year. It’s amazing – I thought we’d issue 10,000 or 20,000, so it’s been very successful, and we are looking for ways to move it forward. We allowed people who had previously taken the course to go in and claim previous badges – they wanted them too – so we could issue retrieval.
Q: How did you inform your recipients about the new credentials?
That’s something we could have done better on the student side at first. We put out a blog post, which is one way we communicate with instructors on new features, updates, etc. Instructors look at that, but students don’t. We could have been better – and are getting better – at going directly to students. Instructors don’t know how to explain this to students so we put some documentation together to help them do that, and we’re working on communicating with students directly – getting them to share more, getting them to understand more – how you can use it, how they can help, what they are, that this can help your resume.
Q: What key lessons did you learn when launching your digital badging program?
I think it helps me see the future in several different ways. We don’t up-sell anything in McGraw-Hill – the students aren’t in the market to buy things – so it’s tough to get them to spend additional money on anything. But, we can see badges changing that. If you are an introductory student but you want to get that black belt, we can offer you that, even if you’re not offered it through your course on campus. Standalone courses that aren’t instructor lead, allow you to work at your own pace but has a credential tied to it. Another big thing – I want to compete directly with Microsoft in the certification space. Their test is outdated, you have to take it in a brick and mortar facility – they have no online proctoring, so instead get certified with us.
Q: What metrics are you tracking post-launch?
I keep track of the overall issuance – that’s the big shocker number. We’ve issued over 280,000 – that immediately blows everyone away. I’m looking past the engagement, to what [recipients] are doing with them. That is my big focus now – if they aren’t sharing, they aren’t using them for what I want them to be used for, or where I think the most value is. I want to see them shared specifically on LinkedIn or other job sites.
Q: How are your recipients using their credentials?
It’s LinkedIn 99% of the time – that’s what I keep track of. We see Twitter too, but LinkedIn is what we look for. In our whole theory on this, it helps students get jobs – that’s the reason behind it – so we want them sharing on LinkedIn. That’s what we stress, because it’s where you can actually get a job.
Q: What are the biggest benefits you have seen as a result of implementing digital badges?
There are a couple of things. It gives students something they can take with them after getting through the class, and that’s something we haven’t done before. At McGraw-Hill as a whole, it has really opened up everyone’s eyes to the potential badging has for the future. We are making the business case to do this through all of our courses at McGraw-Hill – consumers in general are getting badges in high school, in college, in the workplace. You kind of need to get on board with it.
Q: How do you think digital badges and credentials will evolve in the next decade?
That’s a good question. We have so many people wanting to do their own badging, white labeling, putting their own stuff out there. I think, moving forward, it could take the place of so many things we do now and have something actually provable. If you do any training, you should be able to say, ‘Great – give me the badge’. Your resume should be a collection of credentials of things you have done and things you can prove.