PLAYBACK: The Past, Present and Future of Badges for Learning


2.17.12 | Badges and badge systems designed to show mastery of knowledge and skills have received a good deal of attention these past few months. And it should pick up even more, once the winners of the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition are announced on March 1. In this week’s PLAYBACK, we look at the news coverage and the questions raised about the practicality of badges for learning.

The Origins of Badges and the End of Testing: The newest addition, published today, is by Barry Joseph, director of the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids and one of the co-founders of Games for Change. He takes a look back at “the talk that launched a thousand badges.” That would be “The End(s) of Testing,” the address that UCLA education professor Eva L. Baker delivered in 2007 at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. Joseph writes:

After exploring a wide range of problems with the current use of assessments within schools, she focused on her key recommendation: the development of merit badge-like “Qualifications.” Reading her words now in the publication that grew from her talk, or watching the online recording of the original event (she begins speaking at 44:00), one is confronted by the remarkable vision and promise that has informed this grand experiment. Qualifications, according to Baker, “shift attention from schoolwork to usable and compelling skills, from school life to real life.” Accreditation will shift from just schools to a wide range of institutions. Youth will assemble their collections to show their families, adults in the workforce and in universities, and themselves. If you are new to thinking about digital badging systems, there are few better places to start to understand the pedagogical underpinnings of these efforts.


In The Future of Assessment, Accreditation & The Internet, Heather Chaplin takes a closer look at Mozilla’s Open Badges project and verification systems to ensure substance and rigor.

Badges Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas: Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey R. Young provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of badges and other alternative learning programs and credentials, such as MITx, an online learning system that MIT plans to launch this spring along with completion certificates (previously discussed here). It’s a thorough story that also raises questions about who should be in charge of determining the best way to certify higher learning.

As to the advantages of badges in the real world, Young writes:

Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students using Mozilla proposed badge system might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online résumés detailing what they studied. And students could start showing off the badges as they earn them, rather than waiting four years to earn a diploma.

“We have to question the tyranny of the degree,” says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Mr. Wiley is an outspoken advocate of so-called open education, and he imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus. “As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely.”

Get Me Out of Badge World: Not everyone is equally enthusiastic, however. Young references a post by Alex Reid, an associate professor of English as the University of Buffalo, who critiques what he sees as the further commodification of learning and potential badge-creep into other parts of our lives. Reid also sees trouble looming in for-profit quarters:

Badges will have monetary value. People want them as a route toward getting jobs. They will pay for them the same way they pay now for college credits. When we look at all the free, DIY learning that is out there now, it’s free precisely because it hasn’t been commodified. You can download stuff from MIT’s Open Courseware because that kind of learning has no commerical value. If you want to get a badge though, that’s going to cost. All the big textbook publishers and educational technology companies will just jump right on badges. All those Sylvan learning type companies will be selling badges. Edutainment video games and such will come with badges and thus be more expensive.

Badges won’t make learning cheaper. We’ll be spending more money on education than ever, and we won’t get any better results because the motives for learning will still be all wrong.

In the comments on Reid’s post, Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, acknowledges how badges could potentially be misused but writes that they also offer tremendous opportunities:

Imagine a young person who does not have a parent who knows how to game the system but who has an interest in becoming a filmmaker but doesn’t know how to start. One of the opportunities that badges afford is provide a pathway of activities and projects that students can take on along with exemplars of what quality looks like.  Badges can afford students opportunity to engage in self-directed learning with a plan.  This affordance can not be overlooked. As a young girl growing up in Kansas City Kansas I spent many a summer engaged in projects pulled from my Campfire girl bed book.  I chose projects because they were linked to a category of interest. I selected projects because I needed a particular bead for my vest design. Never as a child was I thinking about the impact on my college career. However, the combination of these experiences were critical to me understanding what I like, learning how to see projects through, and having my work judged and having to iterate.

