Tuesday, September 20, 2011


If you’ve ever been a scout you’ll know the motivating power of badges. A shirt sleeve full of them meant respect. We all love to collect symbolic evidence of what we know, who we know, where we’ve been, what groups we belong to and so on. Facebook and other social networks thrive on this. It’s all about belonging and showing who we are.
07jambadges0014 by J-W Brown, on Flickr

The last week or so has seen a lot of discussion in educational blogs about the concept of open badges to show competence in informal education. In the formal education system you earn degrees and certificates after passing set examinations and completing course assignments. However informal education has no such certification (that’s is of course why it’s called informal!). We probably learn most of our skills and knowledge informally, often without even realizing it. We learn by watching others, asking friends and colleagues, reading, searching, testing and by making mistakes. But it’s hard to convince others, in particular potential employers, that we have these skills since there’s no approved certificate. This is where badges come in.

The Open Badges project between Peer 2 Peer University and Mozilla is developing a system for awarding badges for demonstrated achievement in informal learning, awarded by institutions or groups of peers (watch a presentation of this project via the links at the end of this post). This principle has been in place in the world of open source programming for a while now and those badges are highly respected in that field. In some cases they can carry more currency than a university degree since they are awarded by fellow experts in that particular field. What Open Badges proposes is to have a system for awarding a wide range of badges for all types of competence. These badges can then be shown on your web site, Facebook or LinkedIn profile and so on. P2PU is already awarding badges in some of their courses (School of webcraft).

It’s important that the badges link to more detailed information about what requirements lie behind the badge and who has awarded it. It’s a way of making informal learning a little bit more formal. The key factor is credibility. Your badges will only be valid to those who understand what they represent and have respect for those who have awarded the badge. To others they will be meaningless. It’s essential that the system is transparent and it is possible to see what you have actually achieved.

Some people are, however, worried that this is simply commoditizing education and that badges will prove nothing. There’s a fear that we will drown in a torrent of meaningless badges awarded ad hoc and that may become as valuable as collecting “likes” on Facebook. As Jason Green wrote in his post on the subject (Badges – the Good, the Meh, and the Ugly):

“How will one ensure that the badges a person claims truly belong to them?  Since badges are digital, anyone planning to validate them is going to have to make significant investments in security and redundancy.  If your badge is hacked or the validator is no longer able to document its validity, the badge is worthless.”

A further worry is that badges are awarded for demonstrable skill rather than for general knowledge. How can we award badges for having an overall understanding of history or culture? Badges, like formal certificates, cope best with measurable skill-based competence.

The strongest critic of badges in the last week was Alex Reid who wrote two posts on the subject in quick succession. He fears that since badges may make you more employable they will become commercialised and a market will emerge. In Welcome to badge world he wrote:

"Perhaps one might find the notion of open badges appealing. Open meaning what? Anyone can open their own diploma mill, err I mean badge-selling operation? Of course not. Badges would have to be accredited by someone. Not sure who, but I doubt getting that accreditation will be free. How could it be? What open means is market-driven.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."  

Valid points one and all, but at the same time I think that if badges can encourage more people to invest time in learning and provide motivation to continue learning then that can't be bad. It's just one of many ways to reward informal learning and we need to keep experimenting. Watch this space.

Watch the sessions from EFQUEL Innovation Forum about open badges and certifying informal learning

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  J-W Brown 

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