Credentialing | Feature

Digital Badges for Today's Students

As changing student demographics make it harder for today's learners to earn a four-year degree, educators are experimenting with smaller credentialing steps, such as digital badges.

This story appeared in the December 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

"What really breaks your heart are the millions of striving students from low-income backgrounds who are experiencing significant failures in higher education." That's how Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University Texas, describes the human cost behind a damning statistic: Only 56 percent of higher ed students graduate within six years. And those who drop out typically have nothing to show for the experience--except debt. At present, says Milliron, 36 million people in the US have some college but no credential.

In his view, part of the blame lies with higher ed's continued emphasis on degrees. As the profile of the typical student shifts from traditional-age kids to working adults--many with families--it's becoming ever harder for them to persevere through the four years needed to earn a degree. To alleviate the problem, Milliron advocates the creation of a "family of credentials," ranging from digital badges to certifications, that provide steppingstones for students to advance their education--all the way to advanced degrees in many cases--without forfeiting everything if they need to drop out.

While industry certifications are already highly valued in business, there's a lot more uncertainty about how digital badges will fit into the larger marketplace of credentials. Will they enhance and/or replace our current degree-focused system? Furthermore, what skills can badges highlight that aren't already showcased by more traditional résumés or transcripts?

Rewarding Learning Wherever It Occurs
Central to the badges movement is the recognition that "learning today happens everywhere"--in both formal and informal settings--as the Mozilla Foundation points out on its Open Badges website. Proponents claim that badges offer a way to recognize and benchmark all of this learning.

By providing evidence that a student has attained certain skills, it is hoped, badges could unlock new career and learning opportunities. To date, talk of their potential has focused primarily on the former--namely, how badges will be accepted by employers. At the launch event for the MacArthur Foundation's Badges for Lifelong Learning competition last year, for example, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed badges as "a game-changing strategy," particularly for veterans returning to civilian life with skills and accomplishments that do not appear on their résumés.

But what's truly revolutionary about badges isn't their potential to help students find jobs--it's still unclear how employers view the concept. Instead, the real game changer is the technology under the hood, and how it might facilitate a rethinking of credentialing by employers, educational institutions, and learners alike.

Laying out a technology framework for badges has been the goal of the Mozilla Foundation and its Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). In line with the larger Mozilla mission, the work is open, both in terms of the transparency of the foundation's process and the code itself. Mozilla doesn't want to dictate what skills will count toward badges or decide who gets to issue them. Rather, it wants to define the underlying technology standard, says Sunny Lee, a product manager for OBI, "so we can pull badges out of a siloed environment and make them interoperable."

Badge silos have already cropped up on a host of educational sites, ranging from Khan Academy to Codecademy, where users can earn badges for watching videos, completing exercises, and so on. As Lee points out, these digital badges--and the accomplishments they represent--cannot easily be transferred from site to site or pulled into one location where learners can showcase everything they've done.

The old-fashioned way of showcasing these accomplishments, of course, is the résumé. On a résumé, job seekers list the various schools they attended, their degrees, the jobs they've held, and other skills. But digital badges built with OBI are meant to offer more than a mere list of skills and accomplishments. Instead, they are embedded with metadata that makes them more "evidence-based," says Lee. A digital badge can tell you who issued it, when it was earned, and the criteria for earning it--and it can link to all of the evidence.

Open Source Underpinnings
The infrastructure that Mozilla has designed is open source. The code is available on GitHub, which means developers outside Mozilla can download it, modify or "fork" it, and contribute their own code--and developers are already doing so. For example, EverFi, an education company that teaches critical skills to both K-12 and college students, has built a platform based on OBI called Sash. The Sash platform provides an interface for organizations to create and display digital badges. EverFi's code, which (according to its website) is "written in Node.js for scalability and performance, [and] easily integrated into any platform via JSON rest API," is also available on GitHub.

Talk of GitHub, JSON, and rest APIs makes the project sound as if it's aimed only at software engineers. But OBI is meant to allow institutions, groups, and individuals to issue their own badges. Furthermore, its creators hope to serve the needs of nontechnical people as well. Currently, Mozilla is working on a project called Open Badger that is meant to be a lightweight mechanism for awarding badges--one that doesn't require a lot of technical knowledge.

