Assessment

Colleges Use ‘Digital Badges’ to Replace Traditional Grading

By Katie Ash — June 13, 2012 4 min read
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Alex Halavais is an associate professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn., where he teaches a master’s program in interactive communications.

After hearing about the digital-badge concept, he began using a system of badges instead of a traditional grading scale to evaluate his graduate students starting in the Spring of 2011.

“I’ve been surprised by how effective they’ve been,” he says. At the beginning of each class, Halavais equates a certain number of badges with a letter grade, and it is up to his students to earn the number of badges equivalent to the grade they would like in the class.

Part of what drew Halavais’ interest to digital badges was the amount of data each badge contains.

“It’s an index of your learning biography,” he says. “It allows you to stitch together your [educational career] in interesting ways.”

And unlike an e-portfolio, badges generally represent one skill, making them easier for prospective employers to peruse, says Halavais.

Mark Rossi is a graduate student at Quinnipiac who recently completed one of Halavais’ courses using digital badges.

The badge system Halavais created relied on a peer-review process in which certain students who had achieved a certain level of badge could approve other students’ badges, says Rossi. All badges were sent to Halavais for final review.

“I’m pretty much an independent worker, so [this system] caused me to reach out, which was a little uncomfortable at first, but it was great once you broke the ice,” says Rossi. “Everybody really enjoyed the interaction of reviewing and being reviewed.”

And because the class was online, the setup helped spur collaboration and interactivity with his peers, creating a sense of community in lieu of a face-to-face classroom.

In addition, there were a variety of ways to earn an A for the course, allowing students to choose their own personalized course through the class. “It just expands your possibilities,” Rossi says.

Students in his class could earn a badge for commenting on the class blog a certain number of times; for penning a certain number of posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus; or for evaluating elements of online games.

The hardest part about earning badges, says Rossi, is being detail-oriented enough to make sure you hit all the requirements.

‘Working at My Own Pace’

Ronald D. Henry is another student of Halavais’ who took a face-to-face course about interactive media using digital badges.

“You basically did the assignment to earn a badge, and once you earned a certain badge, you opened up more assignments you could complete,” he says. His class covered computer programming, learning HTML, and networking computer systems.

Like Rossi, Henry appreciated the variety and personalization of the pathway the badges allowed.

“It was an environment where you got to learn what you wanted to learn, and learn it when you wanted to learn it,” Henry says. “Some people needed more time and more teacher supervision, and then there were people who said, ‘I get it, and I can keep working at my own pace.’ ”

And having the set of badges at the end of the course provided a much better representation of what skills each student mastered, Henry says. For instance, although two students in the class could have received the same letter grade, they may have come away with two different sets of skills, and the badges helped break those skills down into discernible competencies.

“Badges give you a more granular look at what someone did to earn it,” says Henry. “You have a better idea of what [the student] can or can’t do, as opposed to [the results of] standardized tests.”

He expressed concern, though, over the use of a badge system in a K-12 environment.

“I’m not sure how that would work,” he says. While it worked well for Henry, who described himself as a self-motivated learner, he asked whether the system would be too unstructured for a less motivated younger student.

Philipp Schmidt is the co-founder and executive director of Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, an open education university online. His proposal to create an adaptable, customizable, open-source platform for badge creation was one of the winning proposals in a recent badge competition hosted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Schmidt started interacting with digital badges through his work with Web developers.

“Higher-order thinking skills, teamwork, the ability to understand the goals of the project and translate it into technical code—these are all skills that don’t show up in a university transcript,” he says.

And yet, those skills are what employers are looking for, says Schmidt.

To help document those skills better, Schmidt has been incorporating badges into P2PU Web-development courses. But badges could work in a variety of educational environments, he says.

“The way we do assessment in school is totally broken,” says Schmidt. “There’s absolutely no way that through a multiple-choice test at the end of the course you can make statements about a student’s abilities. The only thing you’re testing is how good they are at taking tests.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Lessons from Higher Education

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