Democratizing Academic Credentials with Open Badges

In a recent post about my trip to the Open Badge Summit in Silicon Valley, I wrote the following as one of 10 takeaways from the event:

Learners Own the Evidence of Their Learning – “We own our learning data rather than institutions owning it” – Connie Yowell – This represents the potential of digital badges based upon the Mozilla Open Badge standard. It means that wherever you learn something, when it is documented with a badge, you can take that evidence with you. It isn’t owned by any single institution. You can pull it into your digital learning backpack. The credential may come from different groups, people or organizations; but the potentially powerful shift is that the credential is your’s to keep, without having to ask for a transcript or official action from any institution.

As I begin to introduce the idea of digital badges in formal education (especially to people unfamiliar with the concept of open badges), many seem to initially think of badging as a strategy for increasing learner motivation…as digitized star stickers and “Good Job!” comments at the top of a paper.  As the conversation progresses, one of the first “aha moments” comes when I show how breaking courses and programs into discrete competencies attached to badges allows for more accurate documentation of student learning. It becomes easy for educators to see the many benefits, providing far more detailed data about student learning than an overall course grade. However, it is when I start talking about democratizing academic credentials that I start to see disinterested or confused looks. 

How do open badges democratize academic credentials? What does this mean? And what are the potential benefits of it? To consider answers to these questions, I like to start with the current situation. If I apply for a job and people want to verify the degrees I claim on my resume, they can have me request a college transcript. To provide that, I must request it from the University where I graduated.  This ongoing verification of credentials is controlled by the institution from which I graduated. Registrar’s offices in Universities decide how it is presented, to whom it is displayed, and when it is disseminated; even withholding “official” transcripts until the balance on one’s account is cleared (As I understand it, FERPA regulations in the US give students the right to view or quest access unofficial transcripts when they want.). In this current model, my transcripts are separated by the institutions where I studied. I, for example, have degrees from four different institutions and have taken courses from many more. So, each transcript is separate. In addition, when one views my transcript, there is little information about what I did or did not learn. It just lists courses, credits, and grades. It doesn’t even tell me what was supposed to be learned in a given course…simply an often-abbreviated title like, “The Written Word” or “Hist of Westn Civ.” What does it even mean to get an “A-” in “Hist of Wetn Civ”?

Now consider the idea of college degrees consisting of a series of digital badges, each representing a discrete body of knowledge or skill acquired to meet graduation requirements. Each badge includes a description of the badge, and detailed criteria that one must meet to earn the badge. It includes information about the issuer so anyone viewing the badge can verifying the authenticity of it. The moment a learner provides the necessary evidence of meeting the badge criteria, the badge is issued to the learner (while a full degree, which could be represented in a mega-badge, might not be issued until all other badges are earned). This need not replace the current transcript and diploma system. Badges can be part of a course and traditional transcripts can be created as well, with badges serving as a supplement, but an integrated part of the course (I’m working on distinct but related version of this that I hope to soon reveal.).

From that point on, the leaner maintains control of who sees the badge, where it is displayed, and how it is presented. The learner can immediately place it somewhere like a Mozilla Backpack and from there share the badge in an electronic portfolio, a LinkedIn profile or a personal website to use as evidence of certain knowledge or skill. It is a stand alone credential (hence the concept of badges as micro-credentialing), allowing one to leverage it right away. One can bolster a résumé progressively, even as working through a degree program. It is also quite easy to rearrange credentials, highlighting the display of those credentials most relevant for a given purpose (like aligning with a specific job description). This also allows one to pull micro-credentials from multiple institutions. One might have several badges on computer programming from one University, others from a few MOOCs, more badges from respected training and credentialing programs, and perhaps badges provided by an employer the recognize accomplishment of certain programming projects on the job. The learner can pull these together and present them as a collective case for one’s competency for a given job or simply the public display of one’s knowledge and skill.

This is what I mean by democratizing academic credentials. Notice how it shifts ownership (or at least control) of the credential from the institution to the learner. It also potentially increases the value and immediate usefulness of discrete knowledge and skills as they are acquired.  I have no certainty that Universities will embrace open badges in this way, and there is much work to be done if we were to make such a shift. Nonetheless, I find the possibilities intriguing and potential affordances significant enough to call for further discussion.

By the way, I’m working on another post that will focus on why digital badges are superior to current mainstream methods for documenting student learning.

Posted in blog, digital badges, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

2 Replies to “Democratizing Academic Credentials with Open Badges”

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I’m sure there are other possibilities as well. It is just that I have been exploring the affordances and limitations of open badges lately. It seems like many options would work, but some sort of largely accepted standard/system would be helpful for it to spread. That is where something like digital badges, all built upon the Mozilla OBI standard, might have an advantage, even if just from a technical and logistical standpoint. I’ll need to think a bit more about some alternatives. Thanks for the good challenge/question.

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