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Partner: Southern New Hampshire University

Category: Non-Traditional

Digital Badging Connects Underserved Youth with Opportunity

Southern New Hampshire University is using digital badges to make learning relevant for underserved young people who struggle to see the value of traditional education.

Launched in 2015 with a $25 million investment by the MacArthur Foundation, LRNG is tackling this issue through an online platform that empowers youth to pursue learning opportunities that can lead directly to jobs. And with the 2018 merger with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) — which created one of the largest and most innovative learning and workforce solutions in the United States — LRNG is expanding access to higher education and transforming lives through flexible and affordable degree pathways and new types of workforce opportunities.

For both organizations, digital badging is key to program success. Based on the success of LRNG in several major cities, SNHU is working to offer college credit for certain LRNG badges.

Unlocking Opportunity

LRNG has developed a gamified learning platform that engages young people and helps them earn digital badges that represent workforce-relevant skills such as collaboration and problem solving — and unlock related job opportunities. Not only can LRNG youth access a whole new world of learning that’s accessible anytime and anywhere, they’re also encouraged to pursue the options they find most interesting or relevant to their future careers.

Video: LRNG aims to transform metro areas into what it calls citywide campuses that connect community resources and improve access to learning opportunities for underserved students.

Building on research about how young people learn, socialize, and participate civically in the connected age, LRNG is establishing cities as ecosystems of learning by partnering with local businesses and community organizations to create meaningful pathways between K-12, higher education, and the job market. First in Chicago and now in Birmingham, Alabama, LRNG works with employers to identify needed workforce skills, create learning opportunities that develop those skills, and offer internships and job interviews as rewards that motivate learning.

Built on Badgr

LRNG partnered with Concentric Sky, developer of Badgr, to design and build the LRNG platform. Badgr provides LRNG’s badging functionality as well as the pathways technology that guides learners on their personal journeys to success.

When a learner receives a badge on LRNG, it automatically appears in that learner’s Badgr Backpack along with any badges and micro-credentials earned from hundreds of other connected platforms including Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, and Digital Promise. In this way, LRNG badges stay with learners throughout their lives and are shareable at any time to digital portfolios, LinkedIn, social media, and other online outlets.

Like all Open Badges, LRNG badges are embedded with secure data that colleges, potential employers, and others can view to verify badge authenticity and the specific learning outcomes and skills they represent.

Image: Learners on LRNG can earn badges from numerous participating organizations, including Gap, Best Buy, and the University of Chicago.

Badging Is Key to Engagement

LRNG is committed to digital badging for its power to represent non-traditional learning activities — especially those that result in skills that employers seek. “We’re really trying to shorten the gap between what students are learning and its relevance in the world,” said Connie Yowell, CEO of LRNG, in an interview with EdSurge in October 2018. “We think that will have a huge impact on people’s motivation for learning and their engagement in learning.”

With the SNHU merger, LRNG learners can now pursue badges that earn college credit. “We think this will be the first real opportunity to build out fully robust pathways for young people into college and career,” Yowell said, “where the pathways begin with badges and end with college credit.”

Image: SNHU badges earned via LRNG qualify for college credit.

In a GettingSmart podcast in August 2019, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc explained, “What I love about LRNG and its approach to badging is that it’s first about engagement around the passions of young people. Before we can persuade people to commit themselves to the kind of learning that leads to further education or pathways that lead to work, we have to touch that fuse of ‘I love learning.’ So the badging here begins in many instances with badges that don’t bear college credit, but that engage and re-engage students. …”

“If we can start thinking about non-credit badging leading to credit-bearing badging, unlocking opportunities for first jobs,” LeBlanc added, “we’re very comfortable with the notion that our first success may be engaging a kid, our second success may be completing a badge or badges that get them their first job — and that we may not see them again for a while.” But once they succeed in that job, they might get the opportunity to advance if they acquire the needed degree, for example. “Now all of a sudden they have an incentive to continue their education.”

What’s developing, LeBlanc said, is a learning ecosystem that’s much more fully integrated into work, “(one) that can as easily incorporate a badge, a credit-earning badge, a micro-credential, a full-blown associate degree, a pathway to a bachelor’s degree.”

What’s Ahead

Forecasting how the LRNG/SNHU merger will play out a few years down the road, Le Blanc said, “I think we will understand better how this next generation of young learners wants to learn. … We still largely design learning the way Connie and I learned, and it’s hubris to think that’s how this next generation of digital natives wants to learn, growing up in a very different world than the one where we grew up. We will understand how to serve those students, those populations, much better. It’s profound, the possibilities here.”

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