Blog Post

Why Badges? Why Not?

Yesterday I was able to step off the Now You See It book tour to attend the launch of the fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition, focused on an ambitious topic this year and with an unusual structure:  “Badges for Lifelong Learning.”  (You can watch the archived event on the Hirshhorn Museum’s U-Stream channel here:  What makes this event stunning to think about is that it was emcee’d by Hari Sreenivasan, of the PBS NewsHour, and included Julia Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundation, Mark Surman, the Executive Director of Mozilla, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden.   A panel discussion then included Emily Stover DeRocco, President of the Manufacturing Institute and National Center for the American Workforce, Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of Education, Leland D. Melvin, Association Administrator for Education at NASA, and Debra Sanchez, Senior Vice President of Education and Children’s Content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.   Think about who is thinking about new forms of accreditation, one of the most pressing issues for learners and for educators—at all levels—in our time!


Other Organizations and Institutions Can Apply

The very impressive array of those on the podium articulated the scope of the problem.  Any other organization can join them in asking for partners to design a new way of offering accreditation to their own organization. Organizations can be virtual or actual, formal or informal, large or small, operating on inexpensive mobile phones or Web-based platforms. They can be peer run or top down.  Some might be games---but most will have nothing to do with games or what people are calling (ambiguously and not always accurately) "gamification."   Badges may be used in games but games have very little to do with alternative forms of peer contribution and credentialing in most institutions.   That's important.   And so is the fact that you don't need much technology or money to implement a badging system--or, at least, that is another of the goals of this Competition.   In short:   There are as many systems for badging—a new form of accrediting participation and accomplishment—as there are variations in institutions and organizations.   There is no one-size-fits-all.


Perhaps a school wants to be able to recognize the master teacher who is caring and constructive mentor to new teachers in her school.    Isn’t that a fantastic contribution that so many teachers make, day in and day out, that, currently, goes unrecognized?  (An aside:  I loved the “Go, Teachers!” thread that ran throughout yesterday’s program.)    Perhaps there’s a national network of auto mechanics that would like to be able to come up with a way of credentialing high school drop outs who happen to be great at fixing hybrid cars but who cannot afford to go to for-profit trade school that offer formal credentials.   I’m making this up, but I can see applications that could help participants and communities to recognize those with achievements “outside the system” and yet crucial, to the community and to their own success in the workplace.   What do we have now to offer? Multiple choice tests, ABCD grades, transcripts, resumes:  that is an extremely narrow range of alternatives that in itself selects who counts and what is counted. 


Individuals can earn badges from multiple organizations, some certifying human skills such as collaboration or even helpfulness, that mean as much to future employers as skills and experience and credentials from traditional institutions.   And an individual can choose to reveal or not reveal an e-portfolio.  YOU own your portfolio.  These are badges, designed to record and inspire learning and collaboration, and so ownership is key.    Yesterday, I heard about (and want to learn more) of a system used among goat herders and mechanics in Africa, where badges on their cell phones certified quality of product, fair exchange, honesty, and innovation in a migrant situation where credibility is key and hard to measure.   This is key because no one wants a new form of credentialing that replicates the hierarchies of traditional accreditation.  The point is to thing big, think new, think change. 


Our current, standardized systems of credentialing  are very rigid and often restrictive.   Badges allow groups of people—organizations and institutions--to decide what counts for them and how they want to give credit.   Every contribution isn’t measured by ABCD.   If you contribute, you can have a record of that contribution.   That’s the beauty of digital badge systems or eportfolios such as Top Coders where you can actually click on the badge and see all the specific contributions or skills of a person that were recognized by peers in the form of a badge.  A badge is a visual symbol.  In the best online badging systems, that emblem then opens up a full array of contribution.   Open web developers often depend on strangers around the world who start to pitch in and contribute to a project.   Badging helps one developer to know how much they can trust some unknown contributor and then, if the project goes well, one participant in the virtual team can recognize the skills, collaborative attributes, and other technical as well as social collaborative skills of another.   Developing  credible systems that can’t be “gamed” or “cheated” is one challenge that open web developers have addressed in a variety of ways and that we can all learn from.   Another inspiring aspect of open badges for lifelong learning:  they recognize achievement and contribution, not reputation or credentials.  If I’m engaged in a project with someone who does an exemplary job, I can award credit whether that person happens to have a Ph.D. from MIT or be a brilliant sixteen-year old programmer in Gary, Indiana—or Nairobi. 


How the Badges Competition Works  (

In stage one of the competition, organizations that are looking for some new way to recognize and encourage members who contribute to the organization define the possible “ecosystem” of their organization and why a new form of recognizing participation would serve their needs.  Some subset of organizations, representing the widest possible array of possibilities, will be selected to go forward.   (See for details.)


In the second stage, designers interested in working with that organization come forward with a proposal.    (Again, details here:


Then, there’s a meet-up.  At the end of that intense process of collaborative work, a cohort of  partnerships of organizations and designers will be supported for a year to work out all the details of an open, functional, exemplary credentialing system for their organization---one that other organizations can learn from. 


A Research Competition:  Learning from What We’re Learning Together

We will also be sponsoring a research competition ( so that White Papers can emerge studying every phase of this process and of badging more generally so there is still more that we can all learn from. 



And HASTAC will be sponsoring a series of webinars, online forums, and of course groups and blogs (such as this one) on the HASTAC website that anyone who is a HASTAC network member (registration is very simple) can contribute to.   We want good ideas.   We want critique.  We want push back.  You can’t have “evidence-based hope” without all the details, all the nuances, not based on prejudice or preconception but thinking through a problem together.  


We know the current systems of standardized grading don’t work.   At the end of this competition, we hope to know a lot more about what will work---and how others can learn from the hard work of our winners and apply their working examples to their own institutions.


Not Just Winners but Working Examples We Can All Learn From

The winning organizations and developers will receive support from the MacArthur Foundation to support their work creating a new badging system with all the flexibility and all the precautions and all the applications their organization requires:  about individual and community participation, openness, privacy, security, intellectual property, changing Human Resources, cost of implementation and sustainability, and other institutional practices, and so forth.  This is a worthy enough goal but the real “game changer” is that the end result should be an array of actual, open, working and functioning systems of accreditation that will help all of us, in any situation, think about whatever method our institution now uses and to be able to see, in concrete detail, how things might be better by adopting this new system that these teams have worked on together.


In other words, for something as complex and important as how we create the standards for the institutions that structure the ways we all live and work, we will, in a year or two, have an array of models, actual working and real models.   And we will have researchers studying and writing about the pluses and minuses of these systems and where and how they can be adapted elsewhere.   These are not hypothetical results but ongoing research on evolving, working examples in real-world and real-life situations


Think about that!   Think about the haphazard way in which social change and, even more, how institutional change usually happens.  And then think about the concrete, specific examples of not only ill-defined “hope for the future” but an actual working plan for change (in multiple forms, in multiple working examples) that a competition like this can model for us all.


A virtual friend (in the Twitter sense of the word), Michael Josefowicz aka @ToughloveforX), a self-made public education reform advocate, likes to talk in terms of “evidence-based hope.”  At the end of this Badges for Lifelong Learning competition, we are going to be able to offer institutions and organizations, large ones and small, an array of models that they can apply to their own organizations.  That removes a very large “fear factor” that often inhibits institutional change.   “Evidence-based hope.”


