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Can online badges help you get a job?

Online degree programs are nothing new, but thanks to several innovative, award-winning educators, this type of learning is entering a new phase that promises to benefit students and their future employers alike.

In January, Udemy, an organization that offers a platform for educators to create and sell online courses, launched The Faculty Project, which includes free online courses taught by professors from prestigious institutions such as Vassar, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern and Notre Dame. Udemy offers a variety of classes in disciplines such as business, law, history, literature, archeology and engineering. And just as they would in classes that are taught in a brick-and-mortar educational environment, students in Udemy classes listen to lectures, participate in discussions with their classmates, and receive supplements -- like PowerPoint presentations, PDF documents, and articles -- designed to help them navigate their way through the course material.

Udemy is just one of the latest organizations to offer online courses for free. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun recently made news when he announced that he's giving up his tenured position in order to run Udacity, which offers technology classes to students for free online. Other notable players include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which recently launched MITx, offering free classes, although there is a small fee for those who want to become certified in a certain area.

Understanding the education badge

Taking free, online classes is a great way to expand your knowledge, but how do you demonstrate that you have mastered the material and gained the skill sets you need?

As one answer to this question, a number of groups are starting to offer educational badges, a low-cost way to demonstrate proficiency in a certain area without needing to earn a more expensive degree or certification from a traditional college program. Badges might be offered for specific skills such as knowledge of HTML or desirable qualities such as leadership, but they are designed to send a clear signal to employers about what skills an individual possesses.

What do education badges mean for students?

What badges will mean in terms of the marketability of job candidates remains to be seen. Many employers have complained that newly minted college graduates do not meet their expectations, and despite having a lot of academic knowledge, some job candidates lack the practical skills needed to do the job. Badges are one way companies could screen their prospective employees for the skills they are looking for, while students could use them as a way to augment the academic foundation that they receive in their degree programs.

On the other hand, some fear that badges will be used as an alternative to attending college -- especially given the current economic climate and the rising cost of tuition -- which may not benefit students. Without a structured degree or diploma program, critics believe that some students may earn badges in a random, haphazard manner and miss out on the critical thinking skills that can be gained in a traditional education program.

Also, quality assurance is a concern. With accredited colleges and universities, employers know that the schools have met certain standards. But some wonder if employers can trust the quality of the education that students receive in unregulated badge programs.

Only time will tell how badges will fit into education and the job market. In the meantime, students have a great opportunity to learn from these free, online courses -- whether they are in a degree program or not.