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What’s It Worth? Certificates, Badges and Online Portfolios

POSTED 09/14/2013
By Brad Zomick

Online education is changing. MOOCs, open courseware, and a bevy of online skill-based courses are bringing down the cost of content. Despite excellent content being offered at lower and lower prices (or even free), those gaining valuable skills have yet to see a similar revolution in their ability to demonstrate or prove those skills. Last month, we begun an in-depth exploration of the world of online credentials. There are a number of ways to prove acquired skills online, including credentials that are earned via tests or assessments. In this installment, we take a closer look at completion certificates and badges, as well as online portfolio platforms.

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Certificates & Badges of Completion

A certificate of completion doesn’t mean very much. It’s a bit like when you got a trophy in 3rd grade soccer simply for showing up. Many online course providers dole them out to students who have simply sat through the entire video, including learning libraries like lynda.com. There is also a “badge of completion”, which is nearly identical except that a badge is a bit more digital.

lynda.com certificate of completion

lynda.com provides a certificate of completion after you successfully finish a course.

lynda.com 

Since 2009, lynda.com has been awarding certificates to users who complete their courses. Each time a lynda.com module is completed, it will be marked with an eye icon, indicating that the video has been viewed. Once all videos have been viewed, the certificate of completion becomes available. Once unlocked, certificates can be printed or shared via email, URL, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or even embedded in WordPress. With lynda.com, there is no testing mechanism — completion just means you sat through the video.

Treehouse

Treehouse, a leading learning library, has a different strategy. It offer short challenges to help ensure that students understand the material. After successful completion of key challenges, badges are unlocked, displayed on your profile, and become shareable via social media. These badges are meant to increase motivation, spur a little bit of competition between users, and provide gaming mechanics that help make the longer-term learning process more engaging.

Treehouse badges

Treehouse badges are unlocked after challenges.

What’s it worth? So you have spent hours laboring through tutorials on lynda.com and Treehouse, and now have a trove of digital certificates and badges, but the million dollar question is—are they worth anything? The skills that you are learning via these platforms are hard skills that can help you get employed, but is a simple certificate enough to do the trick? Digital certificates and badges are relatively new so there is very little in the way of official evidence to prove or disprove this question.

However, there is anecdotal evidence to support that a certificate alone is not enough to land you a job. Shortly after launching the certificate feature, founder Lynda Weinman posted a blog post requesting feedback about inclusion of testing in certification. She asked—“The question was bound to come up—will we ever offer tests and “real” certification; something that assesses a member’s actual skill?” The question itself shows recognition that completion certificate have very limited value. Weinman continued in her post to say that there was no plan to incorporate testing in the immediate future, although the majority of the 54 commenters to her open blog question were in favor of testing. Four years later, there has yet to be another blog entry about testing on lynda.com. Another strong indication of certificate value was indicated by a dialogue between Treehouse staff and a user regarding a certification feature request posted 4 months ago:

“I wish that Treehouse would provide some sort of certifications for the courses we complete while being a member. It would be really good if we could get some sort of proof that we are proficient in the specified language.”

The response from Treehouse staff member, Guil Hernandez, was swift:

“The best certification—in my opinion—is designing and developing something really awesome using your skills, then releasing it for the world to see and use. Making it open source helps, too.” 

Similar sentiments have been echoed in Sitepoint discussion forums for web developers and programmers. In our last installment we discussed Gild, a talent acquisition service that mines forums like StackOverflow for active participants who could be potential hires. Although Gild shows enormous potential, the actual education providers are surely providing excellent content, but are doing little in the way of certifying or credentialing their students to be more employable. In Treehouse, the badging system is used primarily to enhance the learning experience, rather then emulate Mozilla open badges, with personal data baked into the badge itself. So for the time being, Treehouse’s badges offer something that can meaningfully increase your employment opportunities, although that clearly isn’t the goal. This hasn’t necessarily stopped students from advertising their badges, as a couple of Treehouse students created a widget to help display the badges in WordPress.

[Editor’s Note: After the publication of this article, Treehouse Chief Content Officer, Nick Pettit, personally reached out and let us know that Treehouse now has a fully functioning job board and user badge profiles are fully viewable by employers. Incidentally, Treehouse profiles also link to LinkedIn, Github, and Dribbble (see below). All in all, a master stroke for Treehouse.]