Here are some other things to think about.   We are working to make this Competition cycle as open as laws and concerns about privacy allow.  Everything the winners do will be open.   The process will be open.   The outcome, or so we are hoping, will offer any organization or institution that wants to find new, complex, nuanced ways for peers, participants, members, or anyonethey wish to give credit to their members in a way that might also have benefit to them in their life beyond that organization.   Are you a good mentor?  Someone who sparks ideas?  Someone great at moving a collaborative group to a final product?  Or maybe you write great HTML or are an ardent contributor to the organization’s goal of writing its own institutional history?   The point is badges allow institutions the flexibility of deciding, collectively, on what they want to count and to find ways of counting that have real variability.  You reward only what counts.  If something doesn’t count, you simply don’t give it a badge.  Think about that change in and of itself.   We reward contribution.   If someone doesn’t contribute, no reward.   You don’t have to give them a D or a “gentleman’s C” (the old Ivy League equivalent of “failure.”)  You earn badges.   That simple.   But it’s not simple at all to work out such a system and, at the end of this Competition, any institution that wants to try something different, will have all the details about what adopting a new practice will mean, how it works, how it can be modified, and how much it will cost.  We have had such a limited palette for measuring of accrediting a range of work that, for over a hundred years, in the highly limited and constricted ways that we measure “high standards”


Why Does HASTAC Administer This Competition (along with all the other things HASTAC does)?

First, HASTAC has not changed its mission.  This is one of the many, many things the HASTAC network (now about 7200 network members) does.   Yet HASTAC’s main goal, since its founding in 2002, has been institutional change.  How you measure what individuals and institutions contribute determines how individuals and institutions function.   So this is big.  The potential is as great as our imaginations, and that is what we mean by “thinking the future together.”  We want to hear from you.   We know many people embrace this.  There are some ardent “haters” who reject it without even know what “it” is (know one knows that yet).  And there are many wise and skeptical critics who also seek institutional change but who don’t think badges will lead to change.   We want to hear from all of you in the constructive way that our community has thrived for nearly a decade now. 



As HASTAC network members all know by heart, David Theo Goldberg and I were inspired in 2002 to bring together a dozen or so other researchers in the worlds of the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences, computer scientists, and technology developers in order to think through the possibilities of new ways of organizing learning institutions in the digital age.  



HASTAC’s Partnership with the MacArthur Foundation on the Digital Media and Learning Competitions

Our own focus is on higher education, our domain, but we have included many far beyond that world.   We feel grateful that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognized our visionary, community-based role and asked us to administer their annual Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   We have learned so much, every year, from the process of running these competitions, and from the work of our winners.  You can find more about those winners here:    It’s an impressive list.


HASTAC’s Partnership with Mozilla

HASTAC was inspired by the way open web developers work together in worldwide communities of contribution and peer-learning to make the World Wide Web and some of its most astonishing collaborative projects, including Wikipedia, of course.   So we were especially excited in 2010 when Mozilla came to us and recognized us as one of the world’s most exciting institutions for peer learning within formal education.  They asked us to participate in their 2010 Drumbeat Festival on “Learning, Freedom, and the Open Web,” and HASTAC ran a full day of programs there, at the Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona, including a separate full-day of student-generated programing.  Mozilla leaders were unaware, when they found us, that HASTAC, originally, had been formed to adapt to higher formal education their work in the developing and keeping the World Wide Web open.   They had inspired our idea of new, open institutional models of peer-learning, and we were gratified when it turned out the admiration was mutual.


Getting Personal

I am honored and grateful to be part of this grand experiment designed to not just explore but also to model new, interactive, participatory forms of credentialing for the 21st century.   The concrete examples, I hope, will inspire us to see ways we can transform our own institutions.   We will do our best to choose wise and capable winners who can show us, in minute detail, how institutional change works—so that we can build upon their examples.   Think about the difference between saying “the status quo doesn’t serve us” and saying “the status quo doesn’t serve us—but here are some current, working examples that can help us to find what will serve us better.  Here’s a blueprint that we can follow.”   That’s breathtaking. 


As HASTAC readers know, I am currently on a forty-site book tour for Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking) and am giving many different interviews on line or in the traditional media each week.   Events have been standing room only.   I talk to people every day and see how much of a need there is.   Chapter Four “How We Measure,” is an analysis of the limitation of the metrics and means of assessment that now govern how our institutions of education and our national educational policy now function, systems of standardized assessment that the U.S. has developed and given to the world.   We think we aspire to “high standards” but we badly confuse “standards” with “standardization.”  The particular form of standardization was invented for the efficient working of the industrial age—the assembly line becomes the prototype for educational reform and even the creation of the research university in the late 19th century.   The science of attention (William James was the first philosopher in English, he says, to write about “attention”) motivated a new, focused, disciplinary, hierarchical form of attention, taken almost to its reduction ad absurdum by the translation of nuanced, individual, written critique to the brutal A, B, C, D letter grades.  In 1897, Mount Holyoke was the first institution to adopt this system.  The American Meat Packer’s Association took it up next but, if you go into the archives of the association, you found that they were suspicious of such an inflexible, reductive system for grading something is variable as sirloin or chuck.   If you are a teacher or a student, you know what I mean. 


HASTAC members know I have spent the last decade of my life studying and trying out new forms of assessment, almost all of it written about in detail on the HASTAC site.   “How to Crowdsource Grading” ( attracted worldwide attention and is the inspiration for some of Part Two of Now You See It.   In my quest to find new and better forms of teaching and learning together, though, I interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds of teachers far more gifted than I.  I tell the stories of many of them—all of them who have championed with creativity, inspiration, and “evidence-based hope” against a system that “grades” them according to how well their students do on multiple-choice tests invented in 1914 for the explicit purpose of addressing a national crisis.   I tell that story in Now You See It too, finding the archives of the man who invented the item-response test in a doctoral dissertation, to help out in a national crisis, and who spent the rest of a long career trying to convince others to use more Dewey-esque ways of learning, and not to reduce all the ways we think and learn to “lower order thinking” measured by the test he created during a national teacher-shortage during the world’s first World War.   The test Kelly made in the crisis-moment of 1914 looks like one any school child will take this year. 


Our world has changed.  Kids need to know how to think about credibility, how to synthesize enormous amounts of knowledge, how to know what is or isn’t high quality, and how to contribute to judgment themselves.   They deserve better than a test created in a wartime crisis for their great, great great grandparents.



Are badges the answer?   We don’t know. 

Certainly, we all know, they are not the only answer—they are just a small beginning, to encourage many new, vital conversations everywhere about what might work.  If you don’t like badging, give us your ideas for what you think might work.   That in itself is a great good.  If you don’t like badging as an alternative form of credentials and standards, we invite you to give us something constructive as an alternative, give us something we can all learn from. 


 As with any good experiment, this one contains within it the possibility for failure.  We would be cowardly if failure were not an option, we would be setting the bar too low—a problem with so much contemporary assessment from grade inflation to cheating to the fact that over 80% of articles in scientific journals now report only on positive experimental results.   What is wrong with this picture?   Everyone is teaching to the test these days, a disaster in so many ways.   We don’t know if badging solves that problem.  We know it can’t solve all problems.  But it is an important, practical, hopeful beginning to a profound conversation that, with your participation, can yield institutional change. 




We cannot keep educating students for the twentieth century.   We cannot keep measuring our achievements by narrow, inflexible standardized means thatmay have worked for the industrial age but that ignore virtually all of the skills and talents we need to succeed in the 21st century.  


If we don’t begin right here, right now, we will never find out the best ways to change what we know is broken.  We hope, in this amazing year, to find many ways we can enhance learning.   We know that many of you will not be competing in the actual Fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition but we hope all of you will be participating in a year of thinking about assessment, credentialing, merit, and evaluation as keys to learning and to learning institutions.  We hope you will help us think about institutional change.  We hope you will join us in thinking through the future of lifelong learning.      





