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higher learning

From tuition fees to transfer credits, higher education issues provoke strong opinions and it's rare to find an area of consensus. But one issue where there seems to be agreement is the need for students to acquire a diverse mix of skills and capabilities – not just academic training, but also a variety of interpersonal, professional and workplace skills – to prosper in a challenging labour market and contribute to Canada's future. Unfortunately, even when students acquire such skills, it can prove difficult to turn them into credentials that are recognized in the job market.

Both students and postsecondary institutions are increasingly embracing the ideal of the "T-shaped" graduate, who combines deep "vertical" knowledge in a particular domain with a broad set of "horizontal" skills: teamwork, communications, facility with data and technology, an appreciation of diverse cultures, advanced literacy skills, and so on.

This kind of shift is readily visible on campuses across the country. Internships and co-op programs, initially focused almost exclusively on business and engineering students, are multiplying and involving an increasingly diverse set of students. Community service learning programs, which allow students to work with social service agencies or voluntary groups as part of course work and independent research projects, have also multiplied at both universities and community colleges. And while there's clearly more to be done to promote international opportunities for students, study abroad programs have been burgeoning, with more and more students embracing the chance to spend a semester abroad. Within their own walls, postsecondary institutions are offering undergraduate research programs to supplement coursework, and professional development seminars for graduate students to build skills for work beyond the lab.

The trick, however, is how to recognize and validate the skills and abilities that emerge from these diverse learning experiences. How can students demonstrate the value-added from extra activities? And how can employers separate the wheat from the chaff if grade-point averages alone don't tell them what they need to know?

Traditionally, of course, students have relied on the resume to describe their skills, profiling work and other experience that they hope will set them apart from the pack. But the resume is a distinctly analog tool in our digital age – a flat file in an era of linked data sets. While it's still an indispensable calling card, it doesn't allow students to present the richness of their experiences or draw attention to concrete products. And because it lacks external validation, it's inevitably subject to doubt – even more so as the diversity of student experience broadens. Was that trip to southeast Asia a vital learning experience? What kinds of skills really emerged from that summer leadership program? Did that volunteer internship with a local not-for-profit provide a meaningful foray into independent research and analysis?

Enter the "co-curricular transcript," which allows postsecondary institutions to recognize student learning beyond the classroom – everything from involvement in student government and varsity sports, to international exchanges or internships. An increasing number of institutions now provide these alongside academic records, giving students and prospective employers an officially-sanctioned record of achievement beyond just courses and GPAs. It's a significant advance, but still limited in the story it can tell. A list of co-curricular activities can't capture the nuance of individual students' experiences, and given the complexity of assessing learning outcomes, the transcripts necessarily focus on inputs – numbers of seminars, teams, or hours spent on particular activities.

There is another, complementary approach, and interestingly it's one that has its roots in young people's own increasingly digital world. Thinkers like Cathy Davidson of Duke University have drawn inspiration from the world of on-line gaming, where communities of gamers award digital "badges" to recognize particular achievements by players. Davidson and others in the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC – pronounced "haystack" – which held its annual conference at York University in Toronto last week) have been experimenting with the use of similar "badges" to recognize learning experiences and outcomes, both for students and for adult learners.

The beauty of the model is the way it democratizes credentialing. Skills and experiences are validated – but that validation involves a diversity of expert groups, institutions and communities, mirroring the kind of diverse learning environment students are embracing. And because the model is inherently digital, it holds out the promise of a rich, multilayered record of results and achievements, with links to video, audio and text resources.

These kinds of developments aren't going to solve the skills dilemma, and digital badges aren't likely to replace transcripts and resumes any time soon. But there is real promise here, from co-curricular transcripts to badges to digital resumes. How about, for example, a digital "skills passport" for Canadian postsecondary students, that allows them to profile their skills and experience in a way that is rich, credible and diverse?

Brent Herbert-Copley, Ph.D., is vice-president, Research Capacity, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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