Who needs those stinkin’ badges?

In an era when the entire landscape of education is being re-conceptualized, it only stands to reason that someone would take a look at grades and degrees.  Think about it.  What does it mean to get an “A” in a course?  Sure, an “A” means that a student has achieved a degree of success in a class, but what does it mean that student is actually able to do?  As you probably recognize, that “A” could mean different things depending on the nature of the course and the instructor.  Throw in vague course descriptions like Trigonometry, Biology, Instructional Technology, Social Foundations of Educations, or America History, and you have a wide variety of skills that an “A” could describe within those individual classes.  As an educator, I absolutely embrace the concept of academic freedom.  Instructors should have the freedom to develop courses that meets student needs and programmatic objectives.  But, the variety is giving some employers headaches.  It’s not just grades, either.  The same type of analysis is happening at the degree level as well.  Employers are hiring graduates with degrees and finding that those degrees tell them very little about the graduates’ skills and capabilities.

And that’s where badges come in.  Instead of offering grades or degrees, programs are now offering badges to represent specific skills and abilities.  While the application of badges to education is somewhat novel, the idea is hardly new.  The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been awarding badges for achievements for decades.  Over the years, the groups have developed badges for observable skills and specific criteria for meeting them.  When a scout can demonstrate those skills, they are awarded a badge.  Take the Boy Scout Canoeing badge, for instance.  Every Boy Scout who has earned the Canoeing badge has completed the identical requirements, regardless of whether he’s a scout in a large troop in Texas or in a small troop in Maine.  Once achieving the badge, the scout can clearly display the badge so other scouts and scout masters can recognize he has achieved mastery in this area.

Applied to education, badges can provide employers with a clear list of what students are capable of doing.  Instead of documenting specific grades or degrees, a graduate would leave with a digital sash of badges that represent specific capabilities, achievements and interactions on campus.  While some may be concerned about the authenticity and verifiability of a badge system, companies have already gotten into the badge market and provided some guidance.  Mozilla, for example, has created the OpenBadges project which provides a worldwide framework for organizations and institutions to create and issue badges.  OpenBadges also provides an online backpack where earners can display the badges proudly.

While the badge system has been mostly applied to software industry, traditional institutions are getting in the market as well.  Purdue offers a NanoHub badge for students who complete a five-week course in the fundamentals of atomic force microscopy.  Traditional students would typically pay $1000 to earn the credit for the course.  Badge earners pay just $30.

But, badges weren’t designed just for economical purposes.  Badges can bring clarity to the muddiness of a complex education world.  While I realize that higher education offers more than that which can be coalesced into skill-based badges, the conversation can help to identify the critical competencies our graduates develop.  It also may help us recognize ways to communicate these competencies to employers in clear, coherent ways so they know what to expect from our graduates.

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