When the distinguished visitor asked Tim, my very intelligent and media-savvy student, why he was taking my class "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," Tim answered, "Because it suddenly makes sense of all the things I like to do and that don't count anywhere else." He is on his way to a solid A in this peer-driven, peer-evaluated, media-heavy, and collaboratively organized class, but that grade does not begin to comprehend the leadership role he has assumed, the eloquence of his media skills, his dexterity at collaborative project management, or his innovative "fire starter" personality. I wish I could give him badges for all of these things!
What are badges? First, a badge is a recognized visual (physical or virtual) device or ornament or (heaven forbid!) piece of jewelry that typically designates in its design the symbol, insignia, colors, or name of the organization conferring it. That's important. That is, the very design of the badge acknolwedges the issuing body or community that has, collectively, agreed upon what counts as the minimum requirement for the badge.
Second, there is some equally visual symbolic representation of the knowledge, skill, goal, or feat for which the badge denotes mastery, accomplishment, service, or authority (such as when taking an oath to become a fire fighter).
Third, the badge has to be accepted by a larger community as a legitimization of that which it represents. It stands in as the end result of a longer, hidden institutional process. A badge is a means of identification with the issuing organization, a conferal of some kind of status (as having met the requirements of that organization or of being employed by them). Badges can be used as advertisement or for branding too, but that is a bit different than what the Girl Scouts give out. We know "legitimization" is one implicit part of badging because, of course, the system is susceptible to parody or misappropriation (in researching girl scout badges I wandered into the whole world of porn badges . . . big surprise, that!) Or, for a hilarious treat: "WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN BADGES": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqomZQMZQCQ
Fourth, the badge has to not just credentialize or certify learning but should also motivate it. By organizing a set of skills and interests (such as Tim's multimedia talents) into an actual, definable, measurable skill capable of assessment and judgment, badges inspire students to greater mastery. A hobby becomes definable as an intellectual, creative asset, something to be tended, improved, honed, perfected, advanced, and innovated. As with a game challenge, attainment becomes the floor not the end point, it becomes a step on a way towards even greater mastery. The badge inspires a certain form of learning by naming it and honoring it.
Now let's go back to Tim. If I had established a badge system in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," I might well have had the class help me design the badge and then might have also worked with them to develop community standards or even a community certification group for deciding who had achieved badges in what area. Tim might have left the class with (a) a grade for the class; (b) a visual badge on his website that someone could click on and then find out all the various things Tim did to earn that badge in my class; and (c) several lines on his resume. That's something we'll work on the last day of class, thinking about the skills students learned in this unique, peer-driven class that one doesn't usually learn in a normal, hierarchical class where the teacher has the questions and the students write the best answers on the final exam.
Badges are useful for certifying complex processes or skills that are not comprehended in our traditional grading systems. Think about what those are. According to most employers, the skills we do not grade are often the ones most important to future success in the work place. What we do not grade--interpersonal skills, collaborative skills, imagination, innovative, initiative, independence--are most of the things employers most want in future employees. At present, education, including higher education, doesn't have a system for measuring or counting those things. That's why a number of us have begun to investigate badging. And why the Mozilla Foundation is pioneering an Open Badge Project. Want to know more? Check it out here: http://openmatt.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/badges-in-the-real-world/
And, in the meantime, I'm hoping to give Tim the Firestarter Multimedia Expert Badge . . . he's not only exemplifying his skills. Today, he is coming into my other class, "Twenty-First Century Literacies," to work with the other students on perfecting their own video and multimedia editing and presentation skills.
Why do badges work better than grades? Obviously they don't in all situations. For over a hundred years grades have represented or summarized a teacher's estimation of the worth of a student as quantified by a series of tests, often of the item-response variety (invented in 1914). Badges are simply another way, a more flexible way, of certifying a range of skills that our machine-age multiple choice mode of testing doesn't fully comprehend but that are crucial to the ways we live, work, and learn.