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . .  One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."

NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



Hi Cathy,

A lot of what you note here helps me to understand the rationale behind the competition in ways that the public announcement didn't--I sure wish some of this information had been included as part of the press event.

I worry deeply, though, about the message behind the title of this post. "Why not?" is a great reason to try something when there's nothing to lose, and a less great reason to try something when there's an awful lot to lose. Certainly there is a lot wrong with our current education and credentialing systems; but we're far from a place where we can really say there's nothing to lose by trying something that has little empirical research behind it. The panelists at the press event pointed out that there is good "anecdotal" evidence that badges work, which is a nice start--but there's anecdotal evidence that a lot of different credential programs work.

In fact, it seems to me that the weight that MacArthur and HASTAC are putting behind badges automatically turns badges research into a higher-stakes endeavor, because it will drive the research agendas of a lot of people who are working in this field and, even more importantly, will likely become the "public face" of Digital Media & Learning.

So I guess I'm saying I need more rationale than "why not?" in order to get behind badges.


Hi, Jenna, There is no way to ascertain empirical research before something exists.   That is why we are also offering research awards to study as we are evolving multiple applications.    What we know is the current system is highly ineffective, prejudicial, and imperfect.   My title doesn't mean "there's nothing to lose"?  I intended it to ask "why" we should do this competition to explore the possibilitiy of an alternative system of credentialing and then post the question "why not?"   I myself can't think of any reason not to try it---but I want others to come up with reasons because otherwise we just hear ourselves and have a circular system that reaffirms itself.   That is the present system, where we make the tests to test the standards that the standards test---and then are punitive about teachers and kids who don't live up to those self-reflexive standards.   Also, worse, current tests in school de-motivate learning.  We know that.   Also, we need far more flexible metrics ourside of formal learning institutions.  All that.  As I explain above. 


We are looking, together with anyone out there who is interested in trying, for other ways, for other models.  If they do not work, we try something else.  That is why this is a competition and not a policy.   We are funding an opportunity to try something different.  Thanks for voicing your concerns and I hope others will too.  I will keep adding to my blog ideas as they evolve.  I've already written about these things in the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It.  These are my personal reasons for being very excited at the courage of trying something new and bold and getting us behind stasis.   A system that was imperfect in 1914 has not only gotten more so but now regulates, as national policy, what we call "standards" for students, schools, districts, principals, and teachers.   We'll see if and how much we learn from this system.   Your critical opposition is part of the learning process for all of us.  A press conference is really only like the old graphic printer's used to point in a direction:  the direction is all the details of the Competition on the website and all the other materials and ideas that, we hope, will unfold as part of the process.   Thanks for contributing.   Best wishes, Cathy Davidson


So far the most attractive alternatives to "tests only" exist in portfolios, particularly in the emerging field of electronic portfolios where students (and others) can put examples of the best work and promote their skills to employers, colleges, grad schools, parents, faculty, grandparents and each other. This kind of "Facebook" analysis is both attractive and increasingly common among colleges (where Digication has made a good market) and charter schools.

Badges offer a shortcut to portfolios - a set of rubrics and awards that denote competence, confidence, and/or leadership in an almost infinite range of fields. It's in that range that there is both promise and threat, however, for any "language" that has no bounds is really not intelligible.

Ironically, the badges movement - and even the portfolios - coexist nicely with decades of research and literature in "employment ready," "career ready," and "occupation ready" literatures ranging from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles to the residue of CETA and other employability programs, or the youth employment or veterans or post-traumatic or post-institutional programs and training. There is a finite vocabulary for "soft skills" for example, using the SCANS and then the Verified Resume initiatives of Dr. Arnold Packer, for just one very google-ready example.

I wonder how far MacArthur has gone investigating these existing literatures. It sounded from the meeting that that investigation is what at least some of Phase I is about. A kind of "pre-design" categorization and range of exemplars. I would also strongly commend the e-portfolio literature, and, particularly, the new Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning ( and their e-portfolio peer reviewed journal, the International Journal of ePortfolios ( If badges are to become just another version of a "license," they're a waste of effort. If, instead, they are reasonable shortcuts to creating real and useful profiles from rich and diverse portfolios of best practices, by individuals and, over time and across disciplines, fields, careers, and missions - if, in short, they reflect a whole profile of skills and their execution - then the concept is breakthrough. The challenge, I think, will be to keep the licenses at bay.


Thanks, Joe.  Very interesting and important.   Open, open, open.   And here's more cautionary thoughts on exactly that subject:


i'm wondering about the badge-mentality Cathy. like Jenna, i too am so glad you posted more here, as i've read through the competition site. i'm also concerned with it sounding like a sell out coming from dm&l.

here's my question that follows a comment in your last paragraph. you write:    ...assessment, credentialing, merit, and evaluation as keys to learning and to learning institutions. 

are they keys? do we need them?

what if that is what's getting in the way of authentic learning. i feel us often swimming in compromise. wanting to move on to someone better, yet not getting at the essence of what's created a dependency. it seems like a nicer, freer, more open labeling. but labeling all the same.

do we focus on measuring/credentialing achievements - or helping people to self-direct their own natural feedback loops..

valuing your feedback. as always..


Hi, Monika,  I have so many ways of responding to your good, thoughtful questions but I'm about to rush out again to another interview, juggling book tour for Now You See It with DML and my day job . . . you know how that is, I'm sure.   We all do too many things . . . speaking of which, one point of an eportfolio is helping people keep track of all those things (inc ability to prioritize and juggle) for which there are no grades, no HR forms, no documentation.   I'm especially intrigued by how drop outs from the educational system might benefit from an alternative way of credentialing their skills.   We hear from employers this would be invaluable to reaching out to those who can't afford the for-profit technical education but who have learned skills through peers or community or experience.  And we hear from social workers that many drop outs feel shame and a form of credentialing that was low-cost could be a motivator and a boost to destroyed and defeated egos.  By the way, I hate the term "drop out":  I feel we kicked most of these students out, by narrowing what disciplinary choices are available:   the cutting of art, music, gym, vocational ed, shop, etc, and the dis-incentive (see the wonderful, inspiring, deep research by John Olmsted, recently included in a blog post here: to learning and to saying in school by current timed, item-response end of grade tests.


I personally think the range of what "we" grade is pathetic and dis-empowers great teachers who know who is going to succeed despite low grades because of amazing people skills or stick-to-itiveness.   I'd love that part of one's Permanent Record (remember that haunting phrase?).   I'd love to empower teachers to work with kids to co-build their own peer-review and badging system.


By the way, I really had to struggle with the word "badge" because of the old boy scout thing and so forth.  It's a word, there's a lot behind it, it is multifarious, and it is worth a try because the current system is so desperately failing us all.   Realistically, you can't ever just end one system without viable alternatives.   This is a beginning.


Thanks for your thoughtful input.  




