Could Badges Ever Replace Diplomas?

As technology advances, education tends to become more open and accessible. It's possible that a recent announcement from a joint partnership between the Mozilla Corporation, HASTAC, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spells the biggest change yet in that direction. What are badges, and what do they mean for the future of education?

By Eric Garneau


Badges Explained

Badges are the ultimate expression of the trend in education to reward individuals for knowledge and skills they've acquired outside traditional classrooms. While methods that do so already exist (like the College Board's CLEP tests), none are quite as comprehensive as some officials hope badging, as it's called, will become. Not lightly, after all, does U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan throw his support behind an open education movement.

Readers who use social networking sites like FourSquare are probably already familiar with the basic concept of a badge - it's a digital imprint you earn to show an achievement in a certain field (like, say, visiting a specific business more than anyone else). While some opportunities for cross-platform sharing exist (for instance, you can display your Foursquare badges on Facebook), right now they're typically application-specific. But a number of luminaries in the worlds of education and technology want to change that; according to a press release on the blog DML Central, the Mozilla Corporation's developing an Open Badge Infrastructure, a 'decentralized online platform' for digital badges that 'can be used across operating platforms and by any organization or user.' That means learners will be able to take their badges with them wherever they go; Mozilla even foresees the creation of 'digital backpacks' to do so.

In that environment, badges won't just be about what stores you've been to or how many coffees you've bought. You'll be able to earn proof of completing an online college course, for instance, or of mastering certain Web development skills - anything you do in a digital environment that could be useful to employers is fair game for badging. That could lead to a real democratization of how individuals earn and show their educational aptitude.

As Good as a Degree?

Will digital badges ever really be accepted as proof of mastering a subject? It seems that mostly depends on the institutions that will be asked to do so. Let's return to the aforementioned example of the College Board. Schools are under no obligation to grant credit for high scores earned on their AP or CLEP tests, but the tests have proven themselves a trustworthy enough gauge of aptitude that many do, though every school has different policies. As such, the College Board has positioned itself as something of a leader when it comes to awarding credit outside of school.

If we consider digital badges an analogous situation, then all badge distributors can really do is hope that other institutions respect their credentialing as valid. In this case, however, the onus may not be on schools to decide, but employers. Human resources managers in numerous companies will have to consider whether they accept Mozilla's Open Badges as acceptable proof of skills. If that happens, it's liable to start slowly, with one or two enterprising and trusting employers. Over time, more and more will follow suit lest they miss out on opportunities to hire the best job candidates who may have been educated through non-traditional means. Eventually, non-traditional could become traditional, and we'll have a whole generation of learners on our hands who can demonstrate a wealth of skills without having to pay for college.

Or maybe not. That's just a hypothetical situation, after all, and Mozilla's Open Badges project is currently only in its beta stages. Time will tell if their experiment finds success and proves itself attractive to e-learners. However, there are a couple factors in its favor: that badges could provide a low-cost alternative to traditional colleges, that people could earn badges for skills they didn't know were marketable or even desirable. And in a more general sense, it seems that radical innovations designed to help better people's lives - especially ones with a pedigree of supporters like Mozilla's Open Badges platform has - will find some degree of success. Perhaps it won't come especially quickly, but colleges may not want to feel too secure with their current monopoly on credentialing.

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