what if employers didn't care whether applicants held a college diploma but instead asked what educational "badges" they had collected? like boy scout merit badges for professionals, these marks of achievement would show competence in specific skills, and they could be granted by any number of institutions.
this is the vision of a growing number of education reformers who feel that the standard certification system no longer works in today's fast-changing job market. the mozilla foundation, the group that develops the popular firefox web browser, is designing a framework to let anyone with a web page—colleges, companies, even individuals—issue forgery-proof digital badges that will give potential employers details about an applicant's training at the click of a mouse. in september, the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation announced a $2 million grant program, run in coordination with mozilla, to encourage organizations to try the badge system. more than 300 groups have applied.
even elite universities are experimenting with the approach. last month the massachusetts institute of technology announced plans to issue badges to students who complete a new set of free online courses, as part of a self-learning project called mitx. (university officials call them certificates instead of badges.) mit would charge a "modest fee" for the new credentials, but the price will surely be a bargain compared to the school's annual tuition, which tops $40,000.
such unorthodox notions are getting a serious hearing as more observers point to problems in american higher education. tuition is rising far faster than family incomes, employers argue that graduates don't show up ready for today's jobs, and academic disciplines seem increasingly insular.
peter thiel, a founder of paypal, was one of the first to use the word "bubble" to describe the current higher-education market. last year he became a lightning rod for debate when he announced a scholarship that pays selected students $100,000 not to go to college. he challenged each recipient to start a company instead of sitting in a lecture hall.
mr. thiel himself boasts degrees from stanford university and its law school. but that was 20-odd years ago, the ice age of computer history. today, the internet provides universal access to books and lectures and a fluid social network that lets any 19-year-old with an idea find rich investors or flash a resume to potential employers.
consider an upstart called p2p university. the name stands for peer-to-peer university, and anyone can be a student or an instructor on the website. it was among the first to use badges, offering one for "webcraft."
one recipient of the badge, brylie oxley, is now trying to revamp his resume to highlight the accomplishment. "i don't have a lot of formal educational background," says the 30-year-old resident of nevada city, calif. he is working through a computer systems program at local community college and says that his online classes at p2p university compare well to his in-person courses.
some see more potential for badges in k-12 education than at colleges, as an incentive similar to the frequent "power-ups" and accolades that videogames offer. at the free online-education provider khan academy, for instance, students get a "great listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short lectures.
even supporters of the badge idea concede that it could lead to problems. dale doherty, editor of make magazine, likes the approach, but he worries that there "will be sites that just dispense badges like candy, and that doesn't help create any kind of credential or meaning around them."
critics fear that job applicants would falsely claim badges, though the technology is being designed to prevent that. and traditional scholars worry that a badge economy would put too much emphasis on job training rather than the search for new ideas.
employers will ultimately determine whether badges are practical, and much will depend on how easy they are to use. hiring managers who have trouble sorting through traditional resumes might need even more time to decode a patchwork of online badges.
but the new credentials could transform hiring. "when the first software developer gets a job from google with a badge from mozilla," says philipp schmidt, executive director of p2p university, "the flood doors are going to open."