For decades, educational institutions have used report cards as the yardstick for student mastery of school subjects. But today’s students are also rapidly gaining 21st-century skills through self-directed activities outside the classroom. Interest-based projects, self-directed “tinkering,” information-gathering and community participation can be excellent sources of learning, especially in terms of newer, digital skills.
The problem is that young people have little means of legitimizing this learning so that it is recognized by formal academic institutions and the workforce.
“Kids are learning in their peer group. They’re learning online. They’re learning in interest groups and after-school programs,” said Constance M. Yowell, the director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there’s nobody that’s helping the learning that’s happening across those connections.”
To address this challenge, many schools are turning to digital badges.
A working paper from the Mozilla Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation defines digital badges as “validated indicators of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest.” They can be earned in any learning environment, and they signal either traditional academic achievements or valuable 21st-century skills such as collaboration and teamwork. The badge itself is an interactive image posted online and encoded with all the data needed to understand the badge, such as which organization awarded it, what skill or achievement it represents, if and when it expires, and links to evidence for why it was awarded.
Badges, compiled into online student profiles, reward out-of-class learning achievements such as taking a community-college course or creating an impressive product related to a personal hobby. If a young person has an interest in writing and takes a journalism course or works as a stringer for the town newspaper, those activities might warrant badges.
Compared to traditional letter grades, badges often paint a better picture of students’ skills and achievements. Supporters tout badges’ ability to reward students who seek out learning opportunities, as well as motivate kids who have not succeeded in traditional classroom settings. Experts also suggest that because badges represent real-world competencies, they can make students more attractive to colleges and employers.
For a synopsis of how badges work, check out this student-produced video:
A Slow Rollout
Schools and youth programs across the country are experimenting with student badges. See this EducationWeek article for more information.
For example, MOUSE, a New York City-based youth-development program, gives high-schoolers experience providing information technology support for their schools, as well as professional internships, mentoring, and skills-building workshops. So far, the organization has awarded students more than 19,000 digital badges for a range of activities, including interacting with other students in MOUSE on its social-networking Web site, taking care of schools’ requests for technical help, completing workshops, and mastering technical skills such as networking or programming languages like HTML.
For badges to be widely recognized and respected, standardization will be key. Mozilla, the company behind the FireFox Internet browser and an early supporter of the badge system, has taken a step toward that end by releasing the free, open-source version 1.0 of its Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) specification. Many schools and organizations have embraced the technology.
Of course, no new educational trend is without its critics. Some argue that the extrinsic motivation represented by badges may damage young people’s intrinsic motivation for out-of-class learning. They also suggest that badges would add too much structure to activities that students seek out in order to escape structure.
Despite these objections, it appears clear that if the badges become standardized and colleges and employers get behind them, they will begin to see broad implementation.