Digital Badges Certify Competencies Gained through Student Clubs

Key Takeaways

  • This study investigated the potential for digital badges to certify and showcase the competencies students gain while participating in campus-based clubs.
  • Thirty-one young professionals who were active in student clubs during college were asked about the value that digital badges might have had for their careers if the badges had been available when they were students.
  • Most (58 percent) said that using digital badges to certify and highlight competencies gained through student club activities would have been useful as they entered the job market after college.
  • Study participants' views varied depending on their club experiences; those who focused on knowledge acquisition and leadership in their clubs were more favorable toward digital badges than those whose involvement emphasized professional networking.

As use of digital education technologies increases, some people see the social aspects of residential education — student clubs, for example — as under threat. However, the reverse might also be true: digital technologies could offer opportunities for enhancing and even revolutionizing student clubs and other campus-based social activities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) are pursuing opportunities to advance student leadership,1 working together to pioneer innovative approaches in residential education. An integral part of this residential education experience is the student club, which promotes both socialization and professional experience. It is therefore important to study how technology can amplify these club benefits.

MIT's campus is home to more than 200 student clubs — some old and mature, some young and experimental.2 On the SUTD campus, the number of clubs has steadily climbed to approximately 30, which is a respectable number given SUTD's student population of 1,000. Indeed, SUTD emphasizes student activities; it caps the number of courses undergraduate students can take each semester to allow time for extracurricular pursuits.

Digital badges are an increasingly popular way to showcase a person's knowledge and experience; making such badges part of the student club experience could offer members a way to showcase the professional and educational opportunities they have taken advantage of during their club years. To explore this idea further, I interviewed working professionals in Boston and Singapore who had been active in student clubs while they were in college. I asked study participants to reflect on the impact that student club activities had on their careers, as well as how the use of digital badges might further enhance clubs and the professional opportunities they offer their members.

Shifting Education Landscapes and Student Clubs

Today, the changes in higher education are so massive that innovation experts often use the word "disruption" to describe them. The term, coined by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, describes fundamental shifts in the way industries are shaped.3

The Role of Competencies

Increasingly, higher education experts today describe the need to completely remap higher education around competencies. These experts argue that, rather than focus on the number of units, credits, or contact hours students need for a particular degree, institutions should emphasize the set of competences students need to acquire.

Underlying this shifting focus is the growing pressure for colleges to give students marketable skills. In their recent book, Hire Education, the Christensen Institute's Michelle Weise and Clayton Christensen discuss the need to work with industry and organize college curricula based on "industry-validated competencies."4 Salman Khan, in his book One World Schoolhouse, shares his excitement about the prospect of organizing higher education around competencies and how we might test those competencies.5

Several institutions6 already offer competency-based degrees; examples include the following:

Digital Badges

Competency-based education opens the way for a new, refreshed focus on experiential education. With digital badges, students can be certified for competencies gained in student activities and other educational experiences.

Michael Staton, an education entrepreneur and venture capitalist, argues that new certification methods (such as digital badges) and new digital means for showcasing student work (such as e-portfolios) can better represent student achievements than traditional degrees.7 Badges certify specific achievements and competencies, such as completion of specific activities or mastery of a skill.

Several educational organizations, both traditional and online, currently use digital badges.

  • The University of California at Davis recently piloted a badge system for a new undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture and food systems.8 The program is structured around seven competencies: systems thinking, experimentation and inquiry, understanding values, interpersonal communications, strategic management, civic engagement, and personal development. Each competency connects to digital badges that students can earn through coursework and project-based experiences (see figure 1).

    figure 1

    Figure 1. UC Davis digital badge dashboard

  • Khan Academy awards students a "Great Listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of math videos (see figure 2). When students have collected a certain number of the "Great Listener" badges and have also earned badges for successfully passing Khan Academy's standardized tests, they can earn higher distinctions such as "Master of Algebra."9

    figure 2

    Figure 2. Digital badges on Khan Academy website

An increasing number of third-party platforms exist for showcasing skills online.

  • Perhaps the most well-known is LinkedIn, which partners with educational institutions to let users who have completed courses add digital certificates to their profiles (see figure 3).

    figure 3

    Figure 3. Coursera digital badges on LinkedIn

  • Pearson is developing its own Acclaim badge platform. Acclaim displays user badges and also links the badges to the user's LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter profiles, as well as to their personal blogs and websites.
  • Other platforms that offer similar services include Credly and Degreed.