"In addition to predicting what is to come we are also predicting the reward value of what we are doing.  The prediction of reward spikes DA and related attention and learning.  We have all had this experience when we are anticipating a coming  great date . The arousal and focus kicks in long before.  I believe this can be generalized in the classroom.  We make our predictions of the potential reward based on past experience assuming the future will repeat it.  Imagine two children taking the same difficult, less than stimulating math test.  A child from an environment where they never saw anyone gain from good grades in less than stimulating classes (less affluent communities) does not get the anticipation of reward and related attention.  They can then act bored and indifferent.  The child from the middle class family who knows they can receive future reward from present day bearing down on task gets that spike of DA and attention."--John Olmsted


Here are the url's for two blogs that Alex Reid posted on badges, one which is exceptionally critical, one that is exceptionally constructive in that it poses three forms of learning assessments that Reid believe work well: and


These are reasonable, passionate responses by someone whose contributions I respect greatly.   My critique of these responses is that they come from someone, very much like myself, who goes through the world already quite well and comfortably credentialed.   In fact, Reid has his full CV on his website. I think that is a good thing; this is not intended to be an ad hominem slight by any means.  But what if one doesn't have such a credential, title, job, identity, place in the world?   What about the high school drop out who happens to be a brilliant coder, trustworthy contributor to an online project, but who doesn't have a recognizable "credential" in the world?   I have met dozens of these brilliant "outsiders" in the course of doing the research for my "How We Measure" chapter of Now We See It.   My absolute delight in partnering with Emily Stover DeRocco, President of the Manufacturing Institute and National Center for the American Workforce, is that she represents a sector of the economy where jobs are shifting geographically, where work is increasingly being "pieced" into adjunct, part-time, distributed labor, where businesses change hands and ownership constantly, and where someone with real skills and talents might not be known to a new employer and might not have much to "show" about his or her skills in anything like a conventional sense.  Rethinking credentialing outside formal schooling and formal rules might not just be a job getter but a life saver.


In some of the most dire circumstances, such as in deportation camps in Africa, people survive at the barest level through barter systems that depend on reliability of previous exchanges.   I've learned of some who use cheap mobile phones to keep "balances" (no money is exchanged so these are symbolic point systems) so their reputation can travel with them as they migrate.   That's a sad, brutal example but an important one to make us think outside our own comfort zones in formal learning, in middle-class surroundings, in higher education.    It is my deepest personal hope that this competition will open up some of possibilities across the spectrum.


No, I don't want all learning to translate into "leveling up" job prospects either.  I'm with Alex in thinking that, if this is only about giving points to a kid's good sportsmanship at extra curricular soccer, why bother?   There are many, many reasons, motivations, and ways one can credential.  In formal education,  A, B, C, D and bubble tests are what we have now.  Even in home schools or at colleges where there are no grades, there are still SAT, GRE, LSAT, and other tests to be passed.    We know how badly that system is failing us.  We know bubble tests are a dis-incentive to learning, especially for those who recognize they do not have the means to go on to college or further formal education.  We know the system can not only be gamed but there are multi-million dollar companies that offer "test prep" programs that you can pay for to learn how to game the system.    We're not going to ever have a system where all learning is simply existing in a world where, from beginning to end, one learns for the sake of learning (and I daresay my own radical experiments in my classrooms with peer-grading combined with contract-grading are about as far out there as anyone within a traditional educational system can get).  


In the arena of world-wide voluntary contributions to Web development, one has to have systems of credentialing because one does not necessarily know anything about the person upon whom one is depending to complete a project in which one is investing one's own time.   There are consequences to collaboration online.  Wikipedia's reputation systems and other online reputation systems might not be ones we want to adopt in our schools but they are wonderful working examples of different, effective, functioning ways that work now--not in some abstract mythical future, but right now.   I hope such examples inspire alternative ways of thinking.   That's what this competition is about, seeing who has ideas, who can make ideas work, how they work, and then doing the research to learn more about what is or is not working in these new illustrative and exemplary systems.  


The whole point of a competition is that it is low risk, in the sense that the only person really taking the risk is the person applying.  This, in a sense, is an add-on, not a takeaway.  No one has to apply.   Anyone can say, "this one is definitely not for me."    The most skeptical among us can wait and see and, if we don't like what we can say, we can reject the results.   And we still have lost nothing.   For those who win, this is an opportunity to try something one might never have a chance to try otherwise, with a cohort of winners who will become part of a network and a community from which each can learn from the other, in a open forum that can contribute to others who may not have won in this  competition but might be inspired to an idea that comes to fruition elsewhere.   


No one knows the result of an open competition in advance.   I've been part of three of these in the past and never have I had an inkling which projects will win, what patterns we will find, what range of ideas or insights is out there.   To me, that is what is exciting.   What is also exciting is when valued colleagues (we've never met, but I've followed his work) such as Alex Reid take the time to write both critically and constructively.  I share several of these apprehensions but cannot imagine a better way to see if my own fears are or are not realistic than a competition. 


Speaking personally, I know I want change.  I would like to see lots more working examples of scalable institutional change in the area of credentials, certification, and (I know this is a word that is loaded for many so I use it cautiously) assessment.  By that I mean hierarchical or peer evaluation.   We need to see alternatives because there is so much current investment (material and psychological) in the current system that, to my mind, is failing us. We can do better.   That's what this is all about, in the long run, is thinking together.   I welcome further contributions to this forum for exactly and precisely that reason. 


Thanks for your thoughtful response to my posts. I agree with you that our current system of assessment in both K-12 and higher education is insufficient, and I hope this DML competition results in some innovative ideas. I appreciate the anecdotes you offer of the HS dropout coder, displaced manufacturing workers, and people living in desparate circumstances in Africa or elsewhere in the world. I can see how people in these situations would not only require non-traditional credentials but also credentialing systems that are quite different from one another. As a rhetorician by trade I can't help but think of this as a problem of ethos: how does one communicate one's authority to an audience? Not only does one have to develop a system of credentialing but also convince potential employers that they are worth something. So maybe the Manufacturing Institute can offer badges and maybe employers value them.

Though, as you point out, I've acquired some credentials, I can offer a number of situations similar to the ones you describe. I have two brothers-in-law. One is a sign mechanic (he makes the storefront signs you see in strip malls), the other sells wine for a distributor, and neither have college degrees. My sister-in-law also has only a HS diploma, but she works as a freelance editor and writer (some of her work has appeared on Huffington Post). And my sister has  an associate's degree but works as a freelance graphic/web designer.  They could all use some alternate way to credential themselves. However, as the director of a first-year composition program with over 80 TAs and adjunct instructors, I'm aware that having credentials doesn't assure one of much. In that light I'd have to wonder how credentialing would alter the job market in the big picture. Nevertheless, I do think we have some obligation to recognize the work we all do and that there can be a system that is better than our current one. 

So here are my two concerns that I hope this DML competition will address:

1. It's one thing to seek out credentials for what we've already done or would do anyway. There's an entirely different dynamic when these credentials become an obligation. So my sister-in-law works as a freelance editor now without credentials, but some future version of her might need to get these alt-credentials to do the same work that is now uncredentialed. What happens when people pursue credentials in this way, as a precondition for getting a job? I think we can already see this in higher ed with the many students who aren't really interested in learning but just want the degree. What happens is that degrees get devalued in the job market, particularly the majors that become default majors for students, like psychology and business are now.

So how do we do credentialing without creating such obligations and without creating a marketplace of credentials?

2. Related to this possibiity of a marketplace is the business of credentials. For-profit universities and other education corporations will certainly look at alt-credentials as a business opportunity.  We have already seen the damage of this in traditional education. We regularly hear the connection of credentials with human capital. Certainly employers benefit when the workforce is competing for the credentials that will make them more profitable employees, and some individuals will benefit from credentials just as some individuals benefit now from a college education. However, systematically, we have more college-educated Americans now than ever but middle-class America is worse off than they've been in more than a generation. It's like the old joke about the politician who promises all his voters will have above-average incomes. I would hate to see a situation where alt-credentialing meant that workers were spending $1000s on these new credentials in hopes of getting a job (or worse to feel secure about the jobs they already have) and over-speculating on the value of those credentials. Meanwhile those jobs become less valuable as more people have credentials and we make it easier for corporations to move toward piecemeal labor, as you term it, because we've created an international network of credentials that make it cheaper than ever to move your business. 

