Blog Post

Badges, Recognition and the Professional Reform Model

As a start on the subject of badges I have read a sample of the DML Competition Q&As, analysis of and commentary on the subject from Davidson, Hickey, and others at HASTAC and the DPDP findings.

I understand that at least in part the origins of badges is from within the field of computer programming, where now sites like Freelancer have developed systems that track and display reliability, satisfaction, and other metrics through crowd input, involving peers of service providers and consumers that provide content for and have access to the metrics.  This is a wonderful system that has cousins in the emerging p2p systems like those that facilitate the private sale of goods and services, including banking. 

I see utility in an electronic record of learning to all those interested in education - students, educators, employers, mom and dad.  Through my wife, who works in HCI, I have come to appreciate the advantages of many forms of ICT with real-time, interactive record-keeping of human activity that through the principles and tools of persuasive design alter attitude and behaviour (e.g., the PSD used in PHIs that address addiction and obesity or to encourage participation in social networks).  Through this lens I have also come to better appreciate the nature of badges.

In these discussions I bring philosophy to the table.

It seems conceptually clear that badges or the act of issuing badges is not identical to the activity of evaluation or assessment, any more than is the use of an alpha-numerical grading scheme.  Nor are they to be identified with the activity of teaching, learning or education.  They are not any of the personal and professional dynamics one finds in the education relationship.

These are all very complicated activities that can incidentally involve badges or any of a number of other symbolic inventions used to track the complicated processes of learning, teaching, evaluating, etc.   

Also fundamental is that badges are awarded and presumably for an actual accomplishment – three important and ideally expert-constructed and applied terms.

In this regard they might prove an effective tool for motivation, though there is considerable room for debate – an old debate recast in electronic badges.

As a high-profile illustration of one dimension of the debate, the promotional video offered by Badges for Lifelong Learning has Barry Joseph (Director of Online Leadership Program Global Kids, Inc) enthusiastically describe how a group of children with high levels of achievement benefit from and strive to acquire as many badges as possible during a visit to the local museum (as part of an ecoliteracy project of the Urban Biodiversity Project), while the lower achievers of the class were also keen to collect and avail themselves of the benefits of badges.  Motivated to engage in this learning activity by at least some of the principles of the badge system (principles of which the students were presumably made aware) these lower achievers sought and received fewer badges (according to Joseph) that were presumably of lesser pedagogical or social value and that (also according to Joseph) could be publically displayed (as one of the central, principled advantages of the badge system) - all during which motivation to learn and actual learning is to occur and be fostered. 

Prima facie, ease of access to or public display of an individual’s learning record (whether it is the rich text championed by badges or the numeric score written in the front page of a standardized test) is something in need of deep consideration (and I am aware that it has and is receiving this).  I do not know that the badge movement has addressed this.

As part of the nature of symbols and the matrix of this consideration, such badge access and display is not only related to what has been learned (or goals accomplished), but also what has not been learned or accomplished – including failure and exclusion either by individuals or of individuals.  There are numerous implications to this, some of which are being lived, explored and managed on other platforms that favour electronic access to and display of intercourse between the personal and the private, such as Facebook and YouTube.  As the BLL promotional video has Executive Director, Mark Surman, describe the Mozilla badge system, “it is just like any other online profile.”

Beyond this I make one further initial observation.   To prominently predicate the need for a badge system on the notion that today (as opposed to yesterday or year) learning is something that happens anywhere and everywhere is a red flag to this philosopher.    Perhaps it is just the MacArthur Foundation’s chosen promotional tool (persuasive rhetoric), but this is enough to elicit analysis. 

The predication threatens to make diaphanous the conceptual lines that parse “learning.”  I understand that this is a goal of the “badge movement,” where symbol becomes transformation of the accreditation/credit system.   Awardees of the DML Competitions seem aware of this as well.  

When asked, “What are the 3 main challenges to widespread adoption of your badge system?” again and again it is “recognition.”  Take Carnegie Mellon’s responses:

1.       Recognition of our badges by formal authorities – schools, industry an people that hire.

2.       Recognition of our badges by people that award credit

3.       Rigorous testing that authenticates the badge earners know the competencies that the badge suggests they should know

I understand that not all badge systems are meant to feed into established educational institutions and credential frameworks, though several seem to have this as their aim (e.g., the 4H/USDA Robotics Digital Badges Project).  My explicit interest, however, is in the cross-over from “certified by 4-H” to “certified by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln” (one of the project partners) and in particular the “person” that backs the badge.

Contrary to the rhetoric of MacArthur Foundation’s promotional video learning has always happened anywhere and everywhere, if not we would likely not have evolved to engage this topic.  In the broadest sense of the term learning occurs intentionally and unintentionally, everywhere, all the time – and neither it nor its recognition is a recent phenomenon.

However, unlike so-called ubiquitous learning (and opportunities for learning), recognition (of learning) does not occur with ubiquity or without intention, though it comes in many varieties.  When young it is our parents and siblings who supply it, then those external to the family (including the physical and social environment) enter the picture. 

Each context has its own intentional system of recognition through symbol and demonstration.  Since recognition is necessarily an intentional concept, to Dan Hickey’s questions regarding how and what to recognize in badges I would add the question of who is to do the recognizing – and consider it crucial where badges attempt to gain entry to (i.e., be recognized by) the mainstream of (higher) education.  I suggest that it is, in fact, a prior question that logically instructs the how and what of badge recognition.

I will start a HASTAC group to address these issues and discuss as backing for badges, not the limited and reluctant recognition of the established institutions, but an independent professional society of academics.  The badge system seems a good match for a higher education model designed to allow academics to offer their expert services in independent professional practice.

Reputation and recognition are key factors in the success of any profession and its practitioners.  In the professions both reputation and recognition are heavily dependent on consensus among peers and consumers/clients.  I intend to explore the possibility of a marriage between badges and a professional model for higher education.  A profession of academics can provide the recognition required for badges to be widespread.

My profile offers a link to an external blog with more detailed discussion of this alternative model for the provision of higher education.

Having said all this I am a student of badges and would appreciate direction to literature that might address the issues I have raised and my research aim here at HASTAC.  Thank you.

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