Two final considerations on badges and certificates of completion:

  • The perceived value of certificates of completion and badges will vary in value from employer to employer. Employers who have actually taken online courses and even learned their trade via an online learning platforms will have a better appreciation for the time you spent and the badges you earned. The majority of traditional employers, however, will not be intimately familiar with lynda.com or Treehouse, and will look upon these badges and certificates with skepticism.
  • Certificates of Completion & Badges have more value for those early in their career. While there is no substitute for actual examples of your work, at the entry level, certificates and badges provide at least a way to differentiate yourself from other similar candidates – a tiebreaker of sorts. Students who are fresh out of college have very little fodder for their resume, and a certification or badge can be useful to help demonstrate that one took the initiative to learn something on their own.

Right now, a lone certificate of completion or badge has very little value and those earning these recognize that these are more tools to help you learn than to help you get employed.

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Online Portfolios

While typical certificates of completion and badge offer minimal employment value, new portfolio sites can help you assemble examples of your work and just about anything else you have done in your lifetime, including courses you have taken both in college and online, books you have read, skills you have learned, articles you have read, and even events you have attended. There are many different platforms that can help you build and showcase your portfolio, and although this was originally popular amongst graphic designers, new platforms allow you to demonstrate what you can do in a variety of different skill areas. At the entry level, online portfolios start as resume enhancers and eventually build up to full blown portfolio showcases.

LinkedIn

A conversation about online portfolios cannot begin without mentioning LinkedIn, the first of its kind. In 2003, LinkedIn slowly started creeping into our lives by creating a “Myspace for Adults.” Just 10 years later, it is now used by 225 million people around the world, and is likely the most commercially viable social network. LinkedIn is now tightly integrated into networking, the job search and business development, making it the resume of the future. Aside from your collecting and organizing job experiences and skills, you can also link web versions of your work and upload files to your profile. Although most will use the bare minimum on LinkedIn — creating a digital resume of sorts, the platform is likely to evolve into showing more detailed work examples and more clearly showing specific skills.

LinkedIn profile

LinkedIn is now a must-have for any working professional.

Degreed

Degreed is a relatively new site that allows you to create a portfolio of your life’s learning experiences. It seeks to do for education, what LinkedIn did for job experience. CEO David Blake started Degreed because,

“While college remains an endearingly positive personal experience, the four-year degree is still inefficient. The problem is that there are too many people who either don’t finish their formal training and their learning is discounted as a result — or those who do finish and just get lumped in with thousands of other graduates.”
Degreed is currently a free service that scores and displays your accredited and non-accredited educational learning, allowing you to catalogue and showcase both your degree from University of Indiana or Georgia Tech as well as courses taken on MOOC’s like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Degreed also allows you to catalogue all of your informal online learning experiences from the likes of lynda.com, Codecademy, Learnable, iTunes U, and many more online learning platforms. Additionally, if you have collected online badges (must have a .JSON web signature), Degreed can also be a repository for those as well. Ultimately, as its founders put it, Degreed seeks to “jailbreak your degree.”

Degreed

Degreed can help you track and showcase all of your degreed and non-accredited learning experiences.

The platform is in its infancy and has a few bugs. While Degreed can score your educational experience, the “validation” it promises is a bit of a stretch. It was simple to add a non-existant Harvard PhD. Furthermore, cataloguing your transcript is labor intensive. Rather than starting with no courses on your transcript, Degreed gives you 40 courses that require editing. The form for adding a degree lacked options for MBA and JD which are 60 – 90 credit hours, and the only recourse is to select the Masters option which gives you 120 credits of classes. So once you are done tagging everything, you need to go and remove another 10 -20  courses manually which is equally as labor intensive as filling out each course form. We have pointed this out to Degreed and they plan to improve this feature.

In the course form, there is a field for Course Verification URL. We would intuit this to mean that the Degreed course record should link to some public free record that demonstrates the course has been taken. While that is nice, most course transcript information is not only protected but also incurs fees to be released, and usually only on paper. In fact, it is actually illegal to release a transcript without student authorization.

Degreed verification of degrees

A flaw is that Degreed can’t really validate course attendance and grades as these are not publicly available information.

However, you can take it upon yourself to get a transcript, PDF it, and post it online to link to. We actually followed up with CEO, David Blake, on this issue and he showed us his Degreed profile which does exactly that. He also let us know, Degreed will be rolling out a service in late 2013 that, with student authorization, pulls course transcripts from university registrars and links a PDF version to your profile. However, a copy of a transcript is not an official transcript. For any MOOC or online courses, the validation URL is missing altogether. One other key feature that is currently absent is social sharing. After all, what’s the use if you can’t share any of the information you have labored to import to Degreed. In short, Degreed — in its current state — cannot truly validate your transcript or degree information. That said, Degreed is in beta and over time we are hopeful that they will smooth out these kinks. Kinks aside, it is a great place to keep a running portfolio of all the courses you have taken and skills you have acquired. You can even catalogue conferences attended, books and articles you have read, as well as media you have viewed. Degreed has the potential to be a very useful tool, especially for self-learners. However, it has significantly more potential for the following groups:

