Published on 2016/09/27

As We May Badge: Understanding the Central Characteristics of a Valuable Badge

The EvoLLLution | As We May Badge: Understanding the Central Characteristics of a Valuable Badge
There are four key characteristics that could transform badges from being a fun side-project to a critical and valuable approach to microcredentialing that creates immense value for employers and students alike.

Seven years ago, I dreamed of the things learning badges might do. For me, they represented a way of breaking learning away from patterns that were calcified and counterproductive—those that worked more for institutions than they did for individual learners.

The diploma and traditional transcript serve as a way of establishing institutional approval, but also as a way of ensuring students are relatively immobile and bound by the strictures of universities and other educational institutions. Learning badges were simple: an open way of linking to learning experiences so that they could easily be shared and evaluated. But this simple key could open the door to new ways of authentically assessing learning, building curricula, and designing new kinds of learning experiences that worked for a networked world.

When, at the end of a very productive set of discussions at the Mozilla Drumbeat festival in 2010, the conversation turned to what could go wrong—badge dystopias—many suggested that the major threats were a failure to adopt badges, or competing commercial badge systems, or successful attempts at forgery. For me, though, the worst outcome would be that badges were moderately successful and simply “bolted on” to existing systems.

Under such a scenario, we would end up with badges that looked a lot like the existing skills certifications already common in some industries and this, to my mind, constituted a failure. Instead, we needed badges that do more.

Reputable Badges

One of the problems badges seek to solve is providing a credential that can be authenticated immediately and seamlessly. This may fall back on existing institutional authority, like a university website that verifies the authenticity of the claim. Ideally, it may point back to documentation of a project that demonstrates the claimed competency, perhaps along with expert assessment. For now, most badges rely solely on the authority of the issuer. Such indications of authority tend to be heavily steeped in tradition. My colleagues and I asked recruiters in several industries how they might make use of badges and we were met with a range of responses, from excited interest to derisive laughter. With some exceptions, recruiters seek candidates who understand professional norms and expectations. Such norms are resilient and admit changes slowly and reluctantly. Indeed, recruiters and those who were engaged in hiring processes were less likely to find badges compelling than people who had little or no experience in hiring.

The process of evaluating candidates remains a ritualized one, and it may be some time before we hit a tipping point where badges are common enough to be expected on a resume or portfolio. I suspect that while they may gain ground in industries where credentialing is common, it is less likely that they will be widely accepted over the next decade, particularly if they are used only to communicate about the sorts of credentials already available.

Small Badges

One of the advantages of badges is that they provide a vehicle for recognizing microcredentials: indications of achievement that are smaller in scope than degree programs. The traditional thinking around the use of microcredentials is that they open the door to alternatives to traditional higher education, including MOOCs, bootcamps and other relatively narrow learning experiences. Given increased pressures on the four-year degree and interest in narrower training options, the ability to easily ascertain whether someone has completed such work would be valuable.

Badges provide a vehicle for alternative learning organizations to more easily certify the work of their students. Certainly, that provides room for highly focused professional and technical training programs, including those provided by for-profit organizations. But the question of the authority of a badge remains, and a badge from Stanford will convey more authority than one from an upstart bootcamp. Not only will universities offer an increasing number of stand-alone microcredentials, but I expect we will see more of these integrated into traditional degree programs. The diploma continues to be a sought-after and reliable indicator of competence, but many students will graduate with both a diploma and a set of badges differentiating particular skills. Ideally, by identifying particular competencies, the ability to earn and transfer credit from multiple universities will at some point be far easier.

Moreover, institutions that already have name recognition can use that reputation to leverage learning badges. While a badge issued by Stanford carries a certain amount of credibility, so do ones issued by NASA, the Museum of Modern Art, or Intel. People learn in many places, often without explicit curricula. Badges provide the opportunity to recognize that learning and share it. Right now, most resumes report the equivalent of “seat time” at universities and in companies. Rather than replacing traditional forms of indicating ability, badges are likely to continue to supplement them, especially if they can get out of the trap of only being considered indicators of skills training.

Soft Badges

One of the reasons the bachelor’s degree retains such value to employers is that, ideally, it marks capabilities that are not easily measured by a test. It is assumed that to finish a degree, students have had to develop their ability to reason through a problem, to work with a team, and to communicate effectively. In practice, these capacities remain elusive and messy. At first blush, they may not seem like “badgeable” qualities.

However, if badges are to become successful, they must be able to encode not just “hard skills” but also the kinds of higher level literacy, collaboration, leadership and critical thinking capacities that employers are in desperate need of. This means more than simply adding a badge to assessment practices that already exist. It means thinking deeply about how badges should be tied to portfolios, and how experts and peers can participate in evaluating one another’s work.

Networked Badges

The initial aim of the Mozilla Open Badges project was to make a space for badges that could be easily compiled and shared. Just as open networked syndication had made blogging into a powerful aggregation system, open badges could let us aggregate our learning experiences across institutions. To date, thousands of organizations are issuing badges, many of them compatible with the Open Badge Infrastructure. But how many badges have you seen shared outside the platforms on which they were born? At least at present, the promise of open, networked badging seems fleeting, and while there are spaces where displaying such badges seems natural, there remains no obvious solution right now for aggregation, archiving, and presentation. Without this, badges are doomed.

Looking to the Future

There seems little question that there is a future for badges and that a decade from now badges may be an important part of the labor market within certain industries. What remains a question is whether they will ever reach their revolutionary potential, or if they will remain “bolted on” to existing training opportunities. Small badges are not enough; unless a concerted effort is made to badge the kinds of capabilities employers find most important, and to make sharing those badges ridiculously simple, badges will be common, but also commonplace.

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