Student Clubs and Digital Badges

As some early literature suggests,10 student clubs can use digital badges to showcase and certify the informal learning they offer, which currently goes undocumented. However, to use digital badges in this way, clubs must have a clear organization of roles, tasks, and related competencies, as well as perform regular performance evaluations.

Most mature clubs can easily achieve this internal organization. The club leadership can then award badges to members for each role assigned, including conference chair, fundraising director, and marketing coordinator. Clubs can share badges using platforms such as Credly, or through any platforms that the club's home institution provides (such as those at the University of California at Davis). So, the potential exists for student clubs to use badges, but the implications for clubs and their members if they move in that direction remains unclear.

Research Design

This research aims to identify the possible opportunities and drawbacks of using digital badges to showcase and certify competencies gained through student club activities. To that end, the research design is exploratory. I collected data through semi-structured, in-depth interviews and analyzed it in an inductive way.

I conducted interviews with working professionals who actively participated in student club activities while in college and/or graduate school. In Boston, I interviewed 15 MIT alumni, and in Singapore I interviewed nine alumni from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and seven alumni from the Singapore Management University (SMU). I identified potential participants through a three-step process:

  1. Consulting lists of student clubs on the three schools' websites
  2. Using LinkedIn to search for members of these clubs
  3. Screening those members for "significant participation" in a student club, which I defined as their having played a key role (such as president or secretary)

I contacted selected subjects through LinkedIn and invited them to participate in the study. I told them about the study's overall goals, but — to avoid priming — I offered no further details. I interviewed all subjects who responded positively.

The study participants' backgrounds and fields of interest were quite diverse. Table 1 shows a breakdown of subjects interviewed in terms of gender, ethnicity (defined as country where they were born), their education level at the time they participated in the club activities, the number of years since graduation, and their current field of employment.11 Most of the study participants shared experiences about student club activities that took place during their undergraduate years (although two NUS and seven MIT alumni had subsequently completed master's degrees, the student club activities they discussed were primarily from their undergraduate years).

Table 1. Demographics of study participants


MIT (n = 15)

NUS (n = 9)

SMU (n = 7)


Female = 10

Male = 5

Female = 2

Male = 7

Female = 7

Ethnic background

US = 10

Albania = 1

France = 1

Lebanon = 1

UK = 1

Vietnam = 1

Singapore = 3

China = 1

India = 1

Indonesia = 1

Malaysia = 1

Pakistan = 1

Vietnam = 1

Singapore = 3

India = 2

Vietnam = 2

Education level (at the time of club activities)

Undergraduate = 11

Master's = 3

PhD = 1

Undergraduate = 9

Undergraduate = 7

Years since graduation

0–3 years = 8

3.5–6 years = 5

6.5–9 years = 1

12.5–15 years = 1

3.5–6 years = 6

6.5–9 years = 1

9.5–12 years = 1

15.5–18 years = 1

0–3 years = 4

3.5–6 years = 3

Field of employment

Energy = 4

product development = 3

biotechnology = 2

web development = 2

Aerospace = 1

Electrical engineering = 1

Entrepreneurship = 1

International development = 1

Consumer goods = 2

biotechnology = 2

Energy = 1

Entrepreneurship = 1

Finance = 1

Healthcare = 1

web development = 1

Entrepreneurship = 2

Marketing = 2

Graphic design = 1

Media = 1

Social media = 1


Most subjects had one club that they devoted the most time to during college, though some also participated in other clubs to a lesser extent. For the purposes of this research, I refer to the main club as their "primary affiliation," and masked the actual club names to preserve participant confidentiality. Table 2 summarizes study participants' primary club affiliations; these clubs cover a wide range of fields, including engineering, science, business, international development, community service, media, and the arts.

Table 2. Primary club affiliations

MIT (n = 15)

NUS (n = 9)

SMU (n = 7)

Aerospace Club

Biomedical Club

Entrepreneurship Clubs (2)

Community Service Club

Chemistry Club

International Development Club

Consulting Club

Economics Club

International Student Exchange Club

Education Outreach Clubs (2)

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science clubs (2)

Student Coffee Shop

Energy Clubs (2)

Medical Club

Theater/Arts Clubs (2)

Engineering Club

Open-Source Software Club


Clean Energy Car Clubs (2)

Real Estate Club


Clean Energy Resident Hall Competition

Resident Hall Publication


International Development Club



Mathematics Club



Medical Emergency Response Club



Women's Leadership Club



Interviews were in-person and in-depth and lasted for an average of one hour. I recorded all interviews and used a semi-structured protocol — that is, I used a protocol to guide conversations with subjects to make sure all necessary data were collected, but I tailored questions to meet the needs of each interview.