  • Currently in school: While Degreed is a neat platform, most gainfully employed people wouldn’t see the value in it, especially those reaching the middle and late stages of their career. The time it would take them to locate transcripts and input course data would be better suited updating their LinkedIn profile and calling a recruiter. However, students have the luxury of time to maintain their Degreed profile while in school, which probably would only take a few minutes to update between each semester.
  • Career transitioners: If you are looking to make the move from technical programming role to a business function or vice versa, this is a great place to track everything you have done to make the transition, especially if you have taken courses via multiple education resources. With a complete profile, its a great supplement to a resume or LinkedIn.
  • People cobbling together a degree using open courseware: Degreed is a great platform for those who are doing LifeHacker U or people like Scott Young, the blogger who took all of MIT’s computer science curriculum in one year.

A big question is: Can Degreed get popular enough that your Degreed score will matter? Right now, that remains to be seen. Perhaps, the more important question is: Can Degreed get you a job? The first step to LinkedIn’s dominance was a simple one: someone was hired or offered a job from their LinkedIn profile. It remains to be seen if anyone will get hired via Degreed (yet).

Degreed founder David Blake

Degreed founder David Blake.

About.me

About.me is a visual resume platform which provides you with a personalized, graphical homepage. It’s not quite a resume, nor is it a portfolio. It’s more so a home for your web persona, combining a large photo of yourself with your name in a stylized font, an inspirational byline, and a short description. You can add all your favorite social media feeds and contact information, so people who find your profile and are interested in starting a dialogue with you can contact you directly. If you want to keep it very professional, you can just add your LinkedIn profile and an email address. Your page is also sharable via Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin, and embeddable in WordPress. The platform also provides analytics for your page.

About.me profile.

About.me gives gives you stylish homepage and helps people find and connect with you.

Pathbrite

Pathbrite is a portfolio creation platform that steps in where LinkedIn and Degreed leave off, by enabling artists, designers, and writers, or even a financial analyst or accountant to share their work product online — be it designs, writing samples, Excel files or a great Powerpoint presentation. Pathbrite is not about simply adding a file or two your profile. It is a flexible and open platform that allows you to breathe life into your resume or portfolio by adding pictures, documents (hard files as well as Google Docs), videos, websites, and LinkedIn Recommendations. While you can use Pathbrite as resume or portfolio enhancement tool, it can also be used to tell a story about yourself or your work.

Pathbrite profile.

Pathbrite can breathe life into your resume with pictures, video, documents, and webpages.

Accredible

While the consensus is that a certificate is of questionable value, Accredible‘s mission is to transform your flimsy piece of paper or digital certificate into an object of value using evidence of your work and endorsement from instructors or colleagues. CEO Danny King aims to reimagine the certificate: “We let anyone create certificates for skills, achievements or knowledge they have and let you embed proof of that onto the certificate itself.”  Users can create and share certificates for just about anything and can upload documents, spreadsheets, presentations, PDFs, images, and video to support that accomplishment, knowledge or skill. While Degreed provides a transcript of your lifelong education, Accredible can a provide a portfolio for your educational accomplishments.

accredible

Accredible.

Just like Degreed, Accredible offers more value for current students, those in a career transitions, and online learners looking to prove their worth. The Accredible team believes that if free online learning were as credible as traditional university learning, MOOCs and online learning would have much more value. We have to agree. However, even Danny King admits it won’t happen fast: “The real challenge ahead is that a culture shift is needed in order to enable the kind of learning we do outside of formal institutions to be credible in employers’ eyes.”

Portfolios for Creative Fields

The traditional portfolio, a collection of designs, sketches, paintings, and photographs bound together loosely in a folder or plastic binding has come a long a long way in the last 5 to 10 years, and may soon go the way of the caveman. Every artistic creation under the sun can now be digitized and posted online where it can be showcased to spectators, appreciators, and potential clients or customers.

Behance

The premiere portfolio platform for creative types is Behance, which caters to architecture, fashion, photography, graphic design, illustration, UI/UX, and web design professionals. What sets Behance apart is that its primary purpose is as a commercial networking platform that facilitates talent finding opportunity. In fact, major companies like AOL, Viacom, Nike, and Google use it to find creative talent. It has become so popular that it attracts millions of visitors per month (50 million project views last month), and powers creative networks for top schools and organizations like Adweek, School of Visual Arts, AIGA, Art College of Design, LinkedIn, and Rhode Island School of Design. It also distributes artists’ work to many other online galleries, helping talent get even more exposure. Behance also offers ProSite, a web service that helps you build and publish your own personal portfolio site which integrates with the rest of Behance. It is free for users to post their work on Behance, but the ProSite service costs $11/month.

