Someone asked me recently why I stopped writing about digital badges. I decided to write this article as a public response to the question, just in case others were wondering the same thing. In fact, responding in writing allows me to do something that I probably would not do if we were chatting about this over a cup of coffee. I will give seven different answers. Each one is true, but you will see some tension between the answers. That is only proper given the persistent tension that goes on in my mind as I continue to reflect on badges and the related themes. So, why did I stop writing about digital badges? Here are my seven replies, depending upon the day and context of the conversation.
I did not stop writing about badges. It is just that I was writing two to three articles a month about badges from 2013 through the first months of 2016. Then things slowed down. However, if you look at my articles over the last six months, you will still find that word “badge” show up.
When the work around digital badges was as an earlier stage, there was not much written about them. As such, as I learned and reflected on the affordances and limitations of badges, I posted those as rough draft thoughts for others to read and consider as well. From 2013 to the end of 2016, I wrote over a hundred articles exploring the benefits, limitations, and possibilities of digital badges. Only, along the way, I found myself most interested in some of the related themes. People who frequent my blog might not see the word “badge” as often, but some of the associated concepts certainly persist in my work. I continue to think a great deal about:
- the benefits and downsides of different ways to go about documenting evidence of learning,
- the possibility of turning evidence of learning into a key data point for building meaningful connections between people and resources,
- the democratization of education (including associated credentials),
- the distinction between learning gateways and learning pathways and the role of credentials,
- badges as one of many ways to create a credential associated with evidence of learning,
- the way in which many of us in formal education create narrow definitions for terms, so much so that this often leads us to miss important and broader relationships (as I see happening around research on portfolios right now),
- the ways in which people build connections and create opportunities through informal and “undocumented learning”,
- the way in which alternative credentials are persistently inhibited by underlying efforts to maintain the status quo (…and likely to maintain job security. I do not think that much of this is conscious.),
- the future of work,
- the “risk” or “dangers” that come with the spread of centralized credentialing and documenting learning,
- the continued growth of grassroots and democratic learning communities, and
- the extent to which many of us (including myself) crave and willingly submit to traditional pathways for learning and obtaining credentials respected by employers and others in society.
These are incredibly rough draft thoughts in many cases, and there are some controversial elements to all of them. In fact, there are some strong judgements in there that call for serious reflection and vetting before sharing even my earlist musings. I have an outline for a potential future book on some of these themes (but I am not committed to it yet), and I was recently in conversation with a couple of academic publishers about turning this into a formal research/writing project, but I am still counting the cost. To do this well, I would need to find a way to devote 4-6 hours a day on it for at least six months. I’ve prioritized other projects for the remaining two and a half months of my sabbatical, and I will likely not be pursue this unless I have a publishing partner secured in advance. Plus, once I step into my full-time administrative responsibilities again, I do not know if I will have the energy to do this well.
My work has always been most appreciated in the stage of helping people imagine the benefits, limitations, and possibilities, and then converting those into some practical scenarios. In some ways, now is the time for more technical conversations and applied projects. That work fascinates me but I am not in a position to do much with that right now.
More specifically, for badges to go to the next level, there needs to be some major developments on the badge display and sharing side of things. Major corporate leaders in the social media and networking arena are the ones who have almost all the power right now. They each have corporate priorities that do not necessarily bode well for the open part of badges or badges in general.
At the same time, the mixing of badges, big data, and artificial intelligence is not happening in any significant way yet. Plenty of people are thinking and talking about this, and they are likely in a better position to lead that conversation right now. Perhaps that will change in the future.
Early on, I found opportunity to use digital badges as part of a new type of competency-based graduate degree, and that program continues. So, I could justify my time and research because it related to specific projects and possibilities. However, the badges have honestly not ended up being the most significant part of the project. It was the building of a massive collection of authentic projects by each student that turned out to be most most valuable part of the experiment. The badges still have many promising applications, but now that we have our model in place, it is going well, and badges are a useful (but not critical) part of the project, I do not have an immediate usage scenarios in my workplace to try out new ideas with badges.
While there have been some great events where people gathered to extend the work and thought around badges, I am rarely a part of those conversations at this stage either because I am unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts or because I am not invited. As much as I saw and continue to see the democratizing promise of badges, this is increasingly a matter for a smaller and select group of people, and the others whom they choose to involve. There are wonderful exceptions to this, especially some significant pockets on the K-12 level.
I think about badges every day, or at least the broader themes related to alternative credentials, documenting learning and accomplishments across a broad away of learning pathways, and subtle signs that formal learning organisations may be losing the battle to maintain their monopoly on opportunity generated through academic credentials. Yet, I am more conflicted than ever, and the issue is far more complicated to me. It requires much more careful, deliberate, in-depth thinking at this stage. So, this is not a time to produce a couple of articles a week or even a month.
Some of my other recent writing projects and the theme of my sabbatical called for me to set credentials aside for a time, at least as a major theme in my scholarship. I am in the process of re-evaluating and establishing my writing and scholarship priorities for the next couple of years. I already have a couple of commitments, and I expect one strand to be focused upon the future of learning and recognition, especially as it relates to impending changes in society and the workforce due to artificial intelligence, big data, informal and grassroots learning communities, robotics, cyborg studies, and other developments. As such, badges represent a piece of my work, but they are not the main topic.
I suppose there are some commonalities among my seven answers, but you can also see that I am still working this out in my mind. Regardless, I can at least say that I have no intention of abandoning my thought and work around badges. Using the analogy of a photograph, open badges are not the focal point in the picture, but they still make up an important and notable feature in the overall image.