Jackie Pichette — What’s in a badge?

A robot can handle investments, my brother’s phone can recognize his face, and I can earn a digital badge for participating in a webinar … Welcome to the digital economy.

As routine, repetitive tasks are taken over by technology, employees in this third industrial revolution are expected to orchestrate product development, innovate and learn on the fly. As a result, employers are calling for more and more complex skills.

In the midst of this transformation, digital badges have emerged as a way of recognizing ongoing skill development, and signalling to employers that applicants have what they need.

For those readers who haven’t come across a digital badge, they look like digital versions of the girl/boy scouts badges of our youth. They live online (e.g., on LinkedIn or an ePortfolio) and are usually embedded with metadata about the issuer or the reasons for which the badge was awarded.

Across sectors — industry, government, education — there is growing momentum to develop and use badges as a means of recognizing skills in a digital world. And speaking as someone who works in skills assessment, it’s all very exciting!

But (there’s always a but) in the majority of cases I’ve seen, badges are being embraced without much attention to the credential’s counterparts in competency-based education (namely teaching and assessment). Badges are being claimed for passively viewing a webinar, showing up at a conference, or handing in a group assignment, all without anyone verifying the claimant’s contribution or the extent to which their skill set or knowledge base developed.

It’s problematic, because without an underlying change in the approach to teaching or assessment, digital badges risk becoming a meaningless extension of the status quo.

Jeffrey Selingo provides good context in his report for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Future of the Degree.” Selingo writes: “Industrial economies focus on common processes. Time and process are fixed, outcomes are variable. In contrast, information economies focus on outcomes. Process and time are variables. In terms of education, what that means is the industrial system focuses on teaching, seat time. The information economy’s system is focused on learning. Times are variable; mastery is the key.”

The way I see it, badges will only advance our education system in step with the economy if they are awarded on the basis of mastery. And to do that, issuers must first:

• Take stock of the measurable competencies and concepts they aim to recognize;
• Ensure students have opportunities to develop and demonstrate those competencies and concepts; and
• Establish how to assess the progression toward mastery. (Note: this implies a departure from the multiple-choice tests that coloured my university experience and a shift toward formative assessment.)

It’s only once we confidently articulate learning outcomes and design valid processes for assessing those outcomes, that we can assign a new credential with any currency in the digital economy. Otherwise, we risk putting the cart before the horse (or the self-driving car ahead of the code), using new technology to recognize old approaches to teaching and learning (i.e., badges for seat time which leaves the learner and employer no better off).

Jackie Pichette is HEQCO’s Senior Researcher and (Acting) Manager for the Centre for Learning Outcomes Assessment

One reply on “Jackie Pichette — What’s in a badge?”

I agree that unless badges are tied to measurable competency they are little more than digital “attaboy’s” and don’t have or add much value. Open Badges 2.0 spec has lots of room to embed the evidence of competency, but most badges seem to be awarded for “attendance”. It’s also true that the plethora of badges related to similar competencies create even more clutter and noise – tying to recognized frameworks and using an emerging tool such as Credential Engine to equate them to each other might be helpful.

One other aspect that needs to be addressed is getting the resumé bots to recognize and strip the competency evidence from badges in an ePortfolio – otherwise the badges have no currency to a job seeker, and the person using them to demonstrate their acquired learning and skills will never get to the interview stage. Perhaps this capability is already there in current ATS software but I’m not aware of it.

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