Blog Post

Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education?

Michael Olneck, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, kindly agreed to let HASTAC upload his paper, Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education

Michael frames badges as a disruptive force within higher education, provoking his readers (initially directed towards sociologists) to evaluate the assumptions and norms of traditional institutions to legitimize and certify knowledge and skills. As Michael writes, his paper "establishes the need to develop sociological explanations for recent developments of certification of skill and knowledge mastery as possible substitutes for, or supplements to, conventional college and university degrees." 

A portion of Michael's paper is excerpted below. To download the full version, click here

As always, feel free to jump in and join the discussion below. 

An organized, well-financed effort to develop on-line certification of knowledge and skills is underway (see e.g.,  O’Shaughnessy, 2011; Watters, 2011; Carey, 2012;  Crotty, 2012; Young, 2012b) . The effort enjoys foundation, government, and even university support. The effort  is championed by some as a challenge to the monopoly on credentialing held by conventional degree-granting institutions. Some of these efforts, such as MIT certifying completion of the open source courses it offers, extend, rather than circumscribe, the reach of university authority (Parry, 2012). Another, “Learning Counts” (; see Glenn, 2011) offer “[c]ollege credit for what you already know ®,” and so maintains the significance of collegiate certification, even as it embraces non-traditional learning. The most ambitious effort, Mozilla’s Open Badge project (, envisions the evolution of an ever-expanding “ecosystem” in which numerous organizations assess and certify specific skills, competencies, and knowledge, and issue “badges” testifying to what the badge-holder has mastered or displayed. The badges could be used in lieu of degrees to represent one’s qualifications to prospective employers and others (Watters, 2011). The effort has drawn the notice of, among others, the Wall Street Journal (Young, 2012a).  

Sociologically, among  the most interesting aspects of the Mozilla effort are that it entails exceptionally  weak classification of knowledge (Bernstein, 1971); it “counts” learning of many kinds which are acquired beyond formal education institutions, including interpersonal skills and experiences (e.g., mentorship) and “new skills and literacies” (Mozilla, n.d.);  it proliferates and disperses authority over what learning to recognize; and it provides a means of translation and commensuration across multiple spheres. 

While explanation of the emergence of alternative certification is important, I think that this development poses an especially opportune challenge to our predictive and forecasting prowess. We should ask what our theoretical apparatus and our cumulated knowledge would lead us to expect for the further development of alternative certification in the coming decades, and the implications of those anticipated developments for the configuration of formal education, especially higher education, and for the ways in which education interpenetrates other social spheres (Davies & Mