Published on 2012/06/29
While many critics will cite the “Frankenstein effect” as a major point against the badging movement—fearing that institutions are breeding graduates with disjointed and unmatching knowledge—that effect is alive and well in a number of formal higher education programs as well. Photo by Fr. Dougal McGuire.

In a recent conference session, Al Byers, a colleague from the National Science Teachers Association, referred to “the Frankenstein Effect”—the result when a bunch of existing parts are patched together to create something. The result is generally not pretty… or functional.

Some people worry that the badging movement would result in a series of badges that don’t really hang together to create ore represent the desired competence or expertise. They express that fear as if it is inevitable in badging systems, and as if it doesn’t already exist. But the Frankenstein effect is alive and well in all too many formal education programs. A typical degree is a patchwork of parts (courses) that were appended in a rather flexible sequence. There may or may not be help in making sense of the pieces as or after they are acquired. Rustum Roy once wrote an editorial that likened the college student experience to buying a BMW part by part and with the expectation that they would put it together on their own. It seems a fair criticism to me, and it was about today’s product – not the innovation, badging.

But in fact we can and must assemble parts. Life happens in parts, and we make sense of it. We learn as we grow, putting things together (crudely at first) and then refining our understanding as we give it more thought and as we apply what we have come to understand and see how reality sets us straight. Sometimes that synthesis is facilitated in a formal way. Many degree programs have capstone seminars and/or projects that cause students to synthesize their learning under the supervision of professors and/or professionals. Others programs don’t ensure that this happens—they let Frankenstein lumber off into the village. Sometimes synthesis is left to the student to accomplish in an informal way, and many times that works out. We are learning, integrating machines. We all learn, basically all the time.

I suspect that you are thinking that I was being too rough on the status quo. But that’s because the new educational option (in this case badging) is routinely subject to scrutiny that the status quo (in this case courses and letter grades) would not survive. I acknowledge that I portrayed worst-case scenarios to representing existing degree programs, just as badging critics broadcast the worst case scenarios for badging. So let’s stop the horror movies, avoid writing fairy tales in their place, and take a realistic view.

Badging is simply a form of micro-certification that implies that we define all the things that really matter (knowledge, skills, characteristics, and synthesis), figure out how we are going to measure them, and acknowledge students who master these things. If we use badging wisely, we’ll build a continuum of learning experiences at a much finer “grain size” that can be assembled with better results that when we assemble courses. We’ll want to offer badges for the synthesizing, too, to make sure that the insights people need to develop across badges have been acquired, but that’s doable. Well, it’s doable in institutions and organizations willing to do the hard work that real assessment (and badging) requires.

In a response to my last post to The EvoLLLution blog, WA Anderson said, “I’m not sure if digital badges will spell the difference between relevance and irrelevance for higher education… It’s the mind-set that comes with accepting the badges that will define higher education’s progress.”

That’s right. There’s no magic in the badges. It’s the shift in mindset and the fact that they cause good assessment that makes me believe good things lie ahead. But it’s people who will determine that.

Comments, anyone?

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/06/29 at 9:15 am

Glad to see I finally got featured in an article!!

It’s interesting, the comparison you’ve drawn between the “Frankenstein” characteristics in a formal degrees and the critiques thrown at badging. Those same critiques are also holding down competency-based models and, I think, doing a great disservice to adult students who try to get their prior learning and experience recognized as credit.

Ultimately, there cannot be any ultimate control over the knowledge a student gains. Even in a structured systems, a student might pull out a different understanding of a subject than was intended by the instructor based on their personal interests and preferences. Knowledge cannot be our standard for learning. It has to be comptencies and abilities we’re looking for.

It goes back to what we were taught in grade school… sometimes getting the answer right isn’t as important as getting the process right. Because the process is what’s going to carry through into the work world.

Kyle Peck 2012/06/29 at 12:50 pm

Well put, WA! You said…

“Ultimately, there cannot be any ultimate control over the knowledge a student gains. Even in a structured systems, a student might pull out a different understanding of a subject than was intended by the instructor based on their personal interests and preferences.”

Do you think that badging, which offers a smaller grain size will make it easire for students to pursue personal interests and preferences?

WA Anderson 2012/06/29 at 1:20 pm

Almost without question. I see badges as allowing students to take the courses they want, when they want, to have the ability to display that they’ve earned that skill. It’s incentive to engage in the core of professional development; just-in-time improvement

Allan Gyorke 2012/06/29 at 4:48 pm

Hey Kyle. I have a few perspectives on badges that seem to be weaving together.

a) I used to teach students how to write resumes and cover letters. Many of them had developed skills that wouldn’t show up on a transcript. Often they didn’t think to write about these skills because they’re integral to who they are. For example, a bilingual student could have better language skills than someone who minored in Spanish. A student who set up and managed a social network for a club may have more social media experience than an IST student.

b) I was talking with Christian Brady about the Schreyer Honors College, whose mission (among other things) is to help its students develop a global perspective and create opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. There are many paths to those goals, but no easy way to demonstrate them through traditional academic channels. How is Christian supposed to know whether the Schreyer Honors College is achieving its mission?

c) Within my group (Education Technology Services), one of my main functions is to identify opportunities and assign resources. It would really help if I had a system that told me which people in my group have done things like planned events, worked on licensing issues with vendors, created a budget, participated on a faculty fellow team, or completed some academic course work in instructional design.

So I keep thinking about badges as a form of micro-credential that would help people describe who they are, what they can do, and what they want to be. I can see many ways that a badge system could help address issues like the ones above.

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