Can Badges Help Education (and Society) Recover from Credentialism?

I continue to wonder if open badges can help education and society recover from credentialism. When I first started writing about badges, it was because I saw possible futures where open badges could de-monopolize current credential issuing organizations. I saw the potential to increase access and opportunity for self-directed learners, those who took alternative learning pathways, and those who sought to design a personal learning pathway that mixed learning experiences across contexts and organizations. I saw it as a way to force the hand of more formal learning organizations to invest in the quality of their communities, learning experiences and their benefit to learners (not just employers). I looked at the education landscape and lamented instances where education institutions expected to keep their doors open by trusting that people would come to them with the promise of a quick-to-degree route or the hope of some sacred piece of paper that only these institutions had authorization to dispense.

With the growth of open badges as I saw it, these organizations could no longer depend upon people enduring archaic, subpar, and disempowering practices simply because the institution held the keys to the credential that the learner must have for her/his desired future. This was and is not prompted by a personal desire to hurt formal education. I wanted to help it find its way back to what has always been best about higher education; being a rich, immersive, intellectual, curious, transformational learning community and not a diploma-issuing factory. The best institutions today get that, but many do not believe it enough to have a financial model built around such a vision.

I saw badges as a means of helping to create a future where the increased percentage of college graduates was modest but the education “level” of communities was, nonetheless, greater than past eras. I looked to the example of open professions and intellectual communities in society and saw that many of the thriving communities are among the least enamored with credentialism (with the major exception of the health care industry that I will address momentarily). I saw this in entrepreneurial endeavors, many tech industries, sales and marketing, service industries, as well the tech-meets-social sector that continues to grow. In open professions, the high school diploma or college degree is still a common and respected pathway, but not at the exclusion of other, admittedly less traveled routes. I saw badges as a way to validate and expand these alternatives.

The same is true for those seeing the benefit in a broad and liberal arts education. As long as academia touts its pathway to the liberal arts as the only or superior one, we are hurting the expansion of the liberal arts in society. I’ve long contended that advocates of the liberal arts should be the first to promote informal learning, continuing education, and liberal arts learning beyond the classroom. The liberal arts is in full bloom when people value their books and music, they use their library cards, congregate for book clubs, participate in public lectures and gatherings to explore topics of personal and social import. It happens when museums and galleries are well-funded (due to the desire of the people and not just the lobbying of a small élite); these museums and galleries are valued and frequented places in communities; coffee shops, diners and pubs are robust places of idea exchange; when individuals self-organize groups for growth and learning; and when people value the intellectual life as an important part of their home and communities.

I worry that pushing the liberal arts credential as the only way to becoming a cultured and informed citizen limits the potential of the liberal arts. Yet, in a world of more open learning, the liberal arts college or curriculum doesn’t diminish. It plays a more valued role as one of many important institutions contributing to the humanities and the liberal arts in society. If the only noble place to study or experience Shakespeare is in the college classroom, Shakespeare is on life support and his prognosis does not look good.

As I’ve mused about the role of badges in shaping the future of learning and education (not just schooling), I’ve long recognized that training for healthcare is a major exception in that future. The regulation and oversight of training and credentials associated with these careers likely means that the monopoly on credentials leading to these healthcare jobs is secure well into the future. It is also possible that the model set forth in these programs is part of what is spreading to entire Universities and accrediting bodies, but I still see the open badge movement as a way to help prevent such a future.

My hope for these more open futures is fueled by the connected learning revolution. The digital age opened access to content, communities, open courses, human networks, personal learning tools and resources, and educational software. More people are using these elements to build learning communities, enhance their lives, and achieve personal learning goals. As connected learning expands, I have no doubt that value for this broader world of learning with expand with it. As that happens, open badges have a role in amplifying the effect of the connected learning revolution and de-monopolizing the issuing of valued credentials.

We are not there yet, and there is no certainty that such a possibly future will become reality. There are corporate influences at work that could either help or hijack the potential of open badges. Government and regulatory agencies have the power to create policies that limit or expand the influence of open badges. Lobbyists (many of whom would never see themselves as such) within formal education continue to have a strong voice in these matters (as I think they should), and an unwillingness to objectively assess the affordances and limitations of such a future is also a potential barrier. In addition, decisions about which direction to take with the future of the open badge infrastructure has the potential to speed or halt progress toward this future. As much as any of these, there is also the momentum of the existing system and framework in society that continues to be in favor of giving up power (even if unknowingly) to existing academic monopolies.

This does not need to be adversarial, but I am enough of a realist to know that it will be so. Such a broad change is painful. It creates new winners and losers. It challenges the agenda of desired future of influential people in government, business, and the education sector. It risks devaluing some existing credentials. It challenges people to a higher standard and level of learning. As it empowers more people, that means others will potentially lose some of their existing influence, and they are unlikely to do that without resistance. With such considerations involved, the future that first captured my interest in badges is less than certain, but I continue to see it as an interesting, if not promising possibility and path to recover from credentialism in society.