However, I'm not an economist, so I am hoping this competition will create some research and best practices regarding how credentialing might work to actually increase worker salaries and improve job security.

Nevertheless, despite my concerns, I certainly hope the DML competition results in some positive outcomes and given the past success of DML projects, I think there is reason for hope.



Really thoughtful and thought provoking again, Alex.  Thank you.   As with all past Competitions--which were also quite focused and not to everyone's liking--the more engaged the conversation, the better results for all.


I just want to mention one specific thing:  the for-profits have fully entered the field of credentialing.   One reason to think seriously about "open badges" is because of the "open" part because there are millions and billions to be made on for-profit models of badging, just as there are in for-profit assessment, testing, grading, and data crunching for the current No Child Left Behind policies.  In fact, some of the corporations who do testing are part of the conglomerate of which Blackwater (now renamed) is also a part and, if you look at the boards of existing educational testing organizations, you will see some very familiar names from other sectors.   Having a major nonprofit entering this territory is necessary given what is already happening--well under way!--in the for-profit sector.  You've seen this by Audrey Watters on Hack Education, I'm sure, but it's so knowledgeable that I'm going to give the url again for anyone who may have missed it.


Thanks again for your response.   In the world I would want to live in, credentials are unnecessary.  In the world I do live in, that we all live in, activist reform of existing institutions is, to my mind, essential.   This is one of many ways to begin a conversation and offer practical alternatives without which institutional change rarely happens.   Flawed?  Of course.   I don't know what isn't.   A possibility that some good ideas and even better conversation will emerge?  Absolutely.  It already has.   Thanks to extremely thoughtful people like you.  I can't begin to say how much I appreciate your contribution, Alex.   Critique is absolutely key if this Competition is going to succeed in the larger terms to which we aspire.  



First some observations on "Open" and then some reservations about Reid's remorse.


My first major breakthrough - in 50 years in education - was about a year ago when I was asked to observe high school kids and "score" their entry level "soft" skills - using Arnold Packer's Verified Resume. My first response was resistence (which is hardly exceptional!), but this time it came from knowing none of their names, and observing their "responsibility," "teamwork" and other highly idiosyncratic but clearly measureable interpersonal skills certainly needs knowing who is doing what to whom! So I handed the forms to the kids, and asked them to score themselves. Because these skills are not traditional for tests, and because there was no threat implicit or explicit, they were remarkably frank in their scoring. For some, they could be totally undefensive about describing how hard it was to be on time, and how responsibility seemed layed on rather than projected out, while they could really enjoy - and be quite good at - teamwork, or creativity, or work across cultures. For others, reliability and responsibility equated to integrity and leadership, and their celebration of creativity was real but rather narrow, as was their interest in inquiry about new knowledge. They could be interested in negotiation both abstractly and in practice, while enjoying their own listening skills and sharpening their ability to interpret knowledge. These were/are the eight skills in Arnold Packer's Verified Resume project (, funded by Kellogg, to explore how to assess these skills last year. They, in turn, reflect his early work with SCANS - the (Department of Labor) Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills - done in the early 1990's (


There was a convergence of innovation - more classically expressed as a "light bulb" experience. Kids evaluating themselves in low risk high engagement activities could/would/should develop key assessment skills that never show on tests of any kind, and rarely even get identified in traditional school settings. Such "soft skills" have real meaning - in business, to employers, to careers and peers and supervisors - but are only indirect in schools. Combining John Hattie's observations that "self-assessment" is the most productive innovation available to education (in, or his book on Visible Learning), I saw that kids really enjoyed evaluating themselves and comparing themselves across those metrics. Their comparisons were collaborative, and not invidious, in spite of their cultural/racial/linguistic diversity. In fact, those comparisons brought very different kids together, and they could feel mutually "safe" working in teams where their "soft skills" matched, with a negotiator, responsible convener, and creative gamer in mutual support.


That is the point of assessment: to know better what you do well, and thereby compensate by working better with others. Very, very rarely is any of the discussion - at HASTAC or Mozilla or MacArthur or elsewhere - concerned with this very critical issue: Why Assess? The kids showed me both how and why in one fairly bright flash.


That does not "open" everything to a blank sheet of assessment revision. We'll still have licensed practitioners in hospitals and courtrooms, schools and carpenter shops. Badges won't/can't and shouldn't displace what works already. But it does suggest a purpose which "opens" those licensed and respected trades and professions to more meaningful metrics - to how and who and when we work together for mutual benefit. In other words, "open" is a very different dimension than subject matter, professional gradations, and a host of traditional and well intended, if sometimes lumpy criteria. And it is far, far better to start the process of badging from a base that confronts few, if any invidious, competitive, "objective" comparisons. For badges to be useful they must have their own intrinsic utility of mutually understood meaning.


Because of that mutuality, in fact, I'm more ambivalent than ever about this pending competition. Competition is NOT the way to mutuality. It's actually quite the opposite. And it's impressively naive to pose a competition for such a tender and nuanced an idea. It's brutal and corrupt.


That doesn't mean a little corruption, known in advance, must totally dominate a technique. It does, however, suggest that any good proposal for realistic metrics ought to put it's weaknesses in front - as a "badge" in other words. The problem some teachers raised with me about the "badging" apothegm was the problem with Boy Scouts: discipline and a military-like leadership style underpins their entire system. On reflection, the hierarchical system of "awarding" a "badge" of anything but troublemaking reflects - like a laser - the greatest weakness in education - whether American or Nazi! And so there's some ambivalence in our approach to badging.


One more point, which may, in fact, reverse - once again - my aversion to this kind of hierarchical objectification of merits. Keep the focus on those soft skills, and similar, value driven, community-oriented values. Build self-assessment into all badge awards. Extend that self-assessment to collaboration, involving diverse peers, teachers, and "passionately dispassionate" observers. As soon as those badges shift to any of the licensed or certified or competitive credential, we convert a Scout Rally to Hitler Youth. In other words, this is a very tender time in education and America. Our politics have fractured to the level of neo-fascism vs. pseudo-socialism, and has increasingly sharp edges. To convert education, as broken as our system has become, into a hierarchic, market based, "open" and competitive carnage is exactly what must not happen. And it's possible.




Thank you for this wonderful story, with its huge potential application in many other situations and its cautionary advice too.  I hope anyone entering the Competition will learn but there are profound lessons here far beyond either the Competition or our specific conversation.  


Of course, I am especially happy to hear the details of this example because I am one of those odd types who spends a lot of time talking about "why we assess"--"This is Your Brain on the Internet" and "21st Century Literacies," the two classes I taught this spring, were both intrinsically about assessment, evaluation, learning toghether, peer collaboration, peer judgment, and incorporating judgment into one's own work and thinking ("iterative" and "dialogical" thinking).   All my classes now are about peer-evaluation because I believe that, given the interactive possibilities of the internet, we all need to do a better job giving and taking feedback and learning how to incorporate assessment into learning. 


