Monday, October 6, 2014

Can open badges become educational hard currency?

IMG_4338 (Tom Lee Yamaha Music Course Ce by Dennis Wong, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dennis Wong

Can open badges become accepted as credible credentials in education or will they remain as an optional extra with very little impact on the labour market? The concept of open badges is to provide a digital certificate for skills and achievements with links to skills required, awarding body, assessment criteria and date of award. You can be awarded badges by your employer, college, association, training provider or even peer groups and they can give proof of proficiency in soft skills and competences that regular certificates seldom acknowledge. The idea is that badges as well as formal qualifications can all be included in your e-portfolio giving future employers a more detailed and fair overview of your skills and ability from a wide range of perspectives rather than the limited skills assessed in traditional qualifications. Badges can therefore complement rather than replace traditional credentials.

Open badges have made considerable progress in the USA where they have the backing of major organisations like the MacArthur Foundation and several elite universities like Carnegie Mellon and Purdue have already started testing the concept. However mainstream uptake is slow and an article by Bernard Bull, 10 reasons why people are not using open badges, presents some good reasons for this. Being new there is an understandable suspicion that they may be easily faked or copied. Teachers are naturally wary of a concept that is still not completely user-friendly and badge design still demands technical skills. The badges movement is still in the pioneer phase and although there are communities and help sites it needs to be more standardised and streamlined before most teachers will start showing interest.

For those who have heard about digital badges, most still have limited understanding of their affordances and limitations. There are not many resources that explain different usage scenarios in a quick and easy to understand format. We have the cases from the Digital Media and Learning Competition a few years ago, but beyond that, there are not many places to go and look through examples of how badges are being used.

Bernard also points to the valid objection that badges are seen by many as the digital equivalent of the gold stars pasted into our old school exercise books, simple rewards for making an effort but academically empty (see his post Beware of badges as biscuits). There is a risk of organisations awarding badges in a trivial manner but the transparency of badges means that all award criteria and information about the badge must be available in the metadata and therefore any badges awarded for simply trying hard or being there will be revealed by the lack of solid evidence behind the award. Traditional certificates actually show very little detailed information about learning outcomes, skills and requirements unless you contact the awarding institution whereas badges can reveal full details at a click.

Digital badges are a new currency for credentialing in a world of connected learning. They are more than glorified digital biscuits for good behavior. While they may have motivational elements to them, their greatest potential is in revolutionizing how we think about credentials in the digital age.

But maybe the main problem at present is the term badge which for many people trivialises the concept by association with scout badges and gaming. This is not surprising since that's where much of the inspiration behind open badges has come from but maybe it's time to change in order to gain more credibility. A recent post by Valar Afshar in the Huffington Post, A Solution To The Massively Disengaged Workforce, offers one solution:

One way to position badges away from games and marketing is to give the concept a different name. At UC Davis, for example, the achievements are called "skill qualifications" (SQs) to give them more career relevance and to set them apart from game-oriented achievements.

This article also cites a recent survey of employers' attitudes to badges and the main reasons for the slow uptake are given as: better industry and market recognition and acceptance of specific badges (67%), standardized requirements of criteria for similar achievements (55%), and lower cost systems to implement badges (37%).

The open badges movement is in that difficult transition period from pioneer phase to mainstream acceptance and is caught in the situation where uptake is slow because it's still relatively unknown and lacks mainstream credibility but it can't prove itself unless some major organisations implement and evaluate it seriously. Maybe that name change could be the catalyst.

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