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Digital Badges Need Mass to Matter

Small thumb unnamed 1422653861 1422676498 1428741641 1428750056 Frank Catalano

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Parts of the edtech world are abuzz about “open” digital badges.

But despite the excitement about, and real potential of, these intelligent graphics in education they will need more than current passion or even eventual ubiquity to succeed. They will need to mean something to more than just those who give them or get them.

A bit of background: one year ago in March, the Mozilla Foundation (perhaps best known for the Firefox web browser), released version 1.0 of the Open Badge Infrastructure. Students who achieve something worthy can be awarded, display, and share a digital Open Badge. Think Scouting, but woven with pixels and metadata.

Unlike earlier digital badges which were just static images that could be easily counterfeited by cut-and-paste, these have significant differences:

  • Verifiable: Each digital Open Badge graphic embeds inside of it data about who issued the badge, who earned it, and for what it was earned, information that can be verified by a single click on the badge leading back to a web page that the issuer controls.
  • Portable: Many current digital badges (I’m looking at you, Schoology and Khan Academy) only can be viewed inside the product that awarded them. That means once a student leaves a class, the badge and anything it stood for stays behind. Open Badges can be stored outside of any one product in what Mozilla calls a “backpack” and shared by earners on Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, websites and even in digital documents.
  • Stackable: Because the badges are based on an open technical standard that anyone can adopt, different badges earned from different organizations can be stored together in a “backpack” (Mozilla’s or someone else’s) and, theoretically, shared in combination. You might think of a badge, if it stands for a skill or acquired knowledge, as a “micro-credential.” Combine several badges and it could add up to a credential of some sort, perhaps for programming if each badge represents a different aspect of computer science – even if they come from different issuing organizations.

So it’s no wonder that a lot of experimentation is going on with issuing Open Badges, fueled in part by early grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Education platforms such as Blackboard Learn and Moodle now let teachers issue badges for, well, whatever they want, directly from each learning management system. Middle school math practice site BuzzMath has implemented badges for students who show facility in fractions, algebraic expressions, and other math concepts.

And this month at the Open Badges Summit to Reconnect Learning in Silicon Valley, Pearson, ETS, CAE (Council for Aid to Education) and others pledged their support to the Open Badges “ecosystem.” Pearson has launched a badge-issuing platform. ETS now issues badges for its iSkills and Proficiency Profile assessments. CAE is adding mastery badges for its performance-based Collegiate Learning Assessment and College and Work Readiness Assessment (in full disclosure, I’ve worked with the organization helping CAE issue its badges).

Who's the Badger?

But even with this high-profile support, Open Badges have a long way to go to move from nascent to trend.

An Open Badge, by itself, means nothing. It’s simply a convenient, digital way to represent and display something that’s been awarded or earned. I could use a badge issuing platform today (including a Mozilla partner’s forthcoming Badge Maker) to give you a badge for being an attentive column reader who made it to the eleventh paragraph.

This might make you and me both feel good (well, me, anyway). But I contend it squanders the potential of Open Badges. Because badges, to truly take off and make the best use of their portable, verifiable and stackable qualities, need to be valuable to a third party. They need mass.

Mass could mean a weighty, well-known issuer whose endorsement imbues a badge with quality and causes employers and educators to give it a second look.

Mass could mean a rigorous assessment (performance, simulation, multiple-choice test, or other type) as the evidence behind how a badge was earned, proof that the badge represents competency.

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums (part of the American Alliance of Museums), has put a fair amount of thought into badge systems for AAM’s member museums. When directly asked on a Mozilla Open Badges community call about what makes a badge “valuable,” Merritt responded: those issued from respected and trusted sources.

For teachers, that could mean professional development badges issued by the University of Illinois or Penn State, especially if their district values those granting institutions. For young kids trying to impress their parents or peers, it could mean a badge awarded by the Smithsonian or NASA. For college-bound kids, it could be a badge granted by ETS or CAE. In all these cases, the Open Badge is valued by a third party. (And yes, all these organizations are actively investigating or issuing Open Badges.)

Does this mean that other badges issued by not-so-prominent organizations, or strictly for participation or motivation, are worthless?

Absolutely not. If a teacher’s or edtech product’s badge system is well designed to indicate what a badge represents and what (if anything) is next in terms of progress, it can be useful to the student even if no one else deeply cares. A lot of educators and after-school programs are experimenting with badges to do exactly that.

But here’s where this low-hanging fruit may be potentially poisonous: if all Open Badges, regardless of who issued them and what it took to earn them, are seen as equivalent. Much like in the early days of desktop publishing or blogging, when if the content just looked top-tier, it was assumed to be top-tier.

Open Badges getting to critical mass requires a critical eye on the part of both the education industry and educators. And not just a flood of what some observers have derogatorily termed “junk badges” that are issued simply because they can be, not because they should be.

With an increasing number of heavy hitters getting behind Open Badges, there’s definitely an increase in potential mass that would allow digital badges to coalesce so earners are able to store, combine and share useful badges across issuers.

If that happens, it will give Open Badges something much more valuable than mass. It would give them gravity.

Frank Catalano is an independent industry strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He's a regular columnist for EdSurge and the tech news site GeekWire, and tweets @FrankCatalano. He has worked with Professional Examination Service on its Open Badges efforts for professional credentials but remains, as ever, a fan of mass, gravity and frequently levity.

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