In the "How We Measure" and in other chapters in Now You See It, I profile so many people exploring new and exciting forms of assessment that are about how we all learn together, "collaboration by difference" as we call it at HASTAC.   If I had known about your work when doing the book, I would have interviewed you---and may yet if there is a sequel!   Thanks so much for this.  Very helpful and evocative.    (By the way, check out the old HASTAC Scholars student forum "Grading 2.0" to see the way students and others explored this topic. It's pretty interesting and chock full of good ideas: )



Cathy.. you write above:

That's what this competition is about, seeing who has ideas, who can make ideas work, how they work, and then doing the research to learn more about what is or is not working in these new illustrative and exemplary systems.  

this is what i guess i'm not seeing from my read on the competition. it's like pbl as it's being played out in public ed. we're asking kids to be creative, self-direct, but within a given set of parameters.

a call out for ideas is wonderful. i wish it wasn't so directed/restricted to the badge idea. 

especially as it's coming from places i admire/respect for their previous work, ie: you and dm&l. 

people won't think about the parameters you are setting, they will just jump in submit their best ideas - within the parameters of a badge idea - because of who it's coming from. to me, that's not open. and what's worse, we'll be missing potential creativity on something we all care deeply about. 

we've become addicted to educational credentialing, and we're missing what it means to be human and alive. breaking away from that addiction, in my thinking, is what will address equity. our labeling need/frenzy only creates more inequity. 

prejudice decreases as discrimination increases.  - Ellen Langer


This conversation has offered me rationale that goes far, far beyond "why not?" This is the conversation that I wish the DML community could have had in the months leading up to the competition announcement. Better late than never, regardless.


Two quick points:


1. I don't believe it's true that if the badges theme and the research that comes out of it fails miserably, "we've lost nothing." If that happens, "We" will have lost a great deal, including (but not limited to) public faith in the field of DML; non-badges oriented research efforts in the field that could otherwise have received public recognition and/or financial support from MacArthur, HASTAC, and the subset of the DML community that is affiliated with these groups; and a crop of emerging scholars who, in the absence of a commitment to badges, will have gone elsewhere to find the community they want and the support they need.

2. Here's a good post from Rafi Santo on why it's cool that we're talking about badges--not because badges are necessarily the panacea but because they shift the Overton window and, therefore, shift the conversation about learning and DML: I agree with Rafi, sort of, on this point: the #DMLbadges announcement shows a mainstream embrace (finally!) of alternative assessment models and strategies for valuing out-of-school learning in digital communities. So that's pretty cool.

On the other hand, the concept of the Overton window is a fairly simplified version of how conversation emerges and is valued out there in the world. And while the badges conversation does provide an opening for talking about how to systematically value alternative forms of learning and assessment, it also (potentially) shuts the door on conversations about other, non-badgelike systems of valuing and supporting out-of-school learning.


My discussions here in Somerville about your DML competition have moved to involving some of the kids who did those portfolios last year - particularly the ones still in high school (of whom there are plenty). Badges sound nice but they'll sound a lot nicer with some younger voices framing the questions of why, for whom, for what, and when. On the whole, those kids learned lots more than I about assessment, since they were both on the line, online, and in line for next steps. As one who graduated said, "If I'd been doing this since I was a Freshman, those colleges would be bidding for me, rather than me plead with them for money." She also said, about the peer construction process of those portfolios, "I learned a lot more from teaching it than doing it for myself!"


My point about involving kids in the competition is to make the process itself as useful as what it might produce. And that's got to begin to mark how we shift from ex-post-facto to really progressive self-assessment. If they get your MacArthur money, they'll do more. If they don't, they'll still do plenty. And that can only be guaranteed if we do plenty BEFORE and then lots more after. THAT is the measure of a good competition. My guess - and it will be THEIR proposal not mine - is that they'll create something like a competition with a good portion of that budget, so they can produce more and better badges for more and better examples of how and what is most worthy, useful, and with the most impact. It'll be interesting to see if they connect those incentives with college financial aid or keep it independent. (I've already had a discussion with one student videographer to track their planning meetings, incidentally, and that, itself, might be an interesting part of any proposal, depending on how much they can edit for a 10/15 deadline!)


One other point which I think is REALLY important, not just about the competition but about its process, is that we would be doing this jointly with the local community college where the largest number of our high school graduates go on graduation. The goal is to make that transition as productive as possible, as early as possible. And that goes well beyond the administrative manipulations of Early College High School, since it should involve real collegiality between both high school and college - students, staff, and administration.


The reason i find the soft skills so enchanting for such badges is that mastery of "creativity" in high school does not end the challenge to master that same skill in college, and a high score at one "level" neither predicts nor undermines the odds for or against a high score later. While a high SAT might predict a high GRE, or even a high GPA, the challenge of mastering and using soft skills remains as interesting and as elegant every time that skill is used.


For the next book, let's interview a bunch of these kids. They are the ones who'll tell more than facts, and, particularly after playing with these skills and portfolios and even badges, might even get to truth.


My discussions here in Somerville about your DML competition have moved to involving some of the kids who did those portfolios last year - particularly the ones still in high school (of whom there are plenty). Badges sound nice but they'll sound a lot nicer with some younger voices framing the questions of why, for whom, for what, and when. On the whole, those kids learned lots more than I about assessment, since they were both on the line, online, and in line for next steps. As one who graduated said, "If I'd been doing this since I was a Freshman, those colleges would be bidding for me, rather than me plead with them for money." She also said, about the peer construction process of those portfolios, "I learned a lot more from teaching it than doing it for myself!"


My point about involving kids in the competition is to make the process itself as useful as what it might produce. And that's got to begin to mark how we shift from ex-post-facto to really progressive self-assessment. If they get your MacArthur money, they'll do more. If they don't, they'll still do plenty. And that can only be guaranteed if we do plenty BEFORE and then lots more after. THAT is the measure of a good competition. My guess - and it will be THEIR proposal not mine - is that they'll create something like a competition with a good portion of that budget, so they can produce more and better badges for more and better examples of how and what is most worthy, useful, and with the most impact. It'll be interesting to see if they connect those incentives with college financial aid or keep it independent. (I've already had a discussion with one student videographer to track their planning meetings, incidentally, and that, itself, might be an interesting part of any proposal, depending on how much they can edit for a 10/15 deadline!)


One other point which I think is REALLY important, not just about the competition but about its process, is that we would be doing this jointly with the local community college where the largest number of our high school graduates go on graduation. The goal is to make that transition as productive as possible, as early as possible. And that goes well beyond the administrative manipulations of Early College High School, since it should involve real collegiality between both high school and college - students, staff, and administration.


The reason i find the soft skills so enchanting for such badges is that mastery of "creativity" in high school does not end the challenge to master that same skill in college, and a high score at one "level" neither predicts nor undermines the odds for or against a high score later. While a high SAT might predict a high GRE, or even a high GPA, the challenge of mastering and using soft skills remains as interesting and as elegant every time that skill is used.


For the next book, let's interview a bunch of these kids. They are the ones who'll tell more than facts, and, particularly after playing with these skills and portfolios and even badges, might even get to truth.


At the risk of going meta, I want to talk a bit about the way we're talking about this topic. In particular, I'm seeing a number of rhetorical patterns emerge that I find troubling. To wit:

False Dichotomy

The assumption that opposing badges entails supporting ABDCF letter grading. I don't see why that would be true, and the critical responses you're seeing are clearly more nuanced than "institutions are fine they way they are." I think we deserve better than that.


A common response to badge criticism here and elsewhere: accusations of cynicism or nihilism. Critical responses are recast as defeatist or apologist. Calls for proposals of alternatives instead of criticisms miss a related point: HASTAC and others are representatives of a community. Telling your representatives that they ought to step-to or solve the problem themselves is demotivating. It's like Congress telling us that if we don't like their plan to cut public funds, we should work harder to become millionaires who can influence the system better.

