How Digital Badges Can Bolster the Aging System of Grades & Transcripts

Suppose you have one or more degrees and I ask for evidence of what you learned from those degrees. You have a couple of options. You can show your transcripts, which have abbreviated names of courses, the credits associated with each course, and the grade that you earned. Or, you can share some of the projects and papers that you wrote or created. Of course, the best evidence would be to show me what you know now, but we’ll bracket that option for the sake of this article. For the first option, there are some limitations. By looking at the transcript, I don’t necessarily know any specifics about what you learned in a class. I also don’t necessarily know what it means to earn an “A” or “B” in a particular course. Does that include participation points? Was it graded on a curve or was it based on mastery of the concepts? For the second option, you can pull out your old tests, papers and homework; but who is really going to look through all that information?

These are limitations of the current system. Most Universities do not offer an easy way to communicate the discrete knowledge gained and skills developed as a result of a degree program. Perhaps we’ve come to a time in educational technology innovativion where we have some alternatives or supplements to the current system. One that is gaining increased attention is the concept of open digital badges. Toward that end, consider the following six affordances of badges that are not represented in most current school systems for documenting and displaying student learning.

Document Learning Beyond the Classroom – What about all the learning that takes place beyond the school or classroom but relates directly to one or more standards or objectives in a formal curriculum? Currently, evidence of such learning and accomplishments remains absent from a formal academic credential. What if open badges could bridge this gap, allowing learners to earn digital badges for learning outside of schools and inside school, displaying the joint collection in a digital backpack that one can share with prospective employers?

Documents Discrete Knowledge and Skills – As I stated at the beginning of the article, current transcripts usually do not give details about what knowledge was gained and what skilled were developed. Digital badges give an opportunity for micro-credentialing of each discrete bit of knowledge and skill. For each badge, there is a description and a list of criteria that one has to meet to earn the badge. If a person could display a collection of badges as part of one’s learning, this would allow for communicating much more meaningful information about what a student did or did not learn as part of a course or entire program.

A Badge is Badge – Since criteria are always included with a badge, this allows any viewer of the badge to understand the standard set for earning the badge.  This is a significant enhancement to the dominant letter grade system, where viewing a transcript does not communicate the standard used to decide the grade.

Comparing Evidence Across Different Organizations – Does earning an “A” in English 101 at Harvard represent the same thing as earning an “A” in English 101 at a local community college? Most might assume that the answer is “no”, but we don’t really know. To know that, we would need more detail about what was expected of learners each class, and a transcript with a letter grade does not communicate that. Using digital badges to document learning in classes has the potential of allowing us to actually compare knowledge and skill sets from different sources.

Differentiate Academic and Non-Academic Performance – As noted in #4, we don’t know the standards used to earn a grade in a particular class by looking at a transcript. This is interesting given that a number of non-academic factors sometimes influence a grade. For example, suppose a student masters all the concepts in a class, but is persistently late on assignments. The letter grade and transcript will reflect what, at first glance, might be misinterpreted as a lower level of content mastery, when what it really indicates is a person’s inability (at least during that class) to meet deadlines. By documenting learning with micro-credentialing, a badge is earned when the criteria are met. This removes the need to speculate about the meaning of the badge.

Allow for Designing More Effective Learning Progressions – We sometimes use performance in one class as evidence of preparation for another class or activity. Sometimes one class is a pre-requisite for another. Other times, an upper level class might require a “B” or higher in an earlier class. However, most of us have seen examples where this standard didn’t work. This is partly because of the limitations alluded to in #1-5. What if we could set up more discrete benchmarks for advanced learning activities using digital badges? Instead of the broad pre-requisite of a certain course or a grade in a certain course, we could drill down to the specific knowledge and skills required to progress to a next learning activity.

I have little expectation that letter grades and transcripts will disappear in the near future. They have a trusted role in education, and there is widespread acceptance of the current system. At the same time, there are clear limitations that become even more clear as new possibilities like digital badges emerge. As a result, I expect to see a growing number of learning organizations start to blend these two systems, keeping part of the traditional credentialing model, but bolstering it with something like digital badges or another technology with comparable affordances.

Posted in assessment, badges, blog, digital badges, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.