The Digital Badge as a Transitional Technology: A Raft on the Journey

I’ve written many articles about open and digital badges in the last six years, and I continue to be an advocate for the ways in which badges can help us broaden our sense of what is possible when it comes to democratizing recognition of learning. Over the past year, I’ve slowed on my writing about badges, not because I am any less supportive of the movement, but because I’ve started to notice more significant patterns in my analysis of future and emerging trends likely to impact education and recognition.

I started to share some of these ideas in their earliest form about two years ago when I was attending the the historic EPIC conference in Bologna Italy, the event where many of us signed on to the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. Now I’m ready to share a bit more. In fact, I see several possible futures for recognition of learning, but I consider it beyond doubt that almost all such potential futures will include three key elements:

  1. Documentation of data points related to learning, experience, competence, accomplishments, dispositions, and even fixed traits
  2. Big data
  3. Artificial intelligence & algorithmic matchmaking

Notice that I didn’t include badges, certificates, diplomas or any other credential in that short list. Why? I suspect that badges, while they will persist well into the future, are not the central innovation. Rather, they are part of a set of transitional technologies. Since I’m using the term in a specific way here, allow me to explain what I mean by a transitional technology.

It is a technology with the following five traits:

  1. It helps expand people’s thinking beyond an existing, related, but increasingly too limiting technology (in this case, traditional diplomas, transcripts, and certificates). As such, it helps surface the downsides and limitations of that technology, expanding the community and conversation around the alternative.
  2. It it borrows from the existing metaphors and vocabulary enough that people can understand it, while adding new features, taking advantage of new and emerging technologies to do so. In fact, it is always sparked by the affordances of multiple new technological developments.
  3. It sparks experimentation and entrepreneurial endeavors that promote further innovation and refinement.
  4. Many early experiments remain limited to the metaphors and frameworks that informed practices with the preceding technology. While there are some who will experiment in fascinating ways, demonstrating entirely new applications not possible with the previous technology, most people see it as a supplement to or a replacement of the prior technology, missing the fact that it could actually lead to a completely different construct. Only it works largely within an established culture, beliefs, values, and norms.
  5. Due to these factors, its most important role is not to be a long-term replacement to its predecessor, but to aid in progress toward what is usually a completely new mental and cultural construct, and associated technologies. In this sense, it is the raft that gets us across the river, but that raft is left behind as we move on to the next part of the journey.

Badges are that raft. The journey is about connections and recognition, not credentials. Only we’ve worked in a credentialed context for so long that we find it hard to imagine what could be next. Now we can start to see what is next. This begs the question. What is next? What comes after (or alongside) badges?

Several years ago, I started to write and talk about the changing nature of assessment. death of testingI even hired a cartoonist who does quite a bit of work from the New Yorker to create the following (or to the right depending upon what type of device you are using to read this) cartoon to illustrate my point.

When we look at emerging innovation around data analysis, it seems to me that testing is eventually on its way out, or at least moving toward having a lesser role in education. This is not a one or two year prediction, but we will see it play out in the next two or three decades. The reason for this is the same reason that I point to when I contend that bagdes constitute a transitional technology. It is about the future of data.

We are now in the age of big data, algorithmic strategies and solutions, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and artificial intelligence. In such an age, a test is less necessary. Tests become embedded, integrated, even invisible. We can mine data constantly to track progress. Tests can still be used as a teaching and learning strategy, but their role as a separate measurement tool decreases in this emerging world of data.

The same thing is true for badges and other credentials. What is the purpose of a credential? There are actually multiple purposes, but they generally signify something: experience, accomplishment, traits, competence, relative growth (or the lack thereof), and much more. As such, they communicate something about a person. Over time, they even communicate more or less than the reason for their issuance might warrant. Some more accurately and persistently communicate something true about a person, group, or organization. Some do not. That has always been the case, just as it is with badges. Badges are sentences in the stories that we tell, and we all know that some stories are fiction, while others are non-fiction. Most are a blend of the two.

Yet, badges are only one of many devices useful in communicating a story to others. What is important is the story and connection people as a result of the story. That is where big data, artificial intelligence, and all the other related buzz words that I listed before come into play. As more integrated and easy-to-consume methods of connecting and communicating develop, badges and other credentials will begin to play a smaller role.

Each new day that we live with one foot in the digital world, we are becoming further acclimated to algorithmic living. We trust our favorite search engine to guide us toward that which we seek. We do the same when we listen to music, shop, or try to find a date (or spouse). We rely upon these increasingly intelligence systems to match, connect, guide, and direct our choices and decisions.

Of course, not all algorithms are created equal. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to sophistication, not to mention the fact that every algorithm amplifies certain values and muzzles others, prioritizing some things over others. And as much as I will continue to draw attention to this important fact, that will not slow the global move toward such a world.

If you scan the communities discussing the present and emerging future state of digital badges, you might notice some people concerned about various patents or applications for patents with regard to badges. Some are concerned about this development, but seeing badges as part of a set of transitional technologies, I do not anticipate that hindering the larger move toward a new way of matching and connecting, as well as the larger move toward open recognition. Once we reduce the developments to their least common denominator, we find ourselves talking about something that is far less hindered by anyone who might seek power or protection through the patent office.

Badges represent a set of fascinating technologies, certainly expanding and deepening our thinking about recognition. They have served us well in that sense, and will continue to do so for some time. Yet, sooner than later, we will find that they have taken us as far as they are able in this journey, and we will set them aside on our larger and far more significant journey toward open recognition and what I hope will be a transparent but useful ecosystem of algorithmic connections. That will bring (and has already brought) ample ethical challenges that we are wise to begin exploring and addressing, especially before the next generation of artificial intelligence.

Posted in badges, blog, education

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.