Do We Need Those Stinking DML Badges?

In September 2011 Web developer Mozilla announced their Open Badges platform, a digital method for individuals to show off credentials they've acquired through both traditional and nontraditional means. Some critics have been quick to attack the notion of Open Badging, alleging that it commodifies education and makes for an unsupportable system. But perhaps badges are the creative jolt education needs.

By Eric Garneau

computer classes Open Badges platform Mozilla open learning OCW OER

A Light in the Dark

Look at the state of education today - there's no doubt something needs to change. That's especially true in the world of higher ed, where college students rack up record levels of debt only to find the toughest job market they've ever had to encounter. Many students look for a lifeline anywhere they can get it, and that's where Open Badging comes in.

Mozilla's Open Badge platform will allow learners of all types and from all walks of life to gain credentials for any kind of knowledge they can imagine. Various website 'vendors' across the Internet will distribute badges to users who show certain proficiencies, often at a reduced cost from typical college credit or no cost at all. In theory, those users can employ the badges they've earned to progress in their professional lives. In that way, badges act as a stand-in for traditional university credentialing, which remains out of reach for many individuals.


Sounds like an attractive idea, right? Open Badging's not without its challenges, though. For one, the platform has its share of detractors who don't agree with the format. A large part of that could be due to typical protectors of the status quo who like to rear their heads when disruptive ideas come along, but no less than U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has thrown his support behind the platform, stating 'we must begin to see our schools, colleges and classrooms as central points, very critical ones...of a larger network of learning.' In other words, the old ways aren't going anywhere - they're just being supplemented. No need to fear.

But other, less reactionary critiques of badges exist that could pose some difficulties. Putting aside issues of technological implementation (which are being worked out all the time), there's still the matter of personal implementation. In other words, will employers (or anyone else?) consider badges a valid source of credentials? For that to happen, there's going to need to be some collective agreement about their value. That could be a slow process, with a few daring employers being the first to stand up and accept badges as worthwhile.


Open Badging already has some serious support in its corner. The Digital Media Learning (DML) competition promoted by Mozilla - designed to foster innovation in badge implementation and design - counts among its sponsors NASA, Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Labor. DML blogger Doug Belshaw notes that such a combination of organizations shows that badging's getting support from both high-level organizations (like the federal government) and grassroots campaigns amongst users (like the Open-minded software developers at Mozilla, among others). Belshaw sees this as a serious portent of badging's success, noting 'In my experience, no substantive change occurs without such top-down and bottom-up support.'

Even if we don't strictly need badges, then, it sure seems like some very important and powerful people from many different walks of life think we do. With support like that, badging's bound to happen, though again it may catch on slowly at first. But it seems as though we can't really afford to ignore any potential new cost-effective ways for people to earn an education. After all, education's supposed to be the great democratizer. Perhaps more than any other recent innovation in the field, badges offer to make good on that promise.

Read more about badging's future.

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