As it stands now, though, a fair amount of technical know-how is required to issue a badge. According to the OBI documentation, issuer requirements include a "web server capable of serving requests to the general internet…hosting ability…[and the] ability to make a POST request from their server backend and read a JSON response," all of which will sound daunting to many. At this point, it seems, individuals who want to issue a badge must be willing to sign up for a project that is still very much in its infancy.

But organizations, schools, and even individual educators are taking the leap. David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University (UT), offered badges for several of his recent classes. On his blog, he details the steps he took to set the badges up. "I wanted to demonstrate that there is nothing stopping a single faculty member who wants to do something innovative from awarding badges in a DIY sort of way," he wrote. Nothing except having the technical skills, of course.

Purdue University (IN) has attempted to remove the technical roadblocks for its instructors by building Passport, an OBI-compatible application that contains a number of templates to make creating and issuing badges easier. William Watson, assistant professor of learning design and technology, helped develop Passport, which he's using in his EDCI 67200 Advanced Practices in Learning System Design class. Eight badges are available to the graduate students enrolled in his course, including "ID Case Analyst & Problem Solver," "ID Case Facilitator," and "Reflective ID Practitioner."

"The eight badges are structured around the targeted learning competencies of the course," says Watson, who believes badges are a way for instructors and students to focus on specific skills and competencies, rather than on the broadly articulated learning goals that readings, exams, and assignments often address.

Diplomas--even transcripts--don't necessarily reveal whether a student has met broad learning goals, whereas a digital badge can point to evidence of exactly how the student met those goals. Interestingly, this lies at the root of some concerns about badges: that they will emphasize "skills" over other, less tangible accomplishments. There's worry, too, that the badges will skew heavily toward technical skills, which isn't altogether surprising given Mozilla's involvement and its plans to create badges for skills such as HTML5 and CSS as part of its Webmaker program.

A Role for Liberal Arts?
So, how will highlighting these sorts of skills and accomplishments fit into a traditional credentialing environment? If the OBI project takes off, how will certain academic disciplines--particularly those associated with the liberal arts that have never formulated a catalog of specific, required skills--fit in?

By name and design, OBI is meant to be open. This means that "soft" skills can certainly be recognized alongside more concrete ones: A badge for CSS skills can sit alongside a badge for collaborative teamwork, for example. Indeed, badges may turn out to be a lifeline for academic fields that are struggling for relevance in an increasingly technical world. By reframing what they teach in terms of job-related skills--be it critical thinking or advanced reasoning--traditional academic disciplines can potentially redeem their value in the eyes of students and employers.

Indeed, proponents are quick to point out that digital badges are not meant to supplant formal education or traditional degrees. Rather, they can highlight the sorts of skills, knowledge, and accomplishments that neither diplomas nor résumés have been able to capture.

Despite the early promise of badges, it's an ecosystem that's still very much in its early stages. Mozilla has attempted to seed the ecosystem with high-quality badges, just as the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition tried to do, but the movement has a long way to go. Even so, there are some encouraging signs. The Passport system, which is the focus of a pilot project that started only this fall, is being used by 49 Purdue instructors, as well as 52 teachers at other institutions. To date, 175 badges have been created and 795 have been awarded. "The feedback has been excellent," reports Kyle Bowen, director of informatics, who oversaw development of Passport. "Adoption has met our expectations."

With a view to boosting badge adoption among students, Purdue also created a second app, Passport Profile, that lets students display the badges they've earned. Designed for tablets and available free in the iTunes Store, the app can be used to view not just badges earned at Purdue but any badge within the Mozilla Backpack, Mozilla's display site for badges.

It's too early to know whether students will take to the concept or not. "So far the only feedback I've received is from a student who said her initial response was minor annoyance at having to learn a new technology," says Watson. But the student was soon updating her profile picture and planned to complete certain badge requirements "with distinction," which requires extra effort in the course with no impact on the final grade. "She ultimately realized that she's competitive, and she wants those badges!" concludes Watson.

Not all students will respond this way, of course. Indeed, the question of motivation has been one of the more controversial aspects of the entire badge initiative. MIT professor Mitch Resnick, for example, says he remains a "badge skeptic" precisely over this issue. He writes: "I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges--the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game."

So, are badges the "game changer" that the secretary of education suggests? One thing is clear: For this new badge ecosystem to thrive, badge issuers and learners alike will need to invest the badges with real meaning. By engineering an open source infrastructure, Mozilla hopes that both the meaning and the code of digital badges can be developed in ways that are flexible--to the benefit of all sorts of learners and all sorts of learning.

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