Lightcast Case Study
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Badge of Honor: Boston University’s Skills-Based Approach

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Clear understanding starts with a common vocabulary.

Here’s how Boston University is applying the language of skills to its PhD programs.

Even at the highest levels of education, the fundamental questions of planning remain: what skills do you have, what do you need to learn in order to accomplish your goals, and what courses can you take to get you there? 

That’s true even at the PhD level. For nearly 200 years, Boston University has been a leading research institution in the Northeast and nationwide, but to make sure the school continues preparing students well for the future, it needed to be flexible and continue adapting its approach.

As part of a systemic review of its programs, a Boston University task force identified several core competencies for the school to instill in every PhD student—widely-applicable abilities like communication, teaching, and management and leadership, in order to help students understand how their time at BU would connect to future opportunities. The challenge, then, was figuring out how to integrate this skills-based approach in a way that helps students in the future without taking away from their present-day studies. The result is BU’s “PhD Progression” program.

The Question

How could Boston University give its PhD students the language to talk about the skills that they're building?

Sasha Goldman, Director of PhD resources at BU, found her solution in digital badges.

“We had a few key concerns to balance as we tried to figure out how to integrate the core competencies from the PhD Progression into the way our programs actually function,” Goldman said. “They had to be accessible to students, they couldn’t detract from their studies in the lab and the classroom, and maybe most important, they had to be easily understood within the academic programs and also externally, especially with employers. Badges can do all of that, and they’re easy to track even when the work happens outside of normal school environments.” 

BU now offers over 160 badges that students can complete online at their own pace. Each badge takes between 45 to 90 minutes to finish, and they’re structured to address the seven core capacities of the PhD Progression program. The badges are categorized into three levels of learning: Skills Exploration, Skills Development, and Skills Application.

The Solution

Digital Badges, Centered on Skills

Microcredentials give students a vocabulary to articulate the skills they’ve learned in their education in a format employers understand.

The platform BU uses for this new approach was Badgr (now part of Canvas), which uses the Lightcast Open Skills Taxonomy to see the relationship between different skills and how they relate to one another and also to real-world job postings.

The practical benefit this gives the PhD Progression program is that it helps identify and clarify the way different skills tie back to what’s actually being requested by employers.

“Many of our PhD students won’t go into careers in academia, but after being immersed in this culture, that’s sometimes the only vocabulary they have to describe all they’ve accomplished.” Goldman said. “But in a PhD, you're learning research, you are learning public speaking, you're learning writing, communication skills, you're learning time management, you're learning project management, you're learning collaboration—all of those are applicable in so many contexts."

Another key advantage of the PhD Progression badging program is how it ensures students have access to resources that are both convenient and reliable, rather than needing to go out and find them on their own.

“We know our PhDs are doing such demanding work, and we want to support them as best we can and also make sure we’re respectful of their time,” Goldman said. “So when somebody wants to develop a certain ability, especially a widely-applicable one like public speaking, we don’t want them spending their time Googling and trying to find resources themselves. It’s our job to curate those materials for them.”

The resources available through the PhD Progression program, by contrast, are centralized and thoroughly vetted. Any student wanting to explore or build skills now has just one place they need to go to find them.

After introducing the badging system and learning more about the tool, BU realized that they were underutilizing the Lightcast skills taxonomy that makes it possible.

That brought them to to Skillsmatch: a Lightcast program that takes input from learners about their background and experience and finds connections in career fields and specific jobs. Furthermore, the program serves learners with personalized learning pathways: it not only identifies skills gaps, it also shows which PhD Progression badges can help bridge them. By combining SkillsMatch with the digital badging, the entire PhD program is integrated into one cohesive skills-based ecosystem.



Offered to BU PhDs



To earn each badge



Enrolled in the badge program


Total Badges

Awarded to BU Students

Learn More About BU's Approach at Inside Higher Ed

"How Digital Badges Can Help PhD Careers"

When talking about badging with students and faculty, one question Goldman gets is about whether anyone outside the department is even interested in the badges and the skills they represent. 

“And I say yes, employers care about skills, they actually care the most about skills,” she says. “So we need to give our students the language to share their skills using language that employers understand.”

With digital badging, and a skills-based approach powered by Lightcast, BU has been able to give them that language.

“Our PhD students are with us for at least five years, and they learn so much. Whether those abilities are within their discipline or more broadly applicable, a skills-based approach gives them the language to articulate just how valuable their education was, no matter their next steps.”

Sasha Goldman,

Director of PhD Resources

Boston University