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March 2016

Digital On-Ramps Program Helps Students Show What They Know

Using digital badging to empower students and expand learning pathways

Drexel University

Jermaine Brown, a 27-year-old Philadelphia resident, knew he was a skilled house painter. He had helped his uncle on plenty of jobs here and there, learning different techniques to mix and apply paint. But because he was never officially employed as a painter, he didn’t have proof of his experience. The construction company he began working for a couple years ago kept him on clean-up crews for nearly a year before they gave him a chance to paint, a job that offered higher pay and more hours than cleaning.

“I had to build a relationship with them for a long time before they finally asked, didn’t you say you could paint?”

Now, as Brown readies himself for a new career path in landscaping or environmental stewardship, he is confident he will no longer have to wait around to get the jobs he deserves. That’s because he is participating in a pioneering program that provides evidence of accomplishments, aptitude and abilities that may be learned outside of a classroom or other formal education or employment settings.

Through an effort organized by Drexel University, Brown and hundreds of other young people participating this summer in pilot programs across the city are earning what are called digital badges—shareable digital credentials that demonstrate and verify competencies.

Like Girl Scout badges pinned to a sash, digital badges are meant to display experience and document skills for wider audiences.

“The power of digital badging is that it allows people to provide an evidence-based record of what they have learned and what they can do,” says Joanne Ferroni, Director of Drexel’s University and Community Partnerships, “and it provides employers and higher-education institutions with a way to see and assess those skills.”

Ferroni’s office manages a network of 13 Philadelphia agencies and employers aiming to use technology to boost their job training and workforce development efforts. The group, called Digital On-Ramps, created an electronic portfolio system where students and job seekers can store and share their resumes, transcripts and other documents and media often needed to unlock career and educational opportunities. Developing digital badges—which can be showcased in the e-portfolio—was an obvious and exciting next step for the group, Ferroni says.

So earlier this year, Digital On-Ramps joined initiatives in about a dozen other U.S. cities working with a new web-based and mobile platform, LRNG, that offers in-school, out-of-school, work-based and online learning opportunities organized into playlists. When participants complete all the activities, exams or assignments in a playlist, they earn a digital badge issued by the program or educational provider.

“I want to be marketable in all types of ways. Badges will make me more qualified, and I’ll immediately look more qualified on paper – or in this case, digitally—to future employers or schools.”

Jermaine Brown, LRNG participant

With backing from a Barra Foundation grant, Digital On-Ramps committed to introducing 1,000 young people to LRNG’s digital-badging system this summer.

Among the efforts is one by collaborative member Philadelphia Academies, Inc. (PAI), which runs a program for high school students interning in the daycare industry. PAI created two playlists related to early childhood education, both directly aligned with a nationally recognized entry-level credential in the field. The playlists are meant to teach students skills and knowledge that they can put into practice during their internships and to prepare them, if they choose, to move along in the credentialing process.

The playlists, for example, include lessons on proper hand-washing protocols (with an assignment to make an informational poster) and on the importance of developing preschoolers’ fine and gross motor skills (with an assignment to create a PowerPoint presentation). Once all the assignments in a playlist are completed, uploaded and vetted, students earn a badge.

Zykiia Bryant, a new high school graduate who will start college in the fall to study early childhood education and criminal justice, is working hard this summer to earn her badges. She appreciates that the digital credentials are verifiable—“anyone can click through and see my assignments,” she says—and will travel with her.

“When I apply for my master’s, I’ll be able to pull up the badges I earned this summer,” says Bryant, pointing to her cell-phone screen, “and say, ‘Look, here’s proof I’ve been learning and dedicated to this for a long time.’”

Jermaine Brown expects the badges he’ll earn this summer through PowerCorpsPHL, a local AmeriCorps initiative focused on the environment, will give him a leg up too. A badge about tree care, for example, could signal to future employers that he’d be ready for independent landscaping projects from day one, he says. And he plans to check out other playlists on the LRNG website that might not be directly related to his chosen field, but that offer him new skill sets.