When Thomas Jefferson and colleagues introduced the elective system at the University of VA, they radically altered the future of higher education in the US and globally. Will badges do the same thing? The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent commentary by Kevin Carey on badges and a recent badge competition. Carey at the Chronicle, A Future Full of Badges:
Meanwhile, across the mountains, in Silicon Valley, the Mozilla Foundation was also thinking about the future. Mozilla, a nonprofit organization built around the ethos of the open Internet, created the popular Firefox Web browser, which anyone can download, free. Along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla is sponsoring a competition for the development of digital “open badges.” The first winners were announced last month, and one of them was the UC-Davis sustainable-agriculture program.
What is a digital badge, exactly? The MacArthur foundation says it’s “a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest,” which calls to mind the colorful pieces of cloth that Girl Scouts sew onto their sashes. But that’s a simplification that borders on meaninglessness. The winning Davis entry describes something far more sophisticated and important.
Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.
Say you’re an employer considering a job candidate. Under “systems thinking,” the applicant’s badge portfolio would include some of the UC-Davis courses he’s passed, along with grades. But it would also include evidence of the applicant’s specific skills, like “integrated pest management,” which he might have learned working on a farm. Other badges would describe workshops attended, awards won, and specific projects completed. Each badge would allow the employer to click through to more detailed levels of evidence and explanation—documents, assessment results, hyperlinks, video, and more.
The badge system, moreover, isn’t just a transcript, CV, and work portfolio rolled together into a cool digital package. It’s also a way to structure the process of education itself. Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning.
Later in the piece:
The majority of the badge competition winners, moreover, don’t come from traditional colleges or universities. They include Disney-Pixar, NASA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Peer 2 Peer University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The badges movement is based on the idea that people should be able to gather useful, verifiable evidence of everything they learn, not just everything they learn while attending an accredited postsecondary institution.
Finally, the badges movement is open. The top-flight educators at UC-Davis may develop the first widely used badge system for sustainable agriculture, but they won’t, in the long run, control it. Over time, farmers, students, civic groups, companies, professional organizations, and individual scholars will all contribute to a continuing process of helping people organize critical information about their lives.
Compared with the new open badge systems, the standard college transcript looks like a sad and archaic thing. Its considerable value is not based on the information it provides, which is paltry. What does a letter grade in a course often described only by the combination of a generic department label and an arbitrary number (e.g. Econ 302) really mean? Nobody knows, which is why accredited colleges often don’t trust that information for the purposes of credit transfer, even when it comes from other accredited colleges.
Instead, the value of the traditional degree comes mostly from the presumed general authority of the granting institution—and the fact that traditional colleges have a legally enforced near-monopoly over the production of credentials that are widely accepted for the purposes of getting a job or pursuing advanced education.
Open systems tend to blow such lucrative arrangements apart. The doomed effort of for-profit academic publishers to maintain their grip on prestigious scholarly journals is one example. The imminent demise of the physical textbook market is another. Open badges won’t be controlled by incumbent institutions with a vested financial interest in limiting the supply of valuable credentials.
Many of the first badge systems will fail, of course. They won’t be designed well enough or properly connected to communities of interest. But some will take root and thrive. More users will beget more users. Employers will gain facility in the use of badges and confidence in those who bear them.