Thoughts on Badges for LINCS: Lessons from History

This week I’m participating in a conversation about badges over on the Department of Education’s LINCS website. I believe badges are potentially a key piece of infrastructure necessary to support truly open, distributed learning, but I’m frequently disappointed by the level of thoughtfulness of the discourse around badges. There’s much to learn about badges by looking to the history of other technologies, as I’ve tried to point out in my answers to the first two question prompts.

Question 1. How are badges different from credentialing methods used in the past? Adult education examples may include career pathways, certificates, and stackable credentials. How are these similar and different from digital badges? (Tuesday, December 3)

Badges are different from the credentialing methods used in the past in almost exactly the same way that email is different from letters of the past. Because they’re digital and can live on the network, emails and badges can both be created, sent, received, managed, and searched with degrees of convenience and efficiency unthinkable for paper letters or certificates.

While it may seem simply incremental, this increased level of convenience and efficiency enables qualitatively different behaviors. Because emails are so easy to create and essentially free to send, as a society we now send emails far more frequently, and about far less significant subjects, than we ever did with the paper letters of the past. It’s also become increasingly common for people to save every single email they ever receive, and simply use a computer search interface to find the email with that relevant bit of information from four years ago. This task would be essentially impossible with a closet full of 10,000 paper letters.

Likewise, the simplicity of creating and issuing digital badges creates similarly qualitatively different behaviors. We now award credentials to individuals for far smaller accomplishments (e.g., mastering the operation of a given piece of equipment) than we did in the past with paper certificates (e.g., for entire degrees). And just like everyday email overload issues, receiving smaller credentials much more frequently creates badge management issues. As with emails, many people simply hold on to every badge they ever receive, building up increasingly large collections of recognitions of increasingly smaller accomplishments. Software like the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack allows us to store, manage, and find the badges we need just when we need them.

Because the digital affordances of badges can result in a far larger collection of far more granular accomplishments, they can provide third parties interested in your accomplishments (e.g., a potential employer or graduate school) a much more detailed, fine-grained look into your capabilities. For example, knowing that you have a BS in computer science tells a potential employer one thing; knowing the specific network intrusion techniques you can successfully guard against tells them much more.

And while the affordances of badges enable qualitatively different behaviors, they do not enforce them. There is absolutely nothing preventing formal educational institutions from augmenting their traditional credentialing approaches with badges. For example, in addition to a paper diploma and paper transcript, students could be awarded one badge per course they complete. This action, while continuing to award recognitions at the course level as the institution currently does, disaggregates the monolithic transcript into smaller credentials that allow learners to present employers with a much more detailed and nuanced view of their capabilities. And it does it without changing the way in which colleges and universities recognize student achievement.

At a high level, badges are not functionally different from previous credentials – they provide a signal to a third party that an individual has mastered some set of knowledge or skills. At a lower level, badges differ from previous credentials in the types of social behaviors they facilitate due to their digital nature.

I’m looking forward to participating in this discussion, and hope we can all gain additional insight and clarity around badges together.

Question 2. If “the technology for issuing badges is available to anyone with access to the Web,” what then are the roles for quality & content standards (in awarding badges)? Of accreditation? What are the bottom-up or top-down processes needed for developing badges? (Wednesday, December 4)

In my response to question 1 I compared badges to email. In my response to question 2 I want to compare badges to blogs.

Getting published was a terrifically difficult task 10 years ago. No matter the subject of your book, whether profound or profane, you had to persuade a publisher to accept your manuscript and finance an initial print run. If your book didn’t fit into the publisher’s mental model of “possible conventional best seller,” you simply weren’t going to be published – no matter how brilliant your writing. Likewise, if you were conducting research that was unconventional or nontraditional in any way, there was very little chance that the politics of journal editorial boards would work in your favor. If you failed to appropriately appease the holy gatekeepers, there was no way your article would appear in a journal. A decade ago, whether writing on popular or scientific topics, a person with something to say was utterly at the mercy of the establishment. Self-publishing at any scale was so difficult it was essentially a non-option.

