Digital merit badges — think of a cross between a report card and a Girl Scout badge — are coming to Aurora Public Schools.

The district is planning to introduce the online credentialing system to 19 APS schools this fall and to all schools by 2016. The badges, which students earn by demonstrating skills in the areas of collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, invention and self-direction, are displayed online through student profiles. The idea is that colleges and employers could then access the profiles to see students’ skills when making hiring and admissions decisions.

The idea of awarding students digital badges was developed at a Mozilla Foundation conference in 2010 and has since spread to some higher education programs and, less commonly, K-12 schools. Badge proponents argue that the online tool helps integrate academic and soft skills.

Chalkbeat spoke to Charles Dukes, the director of Postsecondary Workforce Readiness for APS, and APS Director of Educational Technology Kevin Riebau, who explained how the badges will work and why the district is choosing to use them.

What is the simplest way to describe “digital badging”? 

Dukes: Digital badging is an online platform that documents and records students “soft skills” or what we call 21st century skills: critical thinking, invention, self-direction, collaboration, and information literacy.

Riebau: Another word you might use is “micro-credential.” It really is a skill currency used to open up opportunities because you earned the badge, you can cash the badge in for opportunities otherwise maybe not available if you didn’t have the badge.

What is the step-by-step process for a student to receive a badge? 

Riebau: So the student will be made aware of the digital badge and will see what the criteria is for earning that badge. Then, what the student will do is familiarize themself with the criteria and they will set out to fulfill the criteria. What we’re asking for is the student to provide the evidence that they have fulfilled the criteria, so they might  choose to take a picture or a video, or link to a blog that they write…any kind of multimedia or some sort of product they have created that is uploaded and attached to the badge that shows they have fulfilled the criteria. It’s their evidence. When they’ve done that then the teacher who issues that badge takes a look at the evidence and says “yes” or “no” to if they have met the criteria. If it has met the criteria, then the teacher will issue the badge to the student. All of this takes place online, by the way. We have a badge platform that allows for the designing, issuing and earning of badges so then the student is filling out their digital repository of badges, they have an account and they start to populate it with badges they’ve earned.  Then because the student has earned the badge now, the badge is a skill currency, so they should be able cash that badge in for an opportunity. For instance, if they’re in high school, attached to that badge (because you’ve earned it) that unlocks an opportunity to have an internship with one of our partners during the summer. They can show that they have that badge and then get be bumped to the top of the list or just given the internship.

It’s different for different grade levels. For middle schoolers, it might be a job shadow, elementary might be a visit by somebody from the company- it just depends.

How does a student benefit from this if the badge doesn’t apply to a participating company or organization?

Dukes: The goal for the whole initiative is that we have a lot of partners that belong to all of our Colorado career clusters , so we open doors for multiple partners from business to agriculture. If a student receives a badge and we don’t have a partner for the specific badge, it still gives the student the criteria they need to know to be successful in the workforce, so they’ll have a better understanding of what they need to do be to be successful in their specific field and they can plan toward that.

What distinguishes a badge from a skill listed on a resumé? How are these two things different? 

Dukes: The big difference is on a resumé you may have the language “I’m a critical thinker” but on a badge you have the evidence that shows you’re a critical thinker. So when you post your badge on say LinkedIn…a student can show examples of them demonstrating critical thinking.

Riebau: It’s that added level of accountability because there’s evidence and it’s not just words you put on a resumé, it’s action.

What factors will you measure at or what will you look at to determine if digital badging is succeeding at APS?

Dukes: We’ll look at the type of badges that are earned and how badges are being used. And how these badges and the use of badges are having a positive impact on behavior, attendance and ultimately graduation and college matriculation or workforce matriculation.

Riebau: Also, we’ve established a feedback loop with our business partners where we get input for them. For instance, say a student got an internship because they cashed in certain badges, then we can put from the industry partner who says…the student has demonstrated these skills and they are an asset to our company and we would eventually like to hire them.