Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers

Homeschooling is one of the faster growing sectors in K-12 education today. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the reasons for this growth is the increased access to free and inexpensive communities and resources. We are no longer talking about a handful of curriculum providers. Open education resources, free learning resources and tools, and the constantly growing number of high-quality online learning communities are available at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a screen). For example, if you were homeschooling your sixteen year old son or daughter today in math, in less than a few hours of searching, you could find a dozen quality adaptive math software solutions, free online homeschool courses in math, MOOCs designed for high school students, several personalized learning math resources, along with access to affordable remote math tutors (some with impressive credentials in math, education, and/or real world accomplishments). As many homeschool families have discovered, there is no reason why a young person needs to be limited by the knowledge or expertise of the teacher…any teachers. There are resources available to help anyone from the struggling math student to the prodigy.

There is still a challenge (although far from an insurmountable barrier) for some who are considering homeschooling or currently engaged in it. I’m referring to obtaining credentials that are understandable and widely recognized evidence of homeschool student achievements. Homeschooling families address this challenge in several ways: using scores on standardized tests, issuing report cards from the home, creating transcripts or using a transcript service, creating portfolios that represent achievements, through a GED, through diplomas provided by a homeschool co-op, through partnerships with local independent schools that help with credentialing, and by enrolling students in some traditional or online courses that provide transcripts and credentials.

As with all things, each of these have their benefits and limitations; but I still stee gaps. What if there was a highly customizable, low-cost solution that provided grade reports, transcripts, diplomas and widely accepted academic credentials for homeschoolers (and others who wanted to provide evidence of student learning)? Now consider some of the things that I’ve been writing about with the potential of digital badges. Imagine a a largely open and democratic communities that specialized in creating and issuing digital badges based upon widely diverse academic programming, serving everyone from the unschooler to the classical education homeschool student. It could provide (but not require) benchmarks for progress and, when students demonstrate that they meet the benchmarks, the credentials are issued. I see the open badge infrastructure as being a useful framework for such a project, and we can expect to see this in the near future.

I realize that some homeschool families would not like this option, as they prefer full control within the home. Yet, there are many others who would see this as a relief and a solution to a an area that is still a struggle. Most homeschool families recognize the value of the learning in their homes/schools. Yet, there is some nervousness about how to provide evidence of that learning in a way that colleges, employers and others will easily understand it and recognize it. I think that digital badges (attached to more traditional formats like transcripts and diplomas) can help.

I’m considering launching an initiative to explore such a solution. What do you think?

7 Replies to “Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers”

  1. DrEvel1

    Peter touches on but does not fully develop a key point that has less to do with the value of the ideas you present about recognizing alternative educational paths – which I wholeheartedly support – than the broader politics of the situation (by “politics”, I mean the whole system of the interplay of organized interests, not just the limited dumb-show that currently passes for politics in the capital.) Even as we see information resources explode in both availability and quality, we also see a counter-revolution of increasingly authoritarian organizational, governmental, and economic systems, aimed at disempowering individuals and reducing their ability to organize in opposition. And most unfortunately, the relatively few remaining worker-based organizations – particularly the teachers’ unions – seem to have joined or been co-opted into this power structure. Apparently, they see this as their route to survival as organizations and to the institutional positions of their members.

    Under these conditions, we have to ask what sort of political resources are available to a movement for recognition of alternative and/or individual-competence-based educational accomplishments. It’s not sufficient to say that since it’s such a good idea, it will inevitably acquire public support and recognition. In our authoritarian environment, it’s much more likely to be seen by established power groups – and unfortunately, I have to include the teachers’’ unions here – as a more or less direct threat to their interests. In an environment where credentialing is increasingly used as an instrument of social control, any alternative credentialing mechanisms might reduce its effectiveness as such an instrument.

    In history, the number of cases where centralized power was voluntarily given up and social control was returned to individuals, groups, and/or organizations is vanishingly small. We should not expect that the implementation of these extremely potent and valuable ideas would follow such a path. We have to explicitly recognize that we are in a political power struggle. There may well be elements of the power structure that could be allies, but we already know that there will be particular foes. Planning for implementation must have an explicitly political agenda

    I don’t have a particular solution for my concerns. If I did, I might well sell it out to the powers that be so that they could effectively de-fang it. It’s happened before; never underestimate the power of co-optation to eat into a revolution and reduce it to flag-waving. But unless we begin to understand that we are developing these ideas in a political environment of organized hostility, we’re never going to make visible progress.