Cathy, in particular, many of us are very amenable to your critique of current educational systems in your book and elsewhere, but simply disappointed in the direction of this solution. That's feedback you're going to have to take, like it or not. It doesn't make us cynics.

Competition as Solution-By-Proxy

Competitions have become enormously popular ways to appear to solve problems on a large scale at low cost, whether or not the results ever pan out. The rhetoric of competition feeds on optimism, effort, and performance as primary goals while downplaying the real hard work associated with advancing difficult challenges. Competitions also imply that problems get "solved," which may or may not be true.

Organizational Leverage

The material, publicity, and intangible support MacArthur provides significantly tilts the scales of influence (not to mention your own influence, Cathy, in the context of a global book tour funded by your publisher). It's unseemly to imply that you're just out there experimenting and anybody can do the same. These things take time and resources to pursue. This is a machine on a mission. People are desperate for organizational and research funding. This project sets the terms of debate by setting the terms of funding and by leveraging that funding into public discourse.

Moreover, the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla are organizations themselves, with their own goals, goals that ought not to be taken as a given. It shouldn't be inconceivable that some might not agree with some of those goals for a variety of reasons.

Standards Without Standardization

It's unclear how badges don't either devolve into individuation or recreate the same problem the competition claims they solve. You write that "There are as many systems for badging as there are variations in institutions and organizations. There is no one-size-fits-all." But the whole idea of badges is exactly a one-size-fits-all solution. ... that is, once you support an infinity of one-size-fits-all solutions, you're no longer living in badgeworld. Likewise, matters like quality of product or service only become meaningful when standardized.

To say that we're just experimenting and answers to questions like these will come out in the process feels like a punt.


On a related matter, approaches that seek to fix industrialist education ought to be keenly aware of the issues of industry in the present. Requests to defend badges against their obvious use as re-industrialized knowledge economy labor metrics go unanswered, save for the above mentioned accusations of cynicism. The concern that badges are likely to underwrite a machine-readable outsourced labor society are not mere fantasy nor conspiracy theory. These are the sorts of questions HASTAC and DML should have been prepared to answer in advance, as they are not unobvious objections.

The Fallacy of Novelty

Given that many of the examples of open badges involve examples from the tech industry, such as from distributed development, it's interesting that the whole history of technology credentialing is covered over by the purported novelty of badging. Credentials have their own issues, but they're precisely the sorts of tools that have helped people with different educational backgrounds pursue certain technical careers. Are they working? Why or why not? What are the other precedents to this approach, beyond the obvious citation of scouting as a move toward familiarity? Without that sort of reasoned, research-oriented positioning, it's easier to see projects like this as technolibertarian fashions.


Yes. And thank you.

At some point I would like to write about how hard it is for those of us who count as junior scholars (less credentialed, less "badged") to openly critique the rhetoric and direction of, for example, a DML competition that has backing from lots of powerful figures and a few powerful organizations.

What I write will also point out that one of the most problematic and potentially damaging aspects of treating such competitions as experimental and low-risk is that they in fact limit experimentation to the kind that an organization has already decided to back and risk deterring and even silencing some of the most innovative and awesome people and agendas that a differently (more openly) themed competition might attract.

I think I am going to wait to post this critique, however, until I am no longer a junior scholar.


These are exactly the kind of critiques that should be raised.   Thanks very much.  I by no means think there is anything cynical about anyone who critiques badges and alternative online credentialing systems.   I am impressed and grateful for the kind of constructive, passionate critique this is receiving from people I respect deeply.


That said, I am beyond excited to see what systems people come up with.   I do not think any of us has any idea what will result.  There are many other places supporting educational reform in other ways.   This Competition is a way of supporting efforts around the world at open source accrediting and peer-credentialing.  That is its purpose.  There are many, many other ways to support other purposes.  


Indeed, administering the Digital Media and Learning Competitions is one thing HASTAC does but it also does many things, including host many other forums on an array of topics.  The Classroom 2.0 forum and the grading forums conducted by the HASTAC Scholars went in many different directions than this particular iteration of the DML Competition.   I hope some of those who came up with these ideas (which I have used in my own teaching) will also apply for grants that are available from other funding sources to see what else they can do, what they can learn, what they can operationalize.


This Competition is very specific and pointed, as the others have been.   I'm happy to see what results.  For me, the key issue is that you cannot make institutional changes without models of what comes "after."  You can't just say "the present option doesn't work."  We know multiple choice exams are very narrow in the range of skills they test, in logic, and so forth.   But I'm not seeing viable replacements that are workable and scalable.   Badges offer an experiment and offer those interested an opportunity to not just propose and theorize but actually implement site-specific, varied, and multipurpose credentialing systems that can then be tested, used on a trial basis, and studied by trained researchers who can document the pros and cons, the benefits and minuses.   Again, this isn't theory.  This is working examples, executed as such, and implemented within a specific organization to see how they can work in realistic ways, with peers within the organization contributing to their use, application, development, and then their testing and evaluation.   At every stage, there will be much to discuss, much to analyze.   I don't know what that will look like but I love the idea of trying, just as I (on a personal level) was willing to try out crowdsourced, peer-generated, contract-graded undergraduate classes.  It is a competition, an experiment, not a fait accompli.  To me, that's the quintessence of learning.   I suspect it will work in some situations, not in others, and we'll be able to find out more about that a year from now.  I am guessing (and I'm usually wrong when I make such a guess) that the systems will be least applicable to higher education and most to alternative credentialing from those who do not now have means to "credit" their skills and contributions through normal certification channels.  But, that is a total shot-in-the-dark guess.  Fact is, I don't know and no one does since this is an experiment.


One small correction:  the global book tour is not  funded by my publisher.  Trade publishing has not operated on those terms in a very long term.  The book tour is self-funded or graciously funded by the institutions interested in inviting me.   Coordinating it all, doing a lot of writing without recompense (such as the daily blogs), all that are because I am passionate about all of this.  Also, my book tour is about the book and the ideas in Now You See It.  I talk about issues and problems but it's an interactive talk and solutions are something I talk about with the audience.  "Badges" aren't in the index of my book even and so far have never come up at a book talk.  That's just a factual correction, not intended as a defense.


On the other hand, the general topic of educational reform is important to me.   It has been since I began in this profession, even back before I was an assistant professor, when I was teaching outside the academy.   The impetus to reform has taken many different directions, including some mentioned in that Academe piece.  I have lots of ideas about education reform that go in other directions.   Others know far more about these issues than I know.  I have learned a lot from many organizations that are far outside of academe and I've learned from really incredible things I've seen in classrooms from K-20 as I've traveled around.  And I'm learning from this conversation.   I hope to learn much more in the course of this year. 


I suspect that the most important applications will not be for those of us lucky enough to have secure jobs, advanced training, and success behind us but for those who have been totally lost within the current system of education and reward.  Do I think this takes us beyond reward systems?  Not at all.  In fact, my personal engagement with new worlds of labor is because I think we need to seriously think about what labor protections we need (and I mean all workers) in the radically shifting economic terrain of the 21st century.  I just heard a Dickens scholar talk about the brutal world of work and class differentiation in Dickens' England and making comparisons to the present redistribution of wealth to the super-rich.   I don't think those comparisons were unfair.   Rethinking labor, participation, and contribution for a distributed digital workforce seems extremely important.   Leaving that to commercial vendors, not finding ways to count contribution, all seem to make us even more vulnerable in an extremely precarious time.  

New credentialing systems--badging or "balances" to use the African example--will neither solve all 21st century problems nor will they be the end of all good things as we know them.   And, no, I'm not saying that anyone in this particular debate has said anything like that.   I simply mean this is a test case that will hopefully result in some very good, strong, viable models that might be appropriated, adapted, and used in other contexts.   I don't see how we change systems without models of alternative systems.  