Behance

Behance connects creative talent to opportunity.

While Behance generated a lot of buzz with its explosive growth and acquisition by Adobe last December, there are other sites with a commercial focus worth considering: 

  • Dribble: Dribble is a similar (and growing) portfolio networking platform with a fun vibe, and is the largest competitor to Behance. Dubbing itself as a place where designers can “show and tell,” the platform uses game mechanics to make it addictive and fun to share creative work. Users are either prospects, rookies, or players, and can upload screenshots or “shots” of what they are working on. Players have limited number of shots every month so they need to make them count. They can communicate about “shots,” and there is a ranking feature which allows the most popular “shots” to rise up. This is also an important platform for anyone looking for a designer of any kind.
  • CoroflotCoroflot is similar to Behance and Dribble and while it does have image hosting, there is a strong focus on recruitment. Interestingly, it is the old timer on this list, dating back to 1998. It has a helpful salary guide for designers and a large job board where the likes of Siemens, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony, and Research In Motion have recruited.

Overwhelmed yet? I hope not because art and photography portfolio sites are numerous and here are some honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): 1x, 22Slides, 4ormat, 500pxCarbonmadeCargoCrevadodesign:related, deviantART, DripbookFigDig, FlickrFlavors.meIssuuFolioHD, GlossomKrop, nubook, ParadePhotoShelter, PicasaPortfolioBox, PortfolioDeckPortfoliopen, Projeqt, Salon.io, SmugMugShown’dtumblr, Viewbook, and Zenfolio.

Portfolios for Coders

While artists and creative types need somewhere to showcase their work, coders, developers, and programmers are creators too. Chances are some of you who belong in that category are wondering, “Where can I  showcase my work?” We already mentioned your lynda.com certificate of completion is not enough, but what is? Well, if you have actually built something like a website, web app, or reputable piece of software, there’s nothing stopping you from taking a few pictures of the product or service and slapping together a portfolio on Pathbrite, Behance, and other their variants. However, things do work a little differently in the world of programming. Rather than reviewing a personal programming portfolio, employers would rather see your actual code. In fact, we already mentioned services like Gild are looking for examples of your work in StackOverflow, but where else are they looking?

Github

Github is one such place where aspiring developers can congregate online and share code, making it a social network for programmers. While it was just founded in 2008, it is already the most popular repository for open source code. Some of you not-so-technical types, might be wondering, “What the heck is Git anyway?” Git is a software control management system that closely manages each version of a software project. Git differentiates itself from its predecessors — “CVS” and “Subversion” — by allowing developers to make local copies of code, edit it, and then check the individual updates back into the server, which encourages collaboration on a granular level. The ecosystem supports integrated bug tracking and communal code review, and the line-by-line level of communication creates a network effect where people can view your project experience and determine whether or not to include your code updates. Github’s popularity has spurred competitors, one of which, Bitbucket, is worth checking out.

Github coding portfolio

Github is one place to create a “portfolio” of your coding work.

Coderwall

Coderwall is the Klout of coding. Just as Klout aggregates data from Facebook and Twitter and gives you a social media score, Coderwall can pull data from places like Github, Bitbucket, and StackOverflow and assess your coding chops. Rather than assigning a score, Coderwall gives you badges to represent your rank and accomplishments, such as the Altruist Badge for participating in 20 or more open source projects. Aside from Github projects you have participated in, badges are also assigned by each coding language you have mastered. Coderwall also has its own social component, where you can discuss code snippets, share tips, and get feedback from thousands of programmers. Finally, you can also create teams and participate in group coding challenges that help increase your Coderwall street cred.

Coderwall profile

Coderwall is the Klout of coding.

Start Building Your Portfolio Now!

A portfolio of your work speaks much louder than a flimsy certificate or a digital badge of completion. However, a badge of completion should not be confused with a badge that has data and verification backing it, like the ones provided by Coderwall. Perhaps one of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting the need for a portfolio is the myriad of sites that have popped up in the past five years to help people showcase their talent and skills. While certificates and badges have questionable value, showcasing them side-by-side with your work in a portfolio immediately enhances and validates their value as an evaluation tool. Portfolios were always considered must-haves for creative types, but in a competitive job market, they are every job seeker’s best friend. A resume and a LinkedIn profile are no longer enough. While creatives and coders have Behance and Coderwall, even recent college grads can put together a portfolio of their work using Pathbrite and Accredible. There simply are no more excuses. What are you waiting for? That portfolio is not going to make itself.

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