    I have a personal interest here as well as an institutional one. My sister home-schooled both her sons quite effectively but with considerable effort – this was before the current information environment – so I appreciate both the difficulties and the value of educational alternatives.

    I’d certainly like to be included in any follow-up discussion, and obviously I’d be glad to participate in such an initiative in any way I can.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thanks for he thoughtful comment! I have been doing much research on the political angle that you describe in your comment, and I do see a few ways to make progress. If we look at the cases of micro-credentials in this broader emerging digital badge ecosystem, we see some developments that have promise, instances where badges are being accepted as valuable evidence of learning (even if they are not valued as much as traditional credentials). I agree that it will not be successful simply because it is a good idea. In fact, I’ve appreciated Steve Hargadon’s comments that the best ideas rarely do get widespread adoption. Nonetheless, if we can make progress in democratizing credentialing, then I see that as further democratizing the entire educational system. I do suspect that the most powerful groups will seek to gain control of these credentials. In fact, I have solid evidence of it already happening in some sectors.

      • DrEvel1

        I’m sure that you see the power issues. It’s precisely because “democratizing credentialing” would “democratize education” that it will be fiercely resisted. But beyond that, the standardizers do have a point. The more complex a system becomes, the greater the pressures it will exert toward standardization of parts; it’s just the nature of systems to try to exert control over their inputs. It’s one thing if you don’t intend to become part of the big system; an autodidact on an island in Lake Michigan doesn’t need standardized test scores to secure admission. But if he wants to become part of the University of Michigan, he does. Playing in someone else’s back yard entails having to play by his rules.

        The trick is to maintain some flexibility in those rules – hard but not impossible to do. Perhaps the most operative adage would be “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” The more confrontational the conflict between the standardizers/power users and the alternative-credential folks becomes, the more the former will win. But if enough people and organizations can be quietly persuaded to accept alternatives, and the more the bearers of alternative credentials are able to demonstrate competence and believe in their credentialing, the better the chances that the ivy can eventually crumble the stone wall. Open warfare will fail. Guerrilla tactics just might succeed.

        • Bernard Bull Post author

          Yes, I often tell people that I am part of the “educational technology conspiracy.” They usually laugh…but I’m more serious than most realize :-).

  2. Peter Condon

    A very interesting blog, thank you. I read your earlier blogs about digital badges with interest too and am about to try them on a course about quality in e-learning.

    It seems to me that the main restriction to the use of digital badges for home-schooling or any distance education (online or not) will be getting them recognised. In education they will become recognised as a threat (just as e-learning was or perhaps still is) and belittled because of this. This will then lead to difficulties of progression within the higher education system.

    For industry such distrust will come from the random use of digital badges, for all and any purpose – and in some cases to ‘justify’ an obscure course, rather than a realistic reward and measure of achievement.

    However I am keen to see the alternative to formal education – truly learned people being able to use their knowledge without having to pass an exam and apprenticeships that teach honest skills rather than jumping through government determined hoops.

    I would be pleased to be involved in your initiative, if I can help in any way. I am UK based and would be interested to hear (through you) of any other UK based colleagues who would also like to be involved.

    In the meantime the very best of luck with your initiative!

    Peter Condon (TOLDCo)

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for comment and interest, Peter. You wrote, “truly learned people being able to use their knowledge without having to pass an exam and apprenticeships that teach honest skills rather than jumping through government determined hoops.” This is very much in line with my own interests in digital badges, what I often refer to as the democratization of academic credentials. Your comment about the badges being recognized is part of what captures my interest in using the badge infrastructure for homeschool credentials. If badges can be aligned to widely accepted standards or largely built around recognized competencies, then I suspect that this could gain wider acceptance. In fact, this platform might even be able to serve both homeschool students and traditional school students. Part of the credibility will also come from establishing a review process that is accepted and respected, but that still provides the freedom valued by so many homeschool families.

      • Peter Condon

        Hi Bernard,

        You wrote “Part of the credibility will also come from establishing a review process that is accepted and respected, but that still provides the freedom valued by so many homeschool families.”. How true this is! But what a conundrum to solve – and, at the same time, please ‘standard education’…

        I would be very interested in you thoughts on how to provide such a review process. Would you commence with formal education or would you try to establish an alternative assurance?

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