What’s an association’s most valuable asset? Arguably, it’s the association’s good name—along with the value its members attach to it. Associations are constantly seeking new and better ways to serve members, and one of the most exciting new ways is with digital badge credentialing.
Most associations offer some kind of continuing education (CE) programming, whether it’s in-person or online (or both). Imagine how much more appealing your organization’s CE would be if successful completion was visible to employers and colleagues via a digital badge (an online representation of a skill or achievement) on a member’s LinkedIn page. Imagine how doing so could help extend your association’s brand value to the member who receives the badge, as well as potential members and the current and potential employers who view the member’s profile.
But how and where do you begin? First, I’ll break down how digital badges work.
Any entity with a web presence can create and award digital badges; in fact, they’ve been used in K-12 education for quite some time in online math and English study programs. These programs have been on the front lines of “gamification,” the addition of game-like aspects to instruments of learning in order to promote student engagement and motivation, and are a keystone of competency-based learning. For example, when children using the free nonprofit educational site Khan Academy master a skill, they are awarded a digital badge, as well as points, and their teacher is notified. The Facebook-like Edmodo platform, which many schools use, allows teachers to award digital badges to kids that their classmates can also see, thus adding a powerful dose of peer competitiveness to the mix.
Once you determine what types of digital badges you’d like to offer your members—whether for achieving new credentials, instructing a course, completing CE modules, or any other certificates of competency or merit—you must provide them in such a way that members can share them on profiles. An open application program interface, or API, is a type of freely shared intermediary that allows various applications to share information. Perhaps the best-known API in digital badging is Open Credit, and the service Credly puts Open Credit to work by issuing digital badges to applications and platforms as diverse as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce, Moodle, WordPress, and Eventbrite.
The most commonly used standard for digital badging is Mozilla Open Badges, an open-source collaboration of the free-software community Mozilla; the MacArthur Foundation; and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC). Open Badges is absolutely free.
Of course, badges must mean something to the people who receive them in order to have real value. That’s where the undeniable value of your association’s good name comes in. For a badge to have importance, it must come from a credible organization. The benefits of defining and awarding digital badges to members for their accomplishments are twofold—first, a badge program enhances the organization’s perceived value to the member, and second, it promotes and reinforces the association’s credibility and thought-leadership to the industry. Associations are by their nature arbiters of professional quality, and thus any digital badge an association confers will serve as an endorsement of that badge-earner for that skill. Sometimes digital badges are referred to as “microcredentials”—the idea being that they can signify a competency in a very specific area or domain.
For example, the International Association for Health Coaches awards the title of Certified International Health Coach, or CIHC, to those who pass its certification exam. Once the member passes the exam, the organization issues a digital badge, which the member can then post on a LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook profile or on a website.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) also awards digital badges when members complete certification programs. A recent marketing message for AICPA’s Intermediate and Advanced Single Audit certification programs eloquently described how badges can bolster the member and the association’s profile:
Both programs are available as a standalone exam, as well as with optional intermediate- and advanced-level courses that can help you refresh your knowledge or develop your competency prior to taking the exam. Successful completion of the exam demonstrates your competence—to your employer, customers, regulators and the public. A digital badge allows you to display your accomplishment online.
A recent blog post on Pearson North America’s site expounded on the value of using digital badges to identify and highlight skills and achievements to a broader audience. Samantha Wu, a college student on Pearson’s Student Advisory Board, wrote:
… I can see the value badges create in presenting credibility. Traditionally, only achievements that are standardized into a course or position can be displayed. These traditional achievements include the grades a student achieves and the degree that a student earns. However, if a student takes a course through an online learning site or completes a project for a non-profit organization, these achievements are harder to showcase. Badging fills the gap by providing a certified way to represent accomplishments without constructed channels of recognition in place.
If the process of defining and awarding badges seems too daunting, consider turning to a consultant. Educational development consultants with experience in certification and badging can quickly get your organization’s program up and running. Perhaps best of all, they can make it easy for you to manage and support it on your own in perpetuity.
Perrin Davis is senior vice president of Agate Development, an educational content development company that consults with associations on developing educational and training programs. The team at Agate Development partners with associations of all kinds to research, develop, institute, and support badge-driven certification programs. To learn more about how Agate can help your organization reap the benefits of badging, please contact email@example.com.
 AICPA, e-mail message to author, March 7, 2016.