Thanks again to all for serious, dedicated energy and effort that all of you have put into this debate.  My biggest hope is that there is fodder here for others to use, to think about, to turn and return to, to engage and interact with, and to move ahead with.  If "badges" or "goals" or "balances" or "alternative credentialing systems" aren't central to your ideas about institutional change, they don't have to be.   There is so much that needs changing that others can lead in other ways.   There is lots of room for action on many fronts, lots of room for creativity, imagination, energy, passion, determination, and experimentation, including the enormous potential for change that might result in actualizing some of the oppositional comments in our particular conversation here. 


Thanks for your reply. I'll be curious to see what people come up with too... my skepticism doesn't foreclose curiosity. 

Thanks for the correction about your book tour. I made an assumption and it was wrong, so I apologize for that. It wasn't even really central to my point, which makes it seem a bit of a petty observation in retrospect. But in any case, I agree that the book and the contest are only very loosely connected, but I only meant to observe that you're a spokesperson for both, albeit in different ways.

If anything, this conversation has drawn me back in to the HASTAC, uhm, haystack, so to speak, so I'm glad for that.



I wonder if badges, as a means of puveying accreditation will work in smaller countries/communities? Will the existing networks of kinship, friendship and political obligation outlast credentials/badges, even though badges may reflect a much broader and more inclusive scope of individual knowledge and experience.

In other words, how might badges address inequalities that may be rooted deeper than badly articulated or plainly overlooked individuale competence?    


The origins of degrees and diplomas meant exactly what you're suggesting badges could mean. Most people don't know, for one intriguing example, that Harvard University is actually the fourth branch of Massachusetts government in the state's constitution. The reason for that branch was to maintain "tradition" and "religion," which were central to the mission of the colony and then the state. That's why the Board of Trustees are actually the state Senate, elected "by the people" to monitor the patterns of those traditions. So, in effect, a Harvard degree - the oldest in the US - represents a "badge" that the graduate will abide by and maintain those traditions.


It does help to see how such patterns, with their historic roots, reflect contemporary values, even if there's been a bit of a cloud for the past three hundred or so years obscuring that insight.


What I love about Mozilla is that, when there is controversy, instead of running away, they run toward it with open arms and open it to the community to contribute to.   Would that the whole world work that way!  


Here is community member Doug Belshaw, writing on Matt Thompson's Open Matt blog over at Mozilla, addressing a recent problem with the "Open Badges Elevator Speech":   


Doug Belshaw, for example, makes a great point about trying to clarify a fuzzy part of the story on

We’ve got the learner stories, all the stuff on the Mozilla wiki and some great blog posts and articles.

Are we missing a coherent ‘elevator pitch’ here that catches (some of) the nuance between credentialising achievement and ‘assessment’?

Sounds like a good idea. The Open Badges concept is meant to be bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and aimed at making assessment and recognition a lot more transparent, social and participatory. But that may not be coming across clearly enough on the front page. <Doug & others: care to help fix that?>


To me, the important part of this exchange is this: " <Doug & others: care to help fix that?>"

What an amazing invitation.  Problem?  Instead of papering it over, invite the person who presented the problem "and others" and all publicly to "help fix that."   In other words, if there is a problem, invite those who are best able to see the problem and care most about it to participate in the act of lessening the problem.  That hardly ever happens in society or in academe.   We have learned a system where you critique and then think your job is done.  Or you critique and then are ostracized as a "trouble maker."   


Critique is essential for any system or it stagnates.   But critique is an intermediary step on the way to participatory contributive  connected "learning the future together."      When we say that we founded HASTAC to apply the lessons of the Open Web to formal and informal learning, especially in higher education, this is what we mean!

By the way, as an "other" reading about Open Badges on the Open Matt blog, I decided to contribute.  Here's what I wrote:

The Open Badges concept is meant to be bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and aimed at making assessment and recognition a lot more transparent, social and participatory.”

Here’s another key: When a network or organization decides that current systems of recognizing contribution are not fulfilling the needs of the people who make up that network or organization, a badge system is open, unfixed, flexible, and modifiable and can be peer-constructed as an exercise to engage all an institution’s members in thinking about what it wants to credit and why. It’s a fantastic exercise, in other words, in institutional self-reflection, self-evaluation.

My big “Now You See It” lesson is that, until we go through this preliminary step of thinking deeply together about who and what we are, who we want to be, what matters to us, why, and why it is important to know who contributes to our network and how, then we cannot even think about moving forward in open, innovative new directions.

The problem with an inherited system–whatever that system is: it comes with parameters already defined. To me, the most important thing about this badge experiment is it is an opportunity for a community to explore and understand what its own parameters are.

Not exactly an elevator speech . . . but crucial!"

Here's the chain::

Like it?  Dislike it?  <HASTAC Scholars and Community Members & Others:  care to help fix that?>


Badges have always existed, not in the current electronic form. 

Angie's list ranks the trades such as roofers and plumbers and, today, health care professionals

Amazon, Facebook and similar websites provide badges for individuals and ideas in various forms and various media as well as goods and services

Students who go to a medallion university get a big badge which has credibility in a variety of sectors, as does membership in fraternities, sororities, clubs and select professional organizations

Websites rate professors, courses, academic programs, cafeteria food, restaurants, movies and all who inhabit these worlds.

"Badges" open up access and restrict access

Few, if any, ever asked their medical professional where they went to school or where they ranked in their graduating class or what their success ratio is for varius proceedures. Yet today, in the media, almost every cancer clinic, fat loss program and hair care product caries a "badge"

The world of work is shifting to "competency" based evaluation and what is called "results oriented" work where persons are rewarded for their accomplishments and not seat time.


Applications to selective enrollment universities are filled with "badges", some gold plated in more ways than one.

Strip away the anecdotal pieces, real or imaginary, (the genius programmer, the clever mechanic, etc), the singular individual and consider the thousands. Think about the great engineering student in Egypt or Guatemala who will work for 1/10 or 1/50 of what a similar person will work for in the US but whose badge is the same.

Let us assume that  i take all their open access courses and get my knowledge validated,  can I go to Duke and present my badges and exchange it for a diploma- I met all the course requirements. How about for a teacher, engineer, medical technician?  Will HASTAC support my application for a diploma at Duke or any other medallion institution?





tom abeles, editor

On the Horizon


As Tom Abeles says, "badges have always existed" -or rather, a multitude of credentialing or accreditation systems from course grades through university titles and all sorts of rating systems at school, work or the internet. This has theoretical support in the [variety engineering] literature of the earilest cyberneticians - basically, when a system has too many states (say, all the infinite complexity of a human being...), you have to reduce that enormous variety to one or more indicators because our brains are finite and cannot comprehend that whole complexity. Or else you have to augment the number of states that you are willing to consider, thus "augmenting your own variety".

I see the current digital badges proposal to be different to previous accreditation systems in two main ways:

1) Ideally, badges are intented to be designed mainly bottom-up by the people that are going to be accredited. This comes up several times in Cathy's writings -see for instance the text in italics in her last comment above. Unfortunatelly that is not clear enough in the Competition call.

2) Digital badges implemented through the Mozilla's [Open Badges] system may link to digital evidence that supports why the badge was given and by whom. So a "badge" of a University Degree would link to an organized e-protfolio of the most relevant  work the student has done and (I imagine) to a set of more detailed badges aking to competencies certification. A badge for a plumber would link to descriptions of the work he or she has done together with evaluations of his clients.