Why Universities Will Be the Biggest Awarder of Badges (and When)

As interest in badges continues to increase, it occurs to me that in their passion for gameification, innovation, and outright reinvention, many in the field are overlooking the place where badges make the most sense of all – the formal higher education institution. There are at least two high-level reasons why higher education is the perfect place for badging.

First, universities are under ever-weightier mandates from accrediting agencies to (1) specify specific learning outcomes for courses and (2) gather and utilize data about student performance on these individual outcomes. Currently there is quite a bit of conversation – more frantic the closer your department is to an accreditation visit – about how to meet these external mandates. There are pedagogical, policy, political, social, and technical aspects to this question (among others).

In the open education course I’m currently teaching, I have identified a handful of specific learning outcomes related to breadth of knowledge, critical examination of literature, assessment design, and argumentation that map directly to course assignments. Successful completion of an assignment results in the learner receiving a badge. In other words, rather than being a token representing course-level achievement, each badge is a token representing the achievement of a learning outcome. (Kyle Peck recently called these micro-certifications.)

The Open Badge Infrastructure provides a straightforward way for me to award, manage, and track these badges. In other words, the OBI allows a department to gather and manage the learning outcomes-related data the accreditor is requiring the department to report. Having an open, standards-based way to do this is a huge win for institutions.

Second, on the student side, badges overcome a number of historical difficulties with course grades and transcripts. While transcripts contain a student’s own data, transcripts are terrifically difficult for students to use for either finding employment or seeking additional education. Each request for a single copy of a formal transcript costs the student money and typically requires a signature of some kind – not the type of frictionless transaction we’ve come to expect in the online world. Each copy must be sent directly to the employer / school to insure the student has not altered it. Informal transcripts may have been tampered with and are consequently of little use in moderate and high-stakes contexts like jobs and graduate school.

Even if the transcript were more readily available, course grades are very coarse indicators that give little insight into what specific skills and capabilities a student actually possesses (which learning outcomes did someone with a B in Data Structures and Algorithms master?).

Learning outcomes-aligned badges (LOBs) can fix these problems. They can be shared publicly by a learner (or not – the learner is in control of his own data) so that any potential employer or school can review them. They are tamper proof and their authenticity can be verified by any interested party. They indicate mastery of a specific learning outcome as opposed to a “grade” in a “course.” And they can optionally provide links through to the artifacts students submitted to demonstrate mastery. Students get control of their own learning data and employers and schools get both immediate access and better detail. Big win for the learner.

So a move to learning outcomes-aligned badges (LOBs) is a move in which both the institution and the learner win. The technology is coming online as we speak. How long until universities are awarding LOBs in most courses and managing (or contracting) their own OBI? By academic 2016-2017 most universities will be piloting LOBs either due to accreditation pressure, in order to better serve their students (or both) with full-scale implementations coming online for 2017-2018.

P.S. – A little further in the future: Will accrediting agencies’ (those stalwart reifiers of tradition) demands for learning outcomes-based data (aka competencies) be the straw that finally drives a stake through the Carnegie Unit? Those dots are not very hard to connect.

12 thoughts on “Why Universities Will Be the Biggest Awarder of Badges (and When)”

  1. What about highly subjective outcomes?  I’m thinking “Student will compose and perform an original piece of music.”  Technically within scope but what about the artistic elements?  Is it “good music” or noise? And why should I, the composer, accept your opinion?

    1. I think what will end up happening is that learning will begin to stratify into the online curriculum and the more intimate one, and I think that your questions are really spot on about where the most important conversations we need to be having are. 

      As a critical thinker, I will respond with a similar sentiment. When reading articles (news, books, online, etc) what should we, the consumers accept as information?

  2. Hey! I love this article, and it gets me really excited about a project that I have been working on! I really think that this is going to be the future of education, and not just higher education. Its a really interesting point that you bring up about the granularity of grades. As a recent graduate I’m not even sure ‘grades’ is the right word, I think its more like degrees. For a person that graduated in interdisciplinary studies my degree tends to have a lesser meaning without a more in-depth conversation about what I worked on. 

    I’m also working on a very related project, and I would be interested in gathering your feedback or connecting on a deeper level if you wouldn’t mind?

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head here. Badges allow for the signalling of process-oriented skills – a part of the learning journey we don’t capture very well at present. 🙂

  4. This is excellent, and an idea whose time has most certainly come. I think there is also a lot of promise in systems like Pathbrite and ePortfolio to enable people to build up a true representation of who they are and what they’re capable of.

    We’re creating an incubator for everybody here in Boulder that will inspire people to pursue their interests and ideas through a collaborative and inspirational community. Part of that is creating a back end system that helps to track project-based accomplishments – and I think you’ve just help me identify a potential solution for that in Open Badges.

    Thank you for the great post!


  5. I completely agree with Jordan, Christian and Doug. This is an excellent piece.  LOBs will be a common expression in the English language. We do have an existing example of a world-wide badge in the financial service industry, called CFA. Chartered Financial Analyst.  Thousands of participants take the exam (Three levels to receive the CFA designation).  Universities started teaching to the CFA curriculum, the Washington-Post / Kaplan purchased a company providing online prep seminars for the CFA exam. Pay attention to job postings in the financial press around the world  and you may find MBA and/or CFA. I would love to calculate the lost revenue for MBA programs.  

  6. Hopefully the future of education can make a right and fun turn with the integration of gamification. The idea of micro-certification is truly exciting, as that will allow people to keep their motivation, and easily track all the their achievements in the past. Great post.

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