CompTIA Has Boarded the Digital Badging Bandwagon

Digital badges can make a big difference in job searches.

It's difficult to write about digital badging without referencing the immortal line "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and/or having a BADGES BADGES BADGES chant inspired by one of the most, er, unforgettable internet memes of all time. And now that we've covered these two must-haves in our opening sentence, we can proceed uninterrupted with a look at digital badging, its current role in IT certification, and CompTIA's move into digital badging at the end of 2018.


What is Digital Badging?


A digital badge is an electronic image that serves the same purpose as a Boy Scout's merit badge patch, or a sheriff's metal badge. It identifies an individual who has attained a level of proficiency in a specified skill, as well as identifying the organization that issued the badge.


In order to differentiate it from a mundane jpeg, a digital badge typically has metadata embedded into it. This extra info uniquely identifies the person who earned the badge, the achievement the badge was awarded for, and the organization that manages the program that issued the badge.


This metadata makes digital badges more useful and authoritative than simple industry logos. Anyone can paste a vendor logo in their resume or on their LinkedIn page, but a digital badge is less prone to tampering or being flaunted without merit. This quality gives digital badges better value and legitimacy. For example, hiring managers can easily verify a digital badge online when appraising a job candidate.


Digital badges are also useful for displaying your credentials when networking with other IT industry professionals. A growing number of industry sites support the use of digital badges in your online profile.


CompTIA's Digital Badges Finally Appear


The late arrival of leading tech industry association CompTIA to the digital badging party raised some eyebrows in the industry, as many of the top IT training and certification programs have had digital badges in place for some time. Why did it take CompTIA so long to roll out digital badges for its certifications?


Part of the wait may have been due to CompTIA's use of an external vendor to power its digital badging system. CompTIA decided to partner with Credly, a New York-based company that specializes in digital credentials across multiple industries. In 2018, Credly acquired Pearson's Acclaim business, which owns an in-house digital badging platform. CompTIA is leveraging Acclaim's platform for its own digital badges.


Acclaim uses the Open Badge technology which was first developed by Mozilla and has been refined over much of this decade. Open Badge is — as its name suggests — an open standard which has been implemented by large numbers of companies and organizations around the world. It is currently a well-established standard, and it's unlikely that CompTIA's delay in rolling out digital badges was related to a technology issue.


CompTIA has taken a big leap by moving into digital badging.

Given Credly's purchase of Acclaim last year, it's not a stretch to surmise that CompTIA's digital badging program was put on hold while the acquisition's red tape and change management gears were turning in the background. Delays aside, a more interesting question is: How could CompTIA's adoption of digital badges influence the ongoing development of its industry-leading certification program?


Badges Influence Certification Programs?


One aspect of the rising popularity of digital badging is the concept of "micro-credentials." You can think of micro-credentials as a type of partial credit, recognition of smaller steps towards a larger goal. The idea of micro-credentials is prevalent in how Microsoft has adopted digital badges into its training and certification program.


Microsoft doesn't just award badges based on the completion of one of its certification tracks; the company now offers digital badges at the exam level, allowing candidates to claim a new badge every time they pass any active exam offered by the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) program.


This system of micro-credentials offers IT professionals a more timely and user-friendly method for updating their CVs with the most recent achievements from their certification efforts. In a way, Microsoft's adoption of digital badges ended up as a "tail wagging the dog" move, as it has influenced how and when Microsoft provides displayable credentials to certification candidates.


CompTIA's program is different from Microsoft's in that it doesn't offer multiple-exam certifications except for the A+, which consists of two exams. Some industry experts have questioned why CompTIA is still using a two-exam format for the A+ certification. There is far less need for separate "hardware" and "software" exams when the modern enterprise is dominated by unibody chassis ultrabooks and mobile computing devices — both categories of non-vendor-repairable machines.


CompTIA's recent January 2019 refresh of A+ provided an opportunity to finally combine the two exams into one all-encompassing exam, a move which would have made the A+ the same as all of CompTIA's other certs, but CompTIA declined to make this move. CompTIA may now consider offering a digital badge for each of the A+ exams as a strategic incentive to encourage candidates who aren't interested in taking both exams, to at least go for one of them.


Beyond that, there aren't many obvious ways in which digital badging could influence CompTIA's certification process. CompTIA has been moving away from broad foundation-level certifications in favor of narrower knowledge domains such as those found in the PenTest+ (penetration testing) and Cloud+ certifications. It's more likely that CompTIA will go with a "one badge per credential" strategy while continuing to develop new, more specialized certifications.


Digital Badging is Here to Stay


The growing availability of digital badges is a welcome development for IT professionals who want to show off their industry certifications while giving employers an easy way to validate their credentials. Digital badges are more robust than vanilla vendor logos. Perhaps more significantly, digital badging has the potential to influence how training and certification vendors develop their programs to better leverage the technology for the benefit of IT workers across the industry.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer based in Canada.

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.