in Education

Responding to some criticisms about ‘badges’ for lifelong learning

Grumpy Gorilla

As I mentioned in ‘Badges’ for Lifelong Learning: Reframing the Debate, whilst most people have been very enthusiastic about the concept of badges to credentialise lifelong informal learning, there have been a number of criticisms around the idea. It might help if you go and read that post before you read this one. :-)

Most of the issues, it would seem, that people have around the ideas of an alternative credentialing system in education revolve around how it is implemented. I’m fairly sure that there’s not too many people who think that the current status quo is serving us well. As far as I understand it, the idea being proposed by Mozilla, HASTAC, et al. is for badges to augment, not replace what we’ve already got in terms of assessment systems: it’s credentialing things that are usually fairly intangible.

I came across a thoughtful and considered response to the potential issues around #openbadges and, perhaps more importantly, #dmlbadges in this post by @timothyfcook via Scoop.it. I think it’s worth quoting Tim at length:

This phrase “badge friendly” is the kicker, because it entails that certain things are not badge friendly. What these things are is certainly open for debate, but it is likely that skills/experience that are more creative and require qualitative analysis will present difficulties. Additionally, skill sets that are unique, constantly in flux, or in progressive fields will be difficult to credential in a standard fashion. If certain things are left out of the badge system, does it lose its credibility? For a new system to be wholly accepted, its accrediting process needs to offer equality and completeness.

That brings me to the second question, the problem of standardization. Although the university system is downright awful at providing an acceptable standard of quality among college graduates, it doesn’t exempt this new idea from the same critique. The problem with traditional college degrees is that the type of new institutions grows and changes too rapidly, while the grading standards varies wildly between schools, or even programs within schools. An “A-” at M.I.T. is different from an “A-” at Dryer University. Meanwhile, grading standards have been falling across the country, as schools are increasingly valuing student retention and graduation rates over academic rigor.

Meanwhile, the only real standard for valuing a student’s overall college experience is the prestige of their alma mater. If student Jack studied Creative Writing at the University of Iowa that means something, but if student Jill studied it at the California University of Pennsylvania that doesn’t mean much… yet Jack and Jill both have the same “badge”, they both have a B.A. in Creative Writing.”

This brings me to the final question, which may actually offer some solutions… If this is supposed to operate as a truly “open” educational accreditation system, outside the boundaries of the traditional institution, what will the student assessment process look like? There has to be a full-proof method for awarding these badges to students who have met the requirements. Those who have written on the subject describe a hybrid system. Some of the time badge approval will be granted by compensated experts, we know them as teachers. Other times, however, badges can be granted through a peer review process. This possibly is the scariest, but also most powerful component of the new badge system. This peer review process, in many ways, is the best hope it has to revolutionize the process and create a truly “open” accreditation system.

Tim suggests four ways to make badges work:

  1. “Appeal to our selfish need for self-preservation or our dignity: constantly remind students that, when they are reviewing the work of their peers, they are reviewing their own work. This only works if peer assessment is actually not quite peer assessment, but only done by students who have already received the badge in question.”
  2. “As mentioned, badge-issuers should always be people who have already completed the badge. This way, they will not only have incentive to uphold the quality that badge represents, but they will also know the content really well and act as capable critics.”
  3. “In addition to the social mechanism that could ensure quality assessment from peers, there needs to be a system that would ensure a good quantity of assessors. Simple: after your first badge, for every new badge you are awarded, you are required to assess the badge application of 3 (or more) students, offering them written feedback and a decision. This way you ensure a large and consistent pool of potential assessors.”
  4. “Finally, in order to ensure un-biased quality assessments from peers, each badge-applicant should be assessed by at least 3 peer assessors.

There’s some great ideas in what Tim has suggested, although I’m not entirely sure that completing a badge yourself is a necessary and sufficient condition for being able to assess somebody else’s. What I think Tim does show is that:

  • criticisms of badges apply to the potential implementation of any system
  • standardisation of badges is not necessarily a good thing (it’s perhaps using outdated thinking about ‘grades’)
  • the peer-to-peer element of badges is important, and potentially revolutionary

What do you think? Have you explored openbadges.org and dmlcompetition.net? How could badges work in your context?

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  1. I like the idea of badges and I think they offer a new perspective on how we value the same qualifications from different sources – eg a BA from Oxford or a BA from Ambridge High –  a badge levels them out to a similar value which I think is cool – more importantly isnt it what you do with an education that important – they are very transient things after all – (in my opinion)

  2. Great post! I think Tim’s right to focus on the assessment piece of the puzzle, and the kind of innovation badges may be able to help drive there. (So much so that I just wrote about it here: “Making assessment work like the web” http://t.co/ybi1Pyki)

    One of the *communications* challenges of Open Badges — but I believe a real strength of the approach Mozilla is taking — is that all of the assessment logic (what to measure, how to measure it, etc) is left 100% in the hands of the badge *issuer.* Mozilla just provides the infrastructure — it’s entirely up to the real experts (whether it’s NASA, iRemix, an after school program, or Tim himself) to decide how the assessment and credentialing process ought to work. In other words: it’s social, experimental, and bottom-up.

    So when Tim asks: “What will the student assessment process look like?” The answer is: it depends entirely on the issuers. There won’t be any “one size fits all” approach imposed. We’ll all have to work that out together — ideally in a way that’s more social, transparent and participatory than most of the models and systems we have now. Learning from each others’ experiments.

  3. There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all approach, but in order for Badges to be taken seriously the Infrastructure needs to be present both in the technology and the issuer-assessment. In order for badges to be valued as significant credentials that are valuable as resume-commodities, they need to have a common thread that employers/colleagues can rely on. People need to know that if someone has earned a Badge it means X,Y, and Z.

    Those guidelines could include:

    - All badges have been assessed and approved by at least three peers or one expert
    - All awarded badges must be accompanied by a written qualitative assessment of the badge-earners work, to be completed by the assessors.

    ————–

    Most importantly, these Badges, as they are carried around in the “backpack”, need to have robust descriptions of the earned content they represent, which could include:

    - Roughly the time spent earning said badge
    - The time/date/location of badge work
    - A portfolio of the individual badge-earner’s work attached to the badge

    —————

    Also, I’ll agree it may not be fully necessary that students first earn a badge in order to assess and approve others in earning that badge. Especially concerning badges that are more generic or social in nature. For instance, someone may not need to earn the “Teamwork” badge in order to approve someone else for the teamwork badge. …however, I would not feel capable to award someone else a “Javascript Expert” badge, because my Java skills are zero.

    Another interesting question about those more social “Teamwork”-type badges: does an individual apply for those badges, or are they just awarded? Does an issuer nominate someone for these badges and submit them for approval to the community?

    I work for a higher education reform project, The Saxifrage School. As we finalize our plans for founding a new sort of College… we’ll be very interested in how these alternative forms of accreditation play out. The credentialing process is tremendously complicated and important… we’ll be making some big decisions soon concerning what direction we want to pursue.