Digital Credentials Could Play Part in College Admissions, According to U-M Researchers


The use of digital credentials, or electronic records to demonstrate skills, abilities, and knowledge experienced inside and outside of the classroom, may soon play a part in college admissions, according to researchers at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan School of Information.

The use of digital credentials, which are also called digital badges and micro-credentials, could help universities assemble a more diverse class and better identify students who are prepared for advanced and lifelong learning. Proponents say badges go beyond grades and test scores by demonstrating a student who has achieved learning objectives.

U-M School of Information researchers Barry Fishman, the Arthur F. Thurnau professor of learning technologies, Stephanie Teasley, research professor, and graduate Steven Cederquist, who works at the Ford School of Public Policy, conducted a two-day NSF-funded workshop involving leaders from informal STEM organizations that award digital badges, college admissions officers, and experts in the assessment of learning. They also published a report.

“Our hope is that digital badges will be used as a new form of evidence of student qualification and potential,” says Fishman. “If used thoughtfully, these kinds of credentials could be used to expand access to higher education by representing a much broader range of student capabilities than is possible through measures like standardized test scores or grade point averages.”

Teasley says the badges are ready for experimental use in higher education admissions.

“We could be very close to seeing digital badges as part of the admissions process, and there are already multiple different experiments taking place with ideas like portfolio based-admissions and competency- or mastery-based transcripts, each of which is related to the core ideas involved in digital badges,” she says. “The main hurdles to using badges right now are related to existing admission processes and social conventions surrounding how we understand and describe student accomplishments and readiness for college.”

Fishman outlined two key factors standing in the way of using badges: the need to admit a class that both represents students with a broad range of skill sets and interests while ensuring that these students are ready to succeed. Second, applications must be evaluated as quickly as possible. Badge infrastructure would also have to be scalable and sustainable.

The report also warns that badges could carry the same issues that current admission standards bring – the system will benefit students with access to more resources.

“Throughout history, innovation within the U.S. educational system has tended to benefit the haves more than the have-nots,” says Teasley. “There are multiple reasons for this, among them the fact that families with more resources are able to respond more rapidly and flexibly to changes in the requirements of the system. Given this tendency within the system, it is essential that work with digital badges as tools for college admissions proceeds with an intentional focus on enhancing equity and access.”

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