Can a Badge Certify Your Academic Credentials?

Can a Badge Certify Your Academic Credentials?

There’s a new education development on the horizon called digital badges. The basic concept of a badge is that it provides a means for documenting specific skill sets that you’ve acquired throughout the learning process, skills which are not immediately recognizable simply by listing the name of your degree on a resume. As the use of badges is being developed for educational purposes, the question for students and educators to consider is whether or not it is necessary for higher education. 

Paving the Way for Implementation

Development of an infrastructure.

The Mozilla Foundation, developer of the Firefox browser, received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop an infrastructure that will support a system of badges, paving the way for organizations to implement and issue them. It is known as Mozilla's Open Badges project and it is designed to allow organizations to issue digital badges, which will allow students to collect badges from different sources and display them across the web – on their resume, web site, social networking profiles, job sites or just about anywhere.

Creating a process. 

A working paper from, titled Open Badges for Lifelong Learning, indicates that there are many types of learning other than traditional classroom learning, including interest-based projects, self-directed tinkering and information gathering, community participation or on-the-job experience (p. 2), and a 'badge' is a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest (p. 3). The purpose of the system being developed is to support lifelong learning in the various forms that students may experience it through a system that documents what has been learned or the skills that have been acquired. The following process diagram illustrates the intended method for students to acquire and utilize badges, who have participated in learning activities with organizations that have made digital badges available.

Badge Diagram

A competition to create badges.

The ongoing Badges for Lifelong Learning competition, administered by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is designed to encourage individuals and organizations to create badges – digital tools that support, identify, recognize, measure, and account for new skills, competencies, knowledge, and achievements for 21st century learners regardless of where and when learning takes place. The purpose of this competition is to encourage organizations to develop badges that can be utilized with Mozilla’s infrastructure. The winners of the competition will receive an award that will allow them to fully develop and implement their proposed badges.

Current Discussions

Support for the use of badges.

The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated on September 15, 2011 at the 4th Annual Launch of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition that “badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate – as well as document and display – their skills.” Additionally, “badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings.”

Secretary Duncan further refers to the use of badges as a “game-changing strategy,” one that is likely to contribute to changes in the educational system – and that education is necessary for the nation’s economic success. That is quite a leap forward, from an idea about utilizing technology to document skills to paving the way for change within an educational system. At present there are a few examples that illustrate how badges are currently being utilized; however, it remains to be seen if this will lead to overall, widespread systematic changes. Here are two examples:
•    Badge Stack functions with the Mozilla Open Badge infrastructure and allows organizations to issue badges when learning activities have been completed. It also provides a method for students to share their badges on social network websites once received. As an example, the New York City Department of Education utilizes BadgeStack to document the acquisition of skills gained from a digital literacy course.
•    College Open Textbooks issues badges to show recognition of achievements for peer reviewers of its textbooks.

In “Badges Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas,” Jeffrey Young makes the case for badges with an argument that "after all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned." I find this statement interesting as students typically earn a degree with an area of concentration or specialization, which indicates what subject matter they have learned and more importantly, the transcript documents precisely what courses were taken and in a sense becomes an academic badge.

Questions about the use of badges.

Doug Belshaw, an educator and researcher, provides this perspective: “Badges are not an end in themselves but a means to that end. But what is that end? To my mind it’s working towards a society where learning is recognized to happen anywhere, at any time, and with such learning valued by society.” This is a good reminder for educators – what is the ultimate purpose? How will students benefit as participants of this process and be assessed in order to be eligible to display specific badges?

Patrick Ledesma’s artice, Can Badges Offer Viable Alternatives to Standardized Tests for School Evaluation?, presents a potential concern that “all states, schools, and communities may not adopt the badge ecosystem.” In addition, “another potential problem is that interpreting the exact meaning of the different types of badges for making judgments about school quality will be too subjective.” This raises a question about development of a system that may not be embraced by all schools and how to create a uniform standard for those who do implement it.

A recent Forbes article by James Marshall Crotty, Why Get a Pricey Diploma When a Badge Will Do?, states that “the biggest knock on badges, however, is that they are another shallow gimmick that fails to solve an age-old problem: quality assurance. We will likely need to rank badge issuers (and not with badges) just as we rank colleges and universities.” This is a good point as schools have an accreditation process and most are very concerned about the quality of education provided. If any organization has an ability to issue a badge, how will quality be assured?

The readMedia team is offering another possible alternative through their website, which is designed for schools to document students’ accomplishments. Colin Mathews, CEO of readMedia, states that “students' online presences are mostly dominated by Facebook posts, which employers are increasingly checking and that don't necessarily represent students in the best light.” Through use of this website, students have a verifiable source of achievements that can be shared on virtually any website, including social media profiles.

As an educator within the field of online learning I have to wonder how school-issued badges could be of benefit for online schools or online students. Degree programs are designed with a specific curriculum and set of learning objectives, and learning activities are created for the purpose of meeting those objectives. Would a badge successfully document that any additional skills have been learned?

It seems that a system of badges could be part of a change in the perception of learning, rather than the process of learning. When graduates list their degree on a resume, employers accept it at face value and the true test of their skills and knowledge occurs on the job. Will a badge increase validation of skill attainment or improve the likelihood that an employer accepts you have earned significant skills?
Overall, a badge may be of greatest benefit for a student with limited career experience. Students who have extensive workplace experience may not find a badge is necessary or does not increase their marketability. This reminds me of organizational employees who attend workshops and received certificates of completion. These one-time events provided additional information and the question that comes up – did learning really occur? The same question can be applied to badges. A badge may serve as another indicator of learning, but is it really proof of an acquired skill set?

Perhaps a simpler (and quicker) answer to questions about documentation of students’ skill sets upon graduation will occur with changes in the approach taken with the development of a resume, instead of waiting for schools to implement a system of badges. I’ll discuss this topic in my next post.

Would you be interested in obtaining a badge for any of your academic skill sets? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Gary Braasch/CORBIS


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