Published on 2012/10/19

Badges Provide Students a Way to Promote Under-Cover Skills

Grades are becoming less and less effective as a means for employers to know what they are getting when a new hire walks in the door. After all, students will go to great lengths to be awarded a grade that doesn’t necessarily represent the learning that took place in a given class; from picking “bird” courses to cramming for exams. Moreover, those grades are representative of all the material that might be covered in a given course. Employers simply cannot count on grades to accurately represent a student’s competencies.

Against this backdrop, digital education badges have flourished. Badges recognize students for learning particular skills and gaining particular competencies. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week, Jeffrey Young posed the question, “what if colleges replaced grades with badges?”

Purdue University’s Bill Watson, who is introducing badges to an online course he is running this month, told Young that badges can allow students to show an expertise in an area that would not necessarily be translated by a degree title.

“Badges are, in a way, modules, and in a way you could build your own degree,” he said.

Badges can also give employers some insight into the type of person their potential hire is. Daniel Hickey, the Program Head of the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University’s School of Education, is experimenting with awarding badges for “collaborative engagement” and other examples of class participation.

“If you grade comments that students post, there are going to be a million of them, and no one’s going to read them, and they’re going to be boring,” he told Young. “I made a very deliberate decision not to attach grades at all to my badges. It’s finding a way to informally recognize and really to celebrate more social forms of learning.”

This plays into the environment that Erin Knight, Mozilla’s Senior Director of Learning, recently told the Chronicle her company was trying to develop.

“If you tell people in a class to blog because they’re going to get a grade for it, they will do that,” she said in a recent interview in The Chronicle’s technology podcast. “But the types of interaction and participation you’re going to see are going to be very different than if it’s organic and people feel like they’re a community of learners and really want to contribute and have their own voice.”

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