Gaining Workforce Readiness Skills Through a Higher Education Digital Badging Initiative

Concurrent Session 2

Brief Abstract

The University of Maine implemented a digital badging initiative that aids students in developing the skills employers need and the economy demands. Sixty badges were created, taking students from participant to leader, improving their workforce-readiness by offering active engagement experiences, within a three level, stackable pathway system.

Sponsored By


Claire Sullivan, Ph.D., is the University of Maine’s Coordinator of Community Engagement and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism. She received her doctorate from the University of Washington, specializing in instructional communication models. Claire works with departments and units across campus to develop and promote community-engaged programs and activities, digital badging, and service-learning courses. She designed and developed the Engaged Black Bear digital badging initiative, collaborating with units across the university to integrate badging into diverse learning experiences. The initiative aims to capture student’s engaged learning, build leaders and active citizens, and develop student’s workforce ready skills.

Extended Abstract

The University of Maine is combining the power of the degree with digital badging to help build workforce ready capacity in our students. The Engaged Black Bear (EBB) Digital Badging Initiative provides an innovative way to aid students in developing and communicating their career-ready skills to employers. Digital badges have the potential to transform higher education by offering a new form of credential that appeals to employers and offers increased efficiencies and return on investment for students. Colleges and universities are experimenting with various uses, creating an array of pilot programs, mostly consisting of skill-based badges. The Engaged Black Bear Initiative offers a unique approach in that it focuses on engaged experiences, both on-campus and in the community. Through this active engagement, and commitment over time, student skills are built, developed, and eventually endorsed. Receiving input from employers, EBB badges are designed to carry a valued currency in the job market.


The purpose of the EBB initiative is to enhance the undergraduate learning environment by motivating student engagement and documenting achievement and skill development.

Specific objectives include (1) aid in gaining employment by developing leadership and other transferable, career-ready skills, (2) recognize and verify student learning experiences on campus, at work, and in the community, and (3) guide students in becoming leaders, better employees, and engaged citizens. 21st Century skills are a crucial aspect of post-secondary learning, but are not well documented in our current system. Through digital badges, Universities can shed light on the importance of this learning and provide students with value-added credentials they can take with them after graduation. EBB comprises a constellation of learning pathways mapped to the Association of American Colleges & Universities’(AAC&U) LEAP learning outcomes. By participating in this program, students can graduate from the University of Maine with a degree, and a set of clearly articulated skills and accomplishments. These skills and accomplishments can then be publicly displayed and shared on social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, giving students an edge in job searches and graduate school admissions.


UMaine has developed an innovative framework that can be replicated at institutions across the nation. Careful attention to design has laid the groundwork for other universities to begin to implement this framework. Our pathways consist of three badge levels and a culminating meta-badge, taking a student from participant to leader over the course of time. Students reflect at each level, creating an endorsed skills checklist to signify the skills attained. The evidence for meeting the criteria is uploaded by the students directly into the badge platform and stored, demonstrating student initiative and creating a verifiable record of their skills, knowledge and achievement. Uploaded artifacts and links to evidence are verified and assessed by authorized issuers against the badge criteria before a badge is awarded. The embedded evidence and metadata signifies its value and authenticity to employers and other stakeholders when shared. To achieve student buy-in, targeted groups are recruited through service-learning courses, clubs, and campus units. Students who complete a learning pathway (earning 4 badges), will have a collection of evidence to demonstrate their competencies in both “soft” (21st Century) and “hard” skills (i.e., digital technology, research). This combination of academic, co-curricular, and work skill development will better position our students to gain employment after graduation while helping to meet state economic needs. The badge pathways help Maine students as well as out-of-state students to discover the opportunities available in Maine and to become engaged in important issues impacting our state. The badge ecosystem offers a way for students to structure the process of their learning by customizing their learning goals and to tailor the way their badges are presented to external stakeholders. This system expands upon the traditional transcript and resume, allowing for a holistic view of student learning, accomplishments, and skill development. It is also believed that EBB badges will be useful to employers and recruiters in locating talent to fill employment gaps.


Pathways were developed in collaboration with multiple units and are not tied to specific academic programs. For example, the Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) lab is based on a collaborative model where faculty and students across more than a dozen disciplines learn about research, design, and technical skills. They provide students with the training needed to be leaders in research and today’s IT-workforce. As indicated, badge earning is tied to applied learning and leadership development experiences. For example, within our Flagship Internship Program students receive paid internships and employers agree to abide by best practices. Students earn a Level 1 badge after completing a bootcamp that offers opportunities to network, visit Maine businesses, and learn strategies on how to become successful future employees. Level 2 badges are earned after the student completes his/her internship, attends networking events, and participates in an academic showcase to highlighting their work and accomplishments. Level 3 is earned when a student takes on a leadership role and becomes an ambassador of the program. Reflection of learning is part of the evidence submitted within each badge level. Once Level 3 is earned, a student would complete a skills checklist and receive endorsement of the skills they developed during the Flagship internship experience. Other pathway examples include Career Ready, Global Perspectives, Information Literacy, Dirigo Leadership, and Innovation (


UMaine first started offering EBB badges in the Fall of 2015 with Maine State of Learning’s proof of concept initiative, generating great enthusiasm across campus. The pilot extended into year two, with the development of seven learning pathways (issuing over 80 badges) using the open badge compliant Credly badging platform. Assessment indicated that students recognized the potential value of badges in communicating their skills to employers and to graduate school admissions. The second phase of the initiative began Fall 2017 with 15 pathways (60 badges) developed with more to come.


A rigorous program evaluation process is in place to help us determine the impact of this initiative. This project will employ a mixed-methods evaluation design consisting of specific quantitative indicators as well as qualitative information to document the success of the project in meeting its stated objectives. Surveys and focus groups will be assessed along with data collected from analytics, reports, and key personnel, including authorized badge issuers. Office of Institutional Research’s data on participating and non-participating students will help to determine whether badge earning students differ significantly in time to completion of their degree, retention within the program/university, number of credits earned, or by demographic characteristics. National surveys are also incorporated into the assessment design including, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE. Spring 2017) as a benchmark and the Multi-Institutional Leadership Study (Spring 2018). Longer-term impacts will be assessed through post-graduation surveys of alumni/a in following years. The undergraduate experience can be a fragmented landscape of general education courses, preparation for the major, co-curricular activities, and “the real world’ beyond the campus” (Huber & Hutchings, 2004). Digital badging may be a way to bring these seemingly disparate learning opportunities together through a formalized assessment approach.