Digging Out My Sash

I took a quick peek at the Mozilla Open Badges project a little while back, and liked what I saw.

It’s an attempt to create an open infrastructure for badges around the Web. I like the technical pieces that allow anyone to offer any badge to anyone else in a consistent way. It makes sense to build tools that work for everybody, and that are open. I like that.

And I thought I was something I’d want to explore later, as I’m always looking for ways to help make the professional development I’m doing to make sense to other people. Maybe, I thought, a badge could help1. I put that idea on a side burner.

Then yesterday happened, and I’m going to have to pay a great deal of attention to the project. In a hurry.

That’s because this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition is all about the badges.

It was fascinating to listen to the announcement2 and to follow along as the tweets came rolling in. It was, and is, also fascinating to consider the possibilities opened up through the use of badges to build portfolios of experiences and skillsets, to show the world what students, of all ages, can learn and do.

Except. Hang on a second.

I’m writing this post when I should be working on my thesis. The thesis is the last thing I’ve got to do in order to earn my badge Master’s degree in English Education. But it seems like there’s an awful lot of important questions wrapped inside assumptions in DML’s competition announcement. Felt right to at least try to get them down.

The Twitter stream of commentary, a piece of which was captured earlier by Audrey, was chock full o’ questions and concerns. Alex and plenty of other folks have all written thoughtfully about the announcement. It was clear to me, as I watched the announcement follow up panel, that the group, as a whole, didn’t have a consistent idea about what badges were/are/for/might do. I heard each of these possibilities:

Badges as credentialing

Badges, I heard, might be used as a way of denoting that someone has a particular skillset in a field in which there might not be a current credentialling method. Makes sense, and is the most straight forward use of a badge. Think Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. Medal of Honor.

Badges as awarding credit

This one seems mostly similar to the previous function of credentialling, but it’s not. Quite. Earning a badge that counts as credit would require that a credit-granting institution3 would accept the badge in lieu of another requirement. Put enough badges together, and you get a really advanced badge. Or a diploma. Or a degree. So, not only can you do something in the eyes of an institution, but will another institution believe them and let you take a pass on their test of competency?

Badges as a way of honoring non-school learning

I’ve written before about how I find some of the most interesting learning taking place on the edge of school and home, in semi-school spaces. After school clubs. Fringe projects. And I want that learning to “count,” in the sense that I don’t think that teachers should have to fight so hard for those types of learning experiences. But I wonder if the best way to honor that learning is to make sure it stays out of school. If, as I heard a panelist say during the announcement, school is so ineffective and terrible at learning, then shouldn’t we try to fix school? Might we want to move some of the good semi-school learning into the classroom?4

If badges are an attempt to rebuild school, well, that might be a fascinating idea. Or a terrible one.

Badges as motivation

Students will be more inclined to go after a particular type of learning, I heard, if there were a motivator to push or pull the student along.5 That’s a dangerous reason to even consider a badge, I think, as I know enough about motivation to know that, as soon as the badges go away, the learning stops. Not good. Uh uh. Don’t pursue this one.

Badges as assessment

Actually, the badges wouldn’t be the assessments – just proof of their successful completion. And that’s where this starts to get tricky for me. For one thing, I don’t think enough folks understand that a badge involves assessment of one sort or another. And it’s the assessments and experiences that we want to fiddle with in school.

Badges as curriculum design

If badges can count as far as credit in traditional schools and universities, then badge program designers are now curriculum designers. What I didn’t hear at the announcement, but hope to hear about soon, is how folks might think about the Common Core SS, the current consortia developing the next generation of school assessments, and their thinking about badges.

Those were the purposes I heard in the time I was listening. And that’s complex stuff.

Other folks, I’m sure, who are smarter and more articulate than I am, will soon start talking about this work and what it means for power relationships between traditional schooling and other institutions.6 But what I’m not hearing people talk about, or suggest that they understand, is what it is that it means to “count.” I mean count in two senses of the word – both the mathematical meaning of seeing how many of something that you have, but also the way a student asks when they’re handed an assignment – will this count? Does it matter?

And, at school, we’ve done a bad thing by tying “counting” or “mattering” to “grading.”

If all badges do is fiddle with the object that students are taught to worship, rather than working to eliminate idol worship altogether, then there’s not much sense in exploring them.

If badges transform all grades that matter into “pass/fail” situations, well, that might be something. To match what students can do with their academic credentials as measured by actual performance tasks would be a good thing7.

But, if the DML competition encourages thinking and writing and exploration and action around ideas like the idea that any accountability system, or accreditation system, is ultimately a subjective system, made by people, however we design it, then I say, let’s rock. But let’s do so carefully.

Badges are not magical. They do not cure cancer. They are unable to stop large (or small) scale forest fires. Badges, particularly digital ones, cannot be eaten. The digital kind can’t even be burned for fuel. Badges do not make children smarter, or hard work less difficult.

But they’re certainly worth talking about, if they might lead to productive change. And, if they’re going to make a grand entrance in teaching and learning, at school and in the community, then I hope to goodness that teachers are paying attention.

  1. Give us a way to show scope and sequence, or perhaps a “brand” for our teachers in a way that would be postiive. I wasn’t sure, and still am not. []
  2. I only caught the second half, but I think that was the really fascinating bit. []
  3. school, university, etc. []
  4. Or, can that learning only happen on the fringes? If that’s the case, then I want more fringe. []
  5. Cathy explains that idea further here, in point four of a definition of badges. []
  6. As I was about to post this, I ran across this post from Alex. And while I don’t have a place to stick this quotation properly in the text, I wanted to save it and share it with you, so here it is: What I believe we must resist is mistaking real motivation and meaningful learning for increasing our value as a human commodity in the marketplace. I’m fairly sure that education doesn’t make us “better” humans. I don’t even think learning can make us “more” human (whatever that might be), though it could expand our experience in interesting ways. The one thing we have to prevent is schooling making us feelless human. []
  7. Parents and plenty of other people would have trouble, for a time, as ranking their children to other people’s children might be more difficult, but that would pass. []
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