Are Traditional Academics Getting Left Behind? (And If They're Not, Should They?)

There are lots of ways to educate yourself, but only one way to get credentials to prove it: getting a college degree, right? Maybe not for much longer. Recent announcements from the Mozilla corporation and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have increased support for digital badges, which are quickly becoming a popular alternative to traditional university credit when it comes to showing what you know. How might the future get easier for credential-seekers?

By Eric Garneau


What Badges Are

One of the key barriers that prevents people from attaining a higher education both in the United States and around the world is its cost. Students (or their families) can expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to go to school. Many people who can afford it justify that investment by citing its endpoint: a degree, which in theory opens up doors to a good job. Indeed, for most of their existence institutions of higher education have held something of a monopoly on job-granting credentials, but that may not last for much longer.

Enter: digital badges, a growing movement that seeks to bestow upon people verifiable credentials for knowledge they've gained outside a typical classroom. They can be used to show achievement in skills that aren't regular course subjects (various Internet proficiencies, for instance) or to prove abilities that are hard to assess in our current education system, such as teamwork/collaborative aptitude.

Why We Should Use Them

Badges offer a number of advantages over traditional academic degrees. We've already touched on two important ones: the price and the diversity of subjects. In theory, many badges would be free or nearly free, depending on the website granting them. And because badges can come from pretty much anywhere, lots of different types of knowledge are fair game. In fact, if you can imagine having expertise in something, it's completely possible that within a few years there will be a badge out there you can earn to prove it.

Both those benefits are just extensions of the largest upside of digital badges: adaptability. In mid-September 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech at the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition in which he spelled out a number of positives he sees to adapting digital badges as a recognized source of credentials. All of them revolve around the fact that education can now be more personal and customizable than ever before. Duncan noted that with badges students have 'multiple ways to learn and assess' their progress, that both 'formal and informal learning' would be valid methods of acquiring skills and that, in essence, 'learning can happen anywhere.' Duncan also argued that badges could be especially helpful tools for veterans seeking jobs, since many of them gain a lot of skills while serving in the military that don't necessarily transfer over to traditional methods of credentialing.


For lifelong learners who want the college experience but can't necessarily afford it, digital badges may open up lots of doors, especially in conjunction with OpenCourseWare (OCW), free college educational material available online for students to use as they see fit. Popular OCW sites include information like lecture notes and videos, free digital textbooks and even quizzes and tests, but currently no credentialing system for OCW exists - so students who complete an OCW course online can earn a lot of satisfaction, but not college credit. With digital badges in play, though, that could all change: all of a sudden popular free online courses like offerings from MIT's physics department or UC - Irvine's course in Personal Financial Planning could become more than just a repository of invaluable knowledge - they could become full, for-credit college classes that you can take at your own pace, in your own home, for free.

The Future

On September 15, 2011, Mozilla (the company behind the popular Firefox Internet browser) announced a developing competition for its Open Badges platform. At stake: two million dollars. No doubt this will attract more than a few enterprising Web designers. Coupled with support from the Obama administration, it seems that digital badges will be making major headway into our world before too long. Undoubtedly colleges and universities won't give up their stranglehold on granting credentials without a fight, but given time, they might face serious competition from some unlikely sources.

Another university where badges might allow you to get free college credit: Yale.

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