Totally Need This: Why Universities Will Be the Biggest Awarder of Badges (and When)


As interest in badges continues to increase, it occurs to me that in their passion for gameification, innovation, and outright reinvention, many in the field are overlooking the place where badges make the most sense of all – the formal higher education institution. There are at least two high-level reasons why higher education is the perfect place for badging.

First, universities are under ever-weightier mandates from accrediting agencies to (1) specify specific learning outcomes for courses and (2) gather and utilize data about student performance on these individual outcomes. Currently there is quite a bit of conversation – more frantic the closer your department is to an accreditation visit – about how to meet these external mandates. There are pedagogical, policy, political, social, and technical aspects to this question (among others).

In the open education course I’m currently teaching, I have identified a handful of specific learning outcomes related to breadth of knowledge, critical examination of literature, assessment design, and argumentation that map directly to course assignments. Successful completion of an assignment results in the learner receiving a badge. In other words, rather than being a token representing course-level achievement, each badge is a token representing the achievement of a learning outcome. (Kyle Peck recently called these micro-certifications.)

The Open Badge Infrastructure provides a straightforward way for me to award, manage, and track these badges. In other words, the OBI allows a department to gather and manage the learning outcomes-related data the accreditor is requiring the department to report. Having an open, standards-based way to do this is a huge win for institutions.

Second, on the student side, badges overcome a number of historical difficulties with course grades and transcripts. While transcripts contain a student’s own data, transcripts are terrifically difficult for students to use for either finding employment or seeking additional education. Each request for a single copy of a formal transcript costs the student money and typically requires a signature of some kind – not the type of frictionless transaction we’ve come to expect in the online world. Each copy must be sent directly to the employer / school to insure the student has not altered it. Informal transcripts may have been tampered with and are consequently of little use in moderate and high-stakes contexts like jobs and graduate school.

Even if the transcript were more readily available, course grades are very coarse indicators that give little insight into what specific skills and capabilities a student actually possesses (which learning outcomes did someone with a B in Data Structures and Algorithms master?).

Learning outcomes-aligned badges (LOBs) can fix these problems. They can be shared publicly by a learner (or not – the learner is in control of his own data) so that any potential employer or school can review them. They are tamper proof and their authenticity can be verified by any interested party. They indicate mastery of a specific learning outcome as opposed to a “grade” in a “course.” And they can optionally provide links through to the artifacts students submitted to demonstrate mastery. Students get control of their own learning data and employers and schools get both immediate access and better detail. Big win for the learner.

So a move to learning outcomes-aligned badges (LOBs) is a move in which both the institution and the learner win. The technology is coming online as we speak. How long until universities are awarding LOBs in most courses and managing (or contracting) their own OBI? By academic 2016-2017 most universities will be piloting LOBs either due to accreditation pressure, in order to better serve their students (or both) with full-scale implementations coming online for 2017-2018.

P.S. – A little further in the future: Will accrediting agencies’ (those stalwart reifiers of tradition) demands for learning outcomes-based data (aka competencies) be the straw that finally drives a stake through the Carnegie Unit? Those dots are not very hard to connect.

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