Plus: Over at The Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia’s independent daily newspaper, an editorial makes the argument for embracing online courses and credentialing programs to off-set rising college tuition costs. A recent analysis by the paper found that if tuition continues to increase at the current rate, members of the graduating class of 2034 will spend more than $232,000 to attend an average-priced four-year private institution and almost $81,000 to attend an average-priced four-year public institution. The priciest colleges could cost more than $422,000.

“If colleges and universities ignore this reality and attempt to maintain their monopoly on the means of certifying future professionals, they will simply become irrelevant as more and more citizens opt for the online education programs which establish themselves as pedagogically rigorous and whose certifications become well-regarded among employers,” reads the editorial. “A preferable alternative, though, would be for colleges and universities to establish partnerships with online education providers wherein certifications earned through those programs could be accepted as transfer credits which would be applicable toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.”

Your Work Speaks for Itself: Alan Levine takes a somewhat more hopeful view than Reid—he’d like to see badges turn out to be meaningful—but he has an alternative suggestion: Those looking to show what they know should just go ahead and start showing it. Here’s what he wrote back in November:

This all circles back to what you can (and ought to) be doing now—crafting your own corner of the internetz that documents what you can do—that is the being public with your work (not just tweeting your own horn), but having a space where people can really get a sense of what your potential is, how you think, how you write.

It’s not conceptual; in fact, its at least 10 years old.

Get a domain of your own. Hoist a blog/web site. Keep reflecting, all the time - Always Be Reflecting. Do that narration of your work.

Badges may turn out to be important decor for your personal web space house, but its on you to build and maintain the house.

A Solution to Teacher Evaluation: Cathy Davidson, writing at the Washington Post last week, covers evaluation systems in-depth. We’ve heard plenty of times that the antiquated systems used in education—think multiple-choice, standardized tests—don’t measure content or motivate learning. New methods are needed not only to evaluate learning, but to evaluate teaching and collaboration, Davidson argues. The tech community provides a model:

We not only can use far more interactive, complex, humane, interesting, challenging, and innovative forms of assessment for real learning, real teaching, real collaboration — the tech community is already doing that. Teachers, researchers, experimenters, and evaluators all need to think about these systems and learn from them. Project Oxygen revealed patterns even Google didn’t suspect. Stack Exchange is doing that daily, with millions of people.

The badging systems I’m interested in exploring have to be offered by non-profit learning organizations in order to avoid further commercialization and exploitation of our educational system. They have to be less not more expensive to administer than the current cumbersome system of either Human Resource (HR) evaluation or end of grade tests or teacher “standards” and evaluation or merit systems. They have to include peer components. They have to include a range of skills, content, subject matter, mastery, application, theory, and practice, competencies and collaborative or character qualities. And, most important, they have to be tied to the learning process itself and incentivize and motivate — not just document — real, long-term, engaged, interactive learning.

Stack Exchange, which Davidson referenced, bills itself as an “expert knowledge exchange.” It has a network of 83 question-and-answer sites that address subjects ranging from physics to cooking. Stack Exchange’s development was based on Stack Overflow, a community for programmers to pose and answer questions that launched in 2008.
Plus: What, more precisely, might an evaluation system for teachers look like? Teacher Mastery and Feedback is one of the main tracks in the fourth annual Digital Media & Learning Competition (see Sarah’s post on the Stage One winners). Educators at Bank Street College of Education, for example, proposed an online community for early childhood and special education teachers in which participants could earn “Bank Street Badges.” The proposed site would encourage educators to “acknowledge their own learning and/or their contributions to the learning of others” via creating and sharing documents, case studies and classroom scenarios.

The final winners will be announced March 1 at the Digital Media and Learning Conference Mozilla Science Fair in San Francisco.

The Future of Digital Badges for Learning: Jonathan Finkelstein, founder of LearningTimes and director of the BadgeStack Project, an open-source badge-based learning platform, recently spoke with Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter about digital badges and the role they can play in education and workforce development. They hypothesized how these landscapes might change if badges became commonplace. Check out for a look at how the New York City Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution and other groups are using badges right now.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.