Badges For Learning Series, Part 3: A Case Against Standardized Badges

Below is my latest monthly post for the DMLcentral blog. Please feel free to read below but I’d love to know your thoughts and read your comments here.

In my first two posts in this series (“My Beef With Badges” and “Getting the Full Picture”), I called on the emerging badging community to stop conflating our aspirations with our achievements and then modeled one way to share a more accurate picture of the challenges we all face. In this post, I would like to address my challenges with a vision often shared for digital badges, namely the creation of a broad badging ecosystem.

Amongst those like me who aspire to see the flourishing of robust badging systems, to capture and reflect the rich learning taking place in informal learning spaces, there are a number of curious questions which will only be resolved through time. One pertains to how badges will be developed: will organizations confer badges from a common pool shared across a local or national ecosystem or will each organization develop their own possibly similar but unique badges?

For example, will youth in Austin be offered a standardized set of badges related to different science literacies, and all they need do is decide which institution they wish to earn them from, or will the science literacy badges they receive in one institution be completely different from ones they might receive in another? I suspect the difference might lay in what we value most about what we think badges communicate. Is it the platonic idea of the skill, knowledge or accomplishment associated with the badge or is it the learning experience offered by the conferring institution? In other words, in the sentence, “I earned a chemistry badge at the Museum of Science,” which is more important — “chemistry” or “Museum of Science?” Our answers might just reflect our deeper values regarding the future role we see for badges.

I often hear people express concern about how badges will scale. If they are not standardized, how will a potential employer or college admissions official gain anything of use from an ever-expanding galaxy of badges? The value of the strong badges will be watered down by the profusion of weak or possibly fake badges. With standardized badges, it will be easier to interpret a collection offered by an application. It will also be easier for new learning institutions to join the network. Rather than start from scratch, they can simply select the relevant badges from the existing pool. Badges, from this perspective, care little about where or how the learning was acquired, as long it appears valid. Badges are not designed so much to replace school transcripts, but to exist alongside them, as an alternative record of youth’s informal learning. And, standardization is required to take this to scale.

This is only a problem, however, if the focus of “I earned a chemistry badge at the Museum of Science” is on the word “chemistry.” In other words, if badges are all about the learning signified then, yes, it will be very difficult to compare related but slightly different “chemistry” badges against one another. But, what if badges are not in competition with each other to achieve their platonic ideal, to be the best badge to signify chemistry? What if badges in a national ecosystem gain value not in relation to each other but in relation to the local context in which they were acquired? What if the value of the Museum of Science’s chemistry badge is contrasted, instead, with the Natural History Museum’s chemistry badge? It would not just be about contrasting the authority of who conferred it, but understanding the specific local context within which the learning occurred. It becomes more than just about the relationship between the learner and the content. It shifts attention to the relationship between the youth, the informal learning institution, and the learning identity fostered as a result. All badges are local, or at least localized, and the power of badges is to communicate that local value across a network.

Yes, this would take more work. Grades, like a B+ or a D, from a science class might be flawed indicators of content learned but they at least suggest one group in general is more proficient than others. The power of a standardized system allows us to take it to scale. But, perhaps badges can not scale that way. What if the power of badges comes from what is unique for each one, not what is the same? What if its power is derived from what distinguishes informal learning from formal education?

So, let’s not use badges to standardize informal learning. Let’s work to maintain and communicate what is uniquely powerful, and different, about informal learning spaces. But, that still leaves us with a problem. To take digital badges to scale, we still require standardized elements. So how do we standardize a non-standard system? Asked another way, how can we use badges to communicate value for a youth within a particular learning environment to those outside that environment?

At the March Digital Media and Learning Conference, I learned of a recent innovation that might just solve the problem. In my next and last post in this series, I will interview the folks behind it and invite you to explore what they learned.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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