Interviews began with a set of questions about the person's student club activities in college. I asked participants to reflect back on their college years and share the story of their student activities. This part of the interview was largely unstructured, but I did ask participants to narrate their experiences in chronological order (from earliest to most recent). The second part of the interviews covered the perceived impact of participants' club activities on their careers. To achieve the necessary depth in their responses, I encouraged subjects to think about their careers starting from their first job after college until the present day and asked: "How did these activities impact your career?"

In the final part of the interview, I asked subjects to brainstorm about potential opportunities and drawbacks that might arise from using digital badges to showcase and certify competencies gained through student activities. To aid this process, I explained the terms digital badges and competencies as simply digital stamps that certify participation in an activity and bullet points that list skills gained, respectively. I also showed them examples of digital badges (see figures 4 and 5).

figure 4

Figure 4. Digital badge example

figure 5

Figure 5. Digital badge example that includes a list of competencies

I analyzed the interviews in an open, inductive way. First, I coded each interview as "favorable" or "skeptical" based on the participant's overall opinion of using digital badges to showcase and certify competencies gained through student club activities. Second, I observed that participants gave varying responses about the benefits they gained from taking part in student club activities. I therefore analyzed their responses based on these variations and identified three main areas of benefits: leadership skills, professional knowledge, and professional networks. Finally, I analyzed the potential opportunities and drawbacks that subjects thought might arise from having student clubs use digital badges. I now present the results of these analyses.

Digital Badges: Showcasing and Certifying Competencies

Study participants identified several opportunities that could arise from using digital badges to certify and showcase competencies gained through student club activities. However, they also identified potential drawbacks. Of the 31 young professionals interviewed, 58 percent were favorable toward the use of digital badges for club activities, while 42 percent were skeptical of making such changes. As Table 3 shows, participants in Singapore seemed more welcoming of that change than those in Boston.

Table 3. Interview participants' views on digital badges.


Boston (n = 15)

Singapore (n = 16)

Total (n = 31)









To decompose the reasons for the various outlooks among interviewees, I examined the types of benefits they said they had received from club participation. As table 4 shows, when asked about the impact that student activities had on their careers, they converged around three main themes: leadership skills, professional knowledge, and professional networks. The largest number of answers fell under the leadership skills category (Boston, 60 percent; Singapore, 69 percent). Among the leadership skills the participants cited were cross-cultural communication, working in a team, and project management. The second largest category of answers was acquiring knowledge in a particular professional area, such as open-source software, clean energy, and entrepreneurship (Boston, 27 percent; Singapore, 25 percent). The third category was professional network building (Boston, 13 percent; Singapore, 6 percent). In most cases, participants indicated that networks established in and through these student clubs helped them find jobs after graduation.

Table 4. Area of impact of student clubs on participants' careers.

Area of Impact

Boston (n = 15)

Singapore (n = 16)

Leadership skills



Professional knowledge



Professional networks



The following representative quotes explain the participants' perceived impact of student club activities on their careers.

Leadership Skills:

"The club produced the yearbook of my residence hall. My role was to supervise a team of seven writers. I would tell them what to write and what direction to take. This experience helped me be more comfortable talking to people. It also gave the confidence to lead projects."

—NUS student, Resident Hall Publication, July 2014 interview

Professional Knowledge:

"My understanding of anatomy and physiology came from the Medical Emergency Response Club. A course on Quantitative Systems Physiology was also very helpful. All that came together when I was applying to jobs. In interviews, I could say: ‘I took Quantitative Systems Physiology and I have the basic training on the workings of the heart through my work at the ambulance service of the Medical Emergency Response Club."

—MIT student, Medical Emergency Response Club, December 2014 interview

Professional Networks:

"The Biomedical Club organized a conference aimed at connecting students with industry and government. There were many senior professionals there. One of the ladies that I interacted with was working at a large pharmaceutical company. She got to see and appreciate my work in setting up the conference. She gave my resume to the human resources department of her company and she put in a good word for me."

—NUS student, Biomedical Club, June 2014 interview

Next, I examined how the (perceived) impact of student club activities mapped to participants' perspectives on using digital badges to showcase competencies gained through club activities. As table 5 shows, subjects for whom participation in student clubs was primarily beneficial for building professional networks were particularly skeptical of badge use — a finding that held true for both Boston and Singapore participants. These young professionals benefited from meeting people through their student club activities, establishing relationships with them, and advancing their careers through these relationships; they did not see any value in digitally showcasing and certifying such student activities. Results differ somewhat for subjects who viewed student clubs as a benefit to their leadership skills and professional knowledge. These interviewees were more open to using digital badges as a way to communicate the skills and knowledge they gained.

Table 5. Outlook on badges across impact categories


Boston (n = 15)

Singapore (n = 16)

Leadership skills

56% favorable

73% favorable

Professional knowledge

50% favorable

75% favorable

Professional networks

0% favorable

0% favorable

As the above tables show, analyses revealed differences in the perspectives of interviewees in Singapore and Boston regarding the use of digital badges, as follows:

  • Interviewees in Boston were less favorable toward digital badges compared to their Singaporean counterparts in part because they put stronger emphasis on professional networking for career advancement.
  • Singaporean interviewees who viewed club activities as beneficial to their leadership skills and professional knowledge expressed stronger positive attitudes toward digital badges than their Boston counterparts. These interviewees expressed the need to demonstrate their competencies online to a global audience presumably because of their diverse backgrounds and plans to pursue careers beyond Southeast Asia.

Beyond the overall favorable outlook or skepticism in participants' answers, the actual content of their responses is also important. What did they see as the main opportunities and drawbacks of using digital badges for student club activities?

Interviewees who were favorable toward digital badges believed that the badges would have let them communicate to prospective employers the competencies they had gained through student club activities, which could have helped them secure a job after graduation. These participants discussed the difficulty they had experienced in conveying skills developed through club activities to prospective employers. For example, one MIT undergraduate student noted the following about her experience:

"Frankly, as an undergrad, it took me a while to figure out that saying 'project management' on the resume was a good idea. I didn't understand how employers thought. I went to all the info sessions and did all the things you are supposed to, but I didn't get it. Any guide that could help kids figure out that was the correct phrasing, or even forces them to pick one of those things, would be helpful. Like, 'Did you do one of these three things?' 'I don't know… maybe… I guess I will click this one.'"

— MIT student, Education Outreach Club, October 2014 interview

Study participants' excitement about digital badges and their application to student club activities typically stemmed from experiences with similar tools in other contexts. For example, one NUS alumnus who was a member of an electrical engineering/computer science club during college said he often sees skill certification in online workplaces for freelancers. He said that having such certifications available for student clubs might be an interesting idea:

"If the badge is issued by an accredited organization or is recognized as an industry standard, it would be helpful. Websites that serve as platforms for hiring contractors provide an estimate of each contractor's performance. They say, 'He is within 10 percent of Excel skills or for C++ coding and so forth.' I think that if there was something like that available for my field, it would definitely help. It would allow employers to better gauge whether a candidate is a good fit."

— NUS student, EE/CS Club, July 2014 interview

Interviewees who were skeptical about the value of using digital badges to highlight competencies gained through club activities believed that trying to put students' club experiences into predetermined categories would diminish their true value. One alumnus of MIT was adamant that, when conveying their activities to future employers, students should not be limited by any sort of competency categorization. Rather, he said, such skills are best communicated by describing the actual projects and activities:

"I don't know how much value it would have for me to have a list of competencies to present to recruiters. In interviews, most of the times I would say 'Here's what I worked on,' and recruiters would respond enthusiastically, asking for more details. And then, in talking to them about my activities and projects, I always felt that they understood and were very impressed."

— MIT student, Clean Energy Car Club, September 2014 interview

Another point of concern was how to implement these competency certifications practically. For some study participants, the implications for student clubs were particularly worrisome. For example, one alumna of SMU feared that any attempt to monitor and/or track student involvement in clubs would radically shift clubs toward more formal organizations. This, she said, would kill the informality and community at the heart of most student clubs:

"It is pretty hard to certify an individual's ISEC experience. What exactly are you certifying? When you take a course from Coursera, you learn a structured skill set. But someone's experience with ISEC is like an open curriculum. You are learning at your own pace and every individual learns different things. So, I think it's really hard to certify. Then ISEC would also become more like an official institution, more top-down, and not so fun anymore. Now, it is more like a community."

— SMU student, International Student Exchange Club, July 2014 interview

The interview subjects had diverse experiences with their student club activities, as well as unique career paths after college. The perspectives on the use of digital technologies to certify and showcase competencies gained through student clubs varied equally. Overall, however, study participants were both open to new opportunities and insightful about potential drawbacks.

Implications and Conclusions

Extracurricular activities are part of a changing higher education landscape. The MIT–SUTD Collaboration lies at the center of these changes. MIT and SUTD work together to pioneer new curriculum delivery methods as well as new approaches in student activities; this article is part of that effort.

The main conclusion of my research is that components of competency-based education and digital micro-credentialing can apply to student clubs to showcase and certify the skills that students gain through their participation in them. The young professionals I interviewed in Boston and Singapore pointed to challenges as well as opportunities related to using digital badges to document competencies gained through student club activities. The participants fell into two main categories: those who looked at such digital badges favorably, and those who were skeptical. The former group felt that, while club activities clearly had a direct impact on their professional development, they had trouble adequately explaining the activities' value to prospective employers during job interviews after graduation. They thus believed that new tools, such as digital badges, could be useful if developed properly. Skeptical study participants either felt that such tools were meaningless or (worse) feared that their use might lead to undesirable changes in the structure of student clubs, such as making them more formal and hierarchical.

Learning from university graduates who participated significantly in college clubs and are now in the workplace advances our understanding of badging's potential, but it also introduces a confounding retrospective bias. Further research should explore badging's relevance for enrolled students with pilot studies on college campuses. The perspective of students and young professionals who do not or did not consider student activities central to their higher education experience should also be carefully studied. Aggregated data of student characteristics — including demographics, academic performance, and extracurricular activity records — and employment outcomes will also enhance our ability to identify how student club activities impact students' careers, as well as whether tools such as digital badges might amplify the positive effects of club involvement.

As higher education changes, it is important to consider and carefully study how new tools might advance the education and labor market potential of students. I believe opportunities — not without drawbacks — abound for digital badges highlighting noncurricular student achievements. The implications for student clubs and their members require further careful study.


  1. Aikaterini Bagiati, Richard De Neufville, and Sanjay Sarma, "Institutional Transplantation and Cultural Formation through Faculty Development—A Yearlong Experience," Research in Engineering Education Symposium, July 2013; and Aikaterini Bagiati, Dara Fisher, and Sanjay Sarma, "Using Student Internship Programs as a Vehicle to International Campus Culture Transfusion," WEEF International Forum, October 2012.
  2. Styliani Kounelaki, “Headquarters on Campus: Student Entrepreneurship and the Ambivalence of Incubation,” unpublished doctoral thesis, MIT Sloan School of Management, 2013.
  3. Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
  4. Michelle R. Weise and Clayton Christensen, "Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution," Christensen Institute, 2014.
  5. Salman Khan, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, Hodder & Stoughton, 2012.
  6. Keith Button, "7 Competency-Based Higher Ed Programs to Keep an Eye on," Education Dive, November 4, 2014.
  7. Michael Staton, "The Degree Is Doomed," Harvard Business Review, January 8, 2014.
  8. Paul Fain, "Badging From Within," Inside Higher Ed, January 3, 2014.
  9. Jeffrey R. Young, "'Badges' Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 8, 2012.
  10. Hikyoung Lee, Minja Kim, and Jung Sook Sung, "Peer-to-Peer Learning in Open Education: The Open KU-KUREKA Project at Korea University," Proceedings of Cambridge 2012: Innovation and Impact—Openly Collaborating to Enhance Education, April 16–18, 2012.
  11. Subject pool availability and other research constraints did not allow for an even distribution of males to females across the three schools. For MIT, 70 potential subjects were identified and contacted, with a 50/50 male-to-female ratio. I scheduled interviews with all subjects who responded positively; those subjects included significantly more females than males. For NUS, I identified and contacted 46 potential subjects: 70 percent male and 30 percent female. For SMU, I identified and contacted 25 potential subjects: 20 percent male and 80 percent female.

Styliani (Stella) Kounelaki is a postdoctoral associate for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (MIT–SUTD) Collaboration. She has a PhD in Organization Studies from the MIT Sloan School of Management. She works at the intersection of research and application of educational technologies.

© 2015 Styliani Kounelaki. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.