Then blogs arrived on the Internet. Overnight, anyone could publish anything – and hundreds of millions of people did. By one estimate, 18.9% of all content on the entire web is published using blogging software called WordPress. People became fond of saying that “blogs have democratized publishing,” by which they mean that publishing is now an option for anyone and everyone, not only the wealthy and connected 1%.

What are the roles for quality and content standards in publishing articles on blogs? Of peer review? What bottom-up or top-down processes are necessary to regulate the so-called blogosphere?

Answers to these problems co-evolve organically with the problems themselves, and the best solutions even leverage the problem against itself. For example, how do you find the high-quality, relevant content you’re looking for on the web (over 20% of which is published on blogs)? Initially, humans attempted to catalog every page online and maintain an organized, browsable structure (you can see the remnants of this effort at the Open Directory Project). But the democratization of publishing led to an explosion of pages, and made the task impossible for any group of human beings to accomplish. Enter Google’s PageRank algorithm. PageRank leverages the structure of the massive quantity of information published online, by asking questions like ‘what percentage of all the other pages on the web link to this page?’ Each link to a page is taken as a vote of confidence in the content of that page, and gives Google a sense of the quality of the page. In this extremely clever way, Google leverages the problem (there’s just too much content on the web!) against itself – the more webpages people publish the better their solution becomes.

But weren’t we talking about badges?

For decades it has been extremely difficult for anyone other than an institution to award a credential. No matter what specialized skill or knowledge you possessed, and no matter how talented a teacher you were, if you weren’t employed by a college or university (with the sanction of the educational establishment implied by that employment) you couldn’t award a credential. Even for new or aspiring institutions, the holy gatekeepers (aka accreditors) mandate conformance to the orthodoxy in order to receive their sanction. Awarding self-created credentials at any scale was so difficult it was essentially a non-option.

The badges arrived on the Internet, and this is where we find ourselves today. Many individuals and institutions are now awarding credentials without the sanction or permission of anyone, and the rate of awarding is increasing. I am fond of saying that “badges have democratized credentialing,” by which I mean that awarding credentials is now an option for anyone and everyone, not only the wealthy and connected 1% of the world’s institutions.

But if “just anyone” can award a credential, we are inevitably lead to ask question 2 of this online conversation: what then are the roles for quality and content standards in awarding badges? Of accreditation? What are the bottom-up or top-down processes needed for developing badges?

Accreditors are essentially the Open Directory Project of credentials. They are a group of human beings who try to vet all the credentials in the world. In the past, this has been possible. However, the democratization of credentialing means that we will soon be in a place where no group of humans can possibly vet all the credentials being offered. An algorithmic approach – something akin to PageRank (BadgeRank?) – will become necessary for us to find the specific high-quality, relevant credential we are looking for. Some people will continue to rely on accreditors, just as some people continue to rely on the Open Directory Project. But had you ever heard of the ODP before reading this article? I didn’t think so.

A primary – if unintended – role of standards and accreditation processes is to limit innovation and experimentation. Yes, standards and accreditation have protected unwary learners from many a scam and diploma mill, but they have done so at the cost of protecting us from constructively unorthodox models as well. Democratizing the credentialing process opens the floodgates to a world with millions of credentials spanning the same range as the quality of writing on blogs. While our previous approaches for vetting quality are utterly incapable of dealing with the quantity of badges in the world, some clever person or group somewhere will create the BadgeRank algorithm that uses new standards to help us accomplish our abiding goal – finding high-quality, relevant credentials. We should not be overly concerned today that we cannot yet imagine how this system will work, because it is a characteristic of the best solutions that they co-evolve organically with the problem.

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  • Darren Draper

    Perhaps my perception is tainted by limited perspective, but it seems like important questions have been overlooked by online badge proponents:

    * What is the history of traditional credentialling?
    * Why do employers respect degrees from institutions of higher education?
    * How did the PhD, for example, come to have the respect and significance that it does?

    As an employer myself (or one in the position of hiring potential employees), I know I would trust the graduate level credentials provided by USU far more than I would ever currently trust an online badge. What can be done to change this perception?