Why We Badge: The Potential for Digital Credentials, EdDigest
by Marc Lesser, Senior Director of Learning Design, Mouse
A national conversation on the topic of alternative digital credentials has received some coverage for the past couple of years. Most often, the trade news orgs, social media, and members of the education community are using the shorthand “badges” to talk about graphic representations of skills earned through a learning experience that are awarded and shared over the web. But the term can be a bit of a hindrance, especially if you have some personal experience with, say, Brownies or Boy Scouts, if your goal is to understand the more serious potential of new credentials, beyond cute graphics.
Badges can have all kinds of uses and instantiations on the web. A year after we started issuing our first badges at Mouse, I came home to my then 3-year old son angry over a software glitch on the iPad that was keeping him from seeing a Chugginton Badge on his profile in a popular Disney app. In that instance, badges appeared like gold stars, a mere indicator that a task or level of the app, in this case had been completed. You couldn’t use that badge to look back on his performance, it didn’t carry metadata to help understand more about the context in which it was earned, and importantly, he had no agency to curate the badges in a shareable way that might help him demonstrate what he knows to others.
At Mouse, I lead a team committed to helping schools and educators empower their students to use technology as a force for good. I’ve been deeply involved in the discussion, and early efforts to implement digital badges, through the field’s ebb and flowing interest over the last six years or so.
In 2010, Mouse issued its first digital badge, and to many outside the small community of early pioneers who we’ve grown close with over time, we’re still explaining why. The potential of digital badges often eludes funders, K-12 administrators, other non-profit partners, and the educators, learners, and staff supporting our program sites. Our own team, even those designing the system itself, asks the question, “why badge?” to ourselves pretty regularly. (Part of doing any work well is to remind yourself why you do it, so we see asking as part of the job.)
A “badge” in this context, is a graphic representation of a skill or competency that is displayed and accessed online, earned through a specific criteria, and links to “evidence” or portfolio data that can be reviewed by stakeholders.
In 2009, almost a year before there was a wider community of practice, we began a series of design experiments on our web-based learning platform with these five major factors in mind:
We sought ways of leveraging the web to build community across what was now a national program network. We looked to mirror the most contemporary norms for the web developers, engineers, technicians, and designers that many of our participants were setting off to become. We envisioned a currency that connected participants through their skills and experience, and allowed us to force-amplify a participatory network ethos the way we saw platforms like Stack Overflow, whose users receive peer votes for quality participation that lead to increased status and ownership, do it so well.
For too long, learners have traversed learning ecosystems with way more dimension than traditional transcripts are capable of capturing. Imagine a teenager in an afterschool program who spends a year prototyping a new technology for the hearing impaired, but with no formal way to demonstrate the experience back at school, or to a future admissions counselor. It’s not about some learning environments having the ability to prove worth, it’s about empowering educators and learners by enriching the tools that help each curate the past, navigate the present, and support a promising future. Using traditional transcripts to that end poses two significant (among several) issues: 1) it’s not enough data to capture human potential even before considering race, class, and gender (all learners deserve better), and 2) the system isn’t “open” for learners in a way that helps them cultivate an ability to orienteer in an increasingly complex landscape for achieving success in life and work.
Darlynn Alfalla, a technology educator and longtime Mouse Coordinator at Robert F. Wagner Middle School in Manhattan, says it well when she reflects on her students’ interactions: