Beware of Badges as Biscuits

The digital badge revolution is nearing. I continue to see open badges as far superior to past and present forms of documenting learning and achievements (See How Badges and Micro-Credentialing Will Change Education). However, as I talk with educators about the potential for digital badges, it I find many gravitating toward the idea of digital badges as 21st century smiley stickers and start to put on the top of student papers. They often think of digital badges primarily as a reward mechanism, not unlike the use of dog biscuits to reward a pet’s good behavior. I can’t deny that earning a badge sometimes comes with a little drop of dopamine in the brain, activating the reward center.

Yet, I see no reasons why we want to return to an era where behaviorism dominated work in education. Pavlovian visions of education reform continue to have a strong draw for some, but many of us are fixing our eyes on the horizon of connected learning, defined by the Institute of Play in this way:

A theory of learning that strives to connect and leverage all the various experiences, interests, communities and contexts in which learners participate “in and out of school” as potential learning opportunities.

While traditional forms of credentialing and reward mechanism remain faithful servants of a behaviorist’s vision of schooling and education, a vision of connected learning class for imagining how we think about credentialing in the 21st century.

Toward that end, I am increasingly convinced that focusing upon “badges as biscuits” misses the true power and potential of digital badges. The longer I dive into the world of digital badges, the more I am convinced that the truly transformational attribute of badges is how they redefine the currency of credentials. While I’ve written about these before, here are five examples of how digital badges offer and new and potentially superior currency.

  1. Traditional transcripts are maintained and controlled by schools. The moment a digital badge is earned, it can be posted, transferred, and displayed by the learner.
  2. Traditional transcripts and grades often lack a detailed data about what one did or did not accomplish. Badges are biased toward competency to the point that meta-data in badges includes criteria that one needed to meet to earn the badge.
  3. Digital badges lead toward “micro-credentialing”, recognizing accomplishments or learning at a more discrete level.
  4. Unlike many traditional credentialing technologies, digital badges allow one to incrementally add new accomplishments and evidence of knowledge/skill to one’s digital resume or portfolio.
  5. Digital badges give any person or organization the ability to offer a credential for accomplishments or learning. Some see this as a challenge to or risk for traditional schools and Universities. They are right. Digital badges will help democratize the education industry.

Digital badges are a new currency for credentialing in a world of connected learning. They are more than glorified digital biscuits for good behavior. While they may have motivational elements to them, their greatest potential is in revolutionizing how we think about credentials in the digital age.