Put a Badge On It

Opportunities for connected learning through a newly emerging ecosystem.

GUEST COLUMN | by Deborah Everhart

Badges for Lifelong LearningIn the past year, we’ve seen a flurry of highly publicized new phenomena in education. Convergences of transformative forces are driving new approaches to flexible, open learning opportunities, learner achievements, and competency-based learning. These forces include:

  • A push at federal, state, and municipal levels for the College Access Agenda to enable all students to achieve higher learning goals to help drive economic and social benefits.
  • Numerous research and non-profit organizations arguing for fundamental changes in the delivery of education, such as the Lumina Foundation’s strategy for “new systems of quality credentials and credits defined by learning and competencies rather than time.”
  • Swift changes in U.S. higher education accreditation, particularly for competency-based learning.
  • The changing role of employers as independent validators of job candidates’ capabilities in response to the shortcomings of traditional transcripts and resumes.
  • Rising consumer demand for flexible, affordable, open learning opportunities, driven in part by backlash against the $1 trillion+ student debt load in the U.S. that is dragging down individuals and the economy as a whole.

In this context, badges that represent flexible, open, portable learning achievements have emerged as a powerful new education tool. With badge achievements that can be added to online resumes and social media profiles, what we’ve learned can become – literally and visibly – part of our identity. Employers, admission officers, and other “badge consumers” are beginning to recognize the value of the detailed information provided by badges. This is in stark contrast to the opaque, minimal information provided in college transcripts and traditional resumes.

While there are numerous types of badging technologies, the Mozilla Open Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative has established a framework for the scalable, stable, growth of badge ecosystems. The Mozilla framework includes a structure for defining and issuing badges that share competencies, endorsements and verifications by experts and authorities. It also lays out how to facilitate badge collection and display as part of learners’ online and social identities, and how to use badges to evaluate learners’ capabilities for employment, education, and more.

Badge initiatives are maturing very quickly in many arenas, such as after-school programs, internships, for-credit and not-for-credit courses (including MOOCs), work experience, military experience, and other learning contexts. These initiatives provide a structure where mentors and experts help learners understand and evaluate their progress toward achieving specific badges.

As an example of a “connected learning ecology,” Carnegie Mellon University has included badges in the Computer Science Student Network (CS2N), which provides a distributed learning infrastructure for computer science and STEM skills. Learners participate in a scaffold environment and work on achievements ranging from entry-level skills to industry certification. Badge pathways provide a clear view of progress, as learners can clearly see how lower-level competencies lead to higher-level competencies. Creative competitions provide additional motivations and opportunities for peer review and learning from others’ work. Learners can progress to the levels of achievement that tie into industry-accepted certifications and entries to employment.

Badges have recently received notable recognition:

The badges movement holds tremendous potential as learners, academic institutions, employers and others engage in these new “connected learning ecologies.” We should expect that learners will increasingly demand flexible learning opportunities and portable evidence of achievements, and by providing them, we can contribute to changes that spur learning enthusiasm and improve learner success.

Dr. Deborah Everhart is Director of Integration Strategy at Blackboard Learn, where she provides leadership in product strategy and development. Her responsibilities include researching, analyzing, and designing Blackboard solutions. She is a Director in Blackboard’s Exemplary Course Program and teaches as an adjunct at Georgetown University.


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