How badges can contribute to formal and informal education

Digital Badges in Education

Chapter 9 (‘Badging as Micro-Credentialing in Formal Education and Informal Education’) of Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases starts off with a great analogy between traditional college transcripts and a receipt you may obtain after picking up your shopping from a store:

Comparing the college transcript to a retail store receipt

The difference between badges and grades is neatly summarised by the authors in the following way:

While badges were designed to document what has been learned, grades are designed primarily to sort people (like eggs or meat). Grades institutionalize and perpetuate the idea of ‘failure’ in learning, rather than progress to completion, and they often have more to do with compliance with rules and deadlines than with mastery. Grades summarize performance across multiple modules and types of context, masking whether a person has mastered individual concepts or skills.

In addition, badges are different from report cards and degrees because of the conceptual size of the credential:

“Badges employ a grain size that effectively communicates that a valued unit of learning, representing knowledge, skills, or attributes, has been demonstrated. Each badge describes something discreet [sic] that its earner knew and/or demonstrated the ability to do, while courses and diplomas combine many topics and are often confounded by other factors like attendance or class participation.”

The authors note that badges have, quite rightly, been seen as ‘transformative’ in the context of formal education:

Badges are… potentially transformative because they could replace the dismal ‘grades’ issued by formal education providers, which often combine mastery of the knowledge and skills to be learned with compliance factors such as attendance and class participation, which diminished the grade’s ability to communicate mastery (Peck, 2013).

Badges can complement traditional degrees (“which have been around for centuries and are not likely to go away soon”) and “provide additional opportunities and flexibility to graduates, benefiting both formal education institutions and their graduates”.

In addition to the above advantages, the authors note that badges provide:

  • Transparency
  • Evidence
  • Granularity
  • Higher-quality assessment
  • Competency-based approaches
  • An expanded portfolio of verified skills

There are, of course, barriers to adopting badges. These are listed as:

  1. Developing the technology infrastructure required
  2. Teachers/faculty having little time or incentive to develop badges
  3. Worries that transparency might aid competitors
  4. How to define badges for more abstract areas (e.g. poetry)
  5. Fears that educators may have to give up their ‘sage on the stage’ role

Kyle Bowen, someone I’ve interacted a number of times both before and since he left his role at Purdue University, has developed the model shown below. It shows some ways badging can be used in Higher Education:

Categories of badge use in higher education

Unsurprisingly, the most interesting types of badges are likely to be found on the right-hand side of this diagram.

After noting some early pushback from influential scholars such as Mitch Resnick (2012) around badges as motivators and for profit, the authors move onto discuss badges for informal learning and workforce preparation. In terms of the latter, the authors ask the rhetorical question, “So, what is attracting employers and human resources types to digital badges?” The answer is that badges help solve the ‘skills gap’, or difficulty employers have in “finding employees who are qualified for the job openings, in both the technical and soft skills arenas.” In addition:

Another aspect of digital badges that is appealing to employers is a future where they make hiring choices based on more Рand more accurate Рinformation than what they currently can access. While some employers may balk at the idea of more information, because they have so many r̩sum̩s and cover letters to sort through, there are plenty of benefits to the added information from badges. Instead of relying on the sparse information of college transcripts and perhaps inaccurate information from references, a set of digital badges could give an employer a clear idea of what skills an employee brings to the table, and how she or he gained those skills.

The metadata in badges could (with the earner’s permission) be used by search engines, meaning that “much of the sorting that human resource professionals now do manually will be done by computers…   freeing more time to go deeper into the differences that might separate top candidates.”

The authors conclude by talking about proposed changes to the Open Badges specification that could add real value to employers. The first is endorsements. This currently exists as an ‘extension’ to the current specification, but is set to be a full and more developed part of the core specification with version 2.0. The second is machine-based interpretation of badges which will be of value “as geographically distributed workforces become more common”, boosting “the desirability of open badges”.

This is a well-written, and eminently readable chapter, giving solid advice to scaffold the journey of the budding badge designer.