The Oracle Certification program recently announced that Oracle professionals with active credentials would soon receive access to digital badges for their Oracle certifications. The badges are being issued through Acclaim, a service offered via Pearson VUE. Since Pearson is the testing authority that Oracle's certification exams are offered through, there is no third party involved in the move to digital badges.
There have been a number of articles in the past couple of years about the potential move to digital badges, including an excellent take from Anne Martinez here at CertMag. Since the capability was not previously offered by any of the certification authorities I hold credentials from, none of these articles has caused me to give badges a great deal of thought.
Given that I hold over a dozen Oracle credentials, however, the recent announcement was a wake-up call that it was time to do some thinking about the potential impact of digital badges. Anne's article does an excellent job of getting into the nuts and bolts of how badges work, but does not really address the burning question that comes to mind for me. Namely, as the holder of multiple professional certifications, what can digital badges do for me? That is the question I hope to address here. Please bear with me. My train of thought may occasionally seem to derail, but the reality, most often, is that it simply enjoys taking the scenic route.
One of the biggest challenges that IT certifications face is legitimacy. Organizations must accept that a person who holds a given certification is more valuable than a comparably qualified individual with no certification. If employers have no faith that the certification means anything, then there is no point to earning it. Certification fraud is one of the most pressing dangers to maintaining this legitimacy and there are several different types, including:
- Tests being taken by someone other than the certification candidate.
- Certification candidates who cheat on exams by using brain dumps.
- Individuals who claim certifications they have not earned.
The first issue has been largely addressed in recent years by tightened controls at testing centers, including multiple IDs and photos of test-takers. The second is a thornier issue, and more difficult to fight. Oracle does have a fraud team that investigates suspicious activity, and I know that their program has at least discussed adopting a program to certify legitimate practice test providers. I do not, however, envision that there will be a quick or easy fix to that problem.
To address the final point: How can a certifying authority combat individuals who fill their resume or LinkedIn profile with references to "vapor" (as opposed to "paper") certifications? Instead of hiring someone to take their test, or spending time memorizing brain dump answers, these individuals simply tack a few impressive certifications on their resume and dare the world to do anything about it. As things currently stand, few recruiters or prospective employers actually make an effort to verify the legitimacy of certifications listed on someone's profile.
It can be done, of course. Oracle and other vendors have a means for securely emailing credential verifications to third parties. The recruiter or employer, however, must initiate that process. Requesting verification requires both knowledge that a verification option exists and a reasonable amount of effort. Perhaps more crucially, it is also tantamount to saying, "I do not trust you." For that reason, many recruiters and employers are reluctant to ask.
And, to be fair, the practice of lying on resumes is not restricted to professional certifications. People who will do this are just as likely to lie about having college degrees, or about their prior employment.
So long as checking the validity of certifications is difficult, the downside of lying about them is tiny. The effect these individuals have on everyone who legitimately earns certifications should not be ignored or underestimated. This practice reduces the value of the effort put in by the professionals who follow the rules.
I wish I could say that digital badges will make this kind of fraud impossible. In reality, there is very little in this universe that is truly impossible. It will certainly be riskier to claim these "vapor" certifications, however, if digital badges become the norm.
Here's a case in point: It is simple to manually add a certification to a LinkedIn profile. Anyone can go to their profile, edit the Certifications section, and fill in a credential name, certifying authority, date, and so on. There is no authentication provided by LinkedIn or anyone else. By contrast, a when a badge is shared to LinkedIn from Acclaim, the fields are pre-filled and there is a URL imbedded that has a link to a badge verification page on Acclaim's site.
I was a little disappointed that there was not more visual difference on my LinkedIn profile between a "manually entered" cert and a "digital badge" cert. In the image to the right, the upper credential is an entry that I manually added information to. The lower one is the result of Acclaim adding the credential.
Visually, there is nothing to indicate a difference exists. However, when the header of the ��manual' certification is clicked, LinkedIn performs a profile search for people with the same credential. By contrast, clicking the header of a certification tied to a digital badge opens a browser tab to an Acclaim page with information about the credential in question.
Acclaim's Badge Verification
In sharp contrast to the "meh" reaction to the change in my LinkedIn profile, I was very pleased with how Acclaim presents information about credentials on their badge verification page. The top of the page clearly displays the name of the certification holder and a photo (if they choose to add one). I uploaded the same image that I use on my LinkedIn profile to provide one more data point to tie this credential to me. The remainder of the header provides the certification name and a brief description, along with certification holder's name (again), the certifying authority and the date they earned it.
Frankly, Acclaim could have stopped there and I would have considered their job complete. However, directly below the header is a section that provides the knowledge areas tested by the credential. Most managers and recruiters will not know offhand what skills a given certification tests, nor will they have the technical background to be able to determine them without assistance.
Providing what is essentially a ��crib sheet' about the certification further increases the visibility and value of the credential. A fraction of the job listings for Oracle DBAs will reference a specific Oracle certification. The vast majority of listings, on the other hand, will have a laundry list of knowledge requirements such as Backup & Recovery; Failure Diagnosis; and RMAN.
At the very bottom of the verification page is listed the actions that were required in order to earn the certification. I don't know how much effect this will have on the weight given to the certification by employers. There are a number of people, however, who complain about having to pay for a hands-on training course in order to earn the OCP designation. It ought to be of at least some comfort to them that the badge verification page makes their training investment more visible.
There is no requirement to use LinkedIn to publish the digital badges. They can be embedded on websites, tweeted, placed on Facebook, or simply tied to an image using a public URL like the badge to the right. In addition, once an Acclaim account has been created, there is also a public URL available to the main profile page. This page includes your name, photo, a bio, as well as links to your social media profiles and personal web page. I can not really claim that I was feeling a burning desire for one more web page about my professional credentials. Most people who are in the market for a job, however, are perfectly happy for every iota of visibility they can get.
Someone could, yes, make themselves a vapor OCP by stealing the graphic of a digital badge. It's not nearly as easy, however, to duplicate the verification capability that is the heart of this standard. If, as I expect will happen, digital badges become much more common in the next few years, the lack of a verification link will stand out like a sore thumb.
Digital badges are not a silver bullet for the problem of vapor certifications by any means. For one thing, I believe that before they can approach their full potential, digital badges must become the standard. They need to be adopted by most, if not all, certification authorities. In addition, IT professionals who hold certifications would need to switch to digital badges en masse.
For them to be most effective, hiring managers and recruiters must expect these badges to be present in people's online profiles. If the point is reached where that expectation exists, then it will become very risky for people to pretend to hold certifications that they have not earned. The flip side of my earlier statement about credential theft will come into effect. If checking the validity of certifications is easy, then the downside of lying about them is huge.
I much prefer to lace articles about any given topic with a balance of pros and cons. The closest that I could come to enumerating a downside of digital badges, however, is that I had to spend some time setting up my Acclaim account and publishing the badges to my LinkedIn profile. On the flip side, I came up with the following advantages:
- There is no cost to certification holders.
- They have the potential to eliminate one class of certification fraudsters.
- They make it painless for employers and recruiters to learn about your credentials.
If the above is not sufficiently clear, then let me state for the record that I am all for digital badges. They boost the legitimacy of certification holders, increase the transparency of the certifications themselves, and cause difficulties for certification fraudsters. I hold a few credentials issued through CompTIA and CIW. I hope that they decide to make the move to digital badges as well.