School & District Management Opinion

Digital Badges Have Revolutionary Potential

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 23, 2014 3 min read
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Badges explained in this video from the MacArthur Foundation

Digital badges have the potential to grow like email, and for the same reasons. “We’re where email was in 1983,” Mark Surman of the Mozilla Foundation said at a conference to gather support for badging earlier this year.

Surman dazzled his audience with one of those exponential growth curves that flow from Internet technology. There were 100,000 email users that year; now there are 2.8 billion. The explosive growth in electronic correspondence came about in part because of an unseen part of every email: the standard header. Regardless of what mail system is used to compose the email, virtually every email in the world contains a standard format that tells the computer network where it goes and how it should appear. This open source standard is available to all and used by almost everyone.

So it makes no difference whether you are writing love letters on a Windows machine or a business inquiry on a Mac, whether Verizon or Sprint delivers your message, or whether your email program is proprietary or open source, the email header remains the same.

Digital badges as recognition of learning have the same characteristics. Mozilla, which introduced the popular open source Foxfire internet browser in 2003, has created an open standard for digital badges. Thus, a student can get a badge for an online learning experience at MIT, another from a local library program, and a third from an after school program run by a school district. The badging system can gather these together, allowing a student to assemble bits and pieces of education into a coherent whole, a kind of do-it-yourself transcript.

Sly Disrupters

As education reform, digital badges are attractive because they are sly disrupters. They don’t pick a political fight by challenging the governance of schools, as charter advocates do. Instead, they quietly expand the capacity of the education system by linking students with multiple sources of learning.

Thus, badges can become one of the ways that students fulfill performance requirements included in the Common Core standards. The badges offer a richer assessment tool than Smarter/Balanced or any other standardized testing program. Because the information contained in the badge record is granular, more like narrative grades, it conveys a more complete sense of what a student has learned.

Badges also extend the range of what counts for learning. They combine learning beyond the conventional curriculum with assessment beyond traditional tests. Higher level badges allow students to demonstrate what they can create. That might even get them a job at Google.

Because badge programs, like the Chicago Summer of Learning that began in 2013 and the Los Angeles program planned for this summer, begin with student interest, and they work by building pathways of interest students can follow. Students can move from casual interest to more substantive involvement, from hanging out to geeking out.

Because they create learning opportunities and options, and get them in the hands of students directly, badges are a force for equalizing education.

Internet Power + Old Forms of Interaction

Badges connect Internet power to old forms of social interaction. Clubs, libraries, boys and girls clubs, scouting, museums, and church groups have been a part of civic learning for a century or more, much more in some cases. Badges serve as connective tissue between these organizations without creating an expensive and awkward hierarchy. Chicago’s Summer of Learning was administered by a handful of people, most on loan from other organizations or city departments.

Finally, badges level the playing field a bit for educators. For decades, creating a curriculum or text became increasingly institutionalized. Either publishing conglomerates or large public agencies controlled the flow of lessons. Now teachers--and networks of teachers have been around for a long time, too--gain the power to create and offer learning experiences in ways that can count.

All this suggests rapid expansion. In 2012 there were 3,000 badge learners; this year the number is expected to surpass 100,000, about where email was three decades ago. And we are still on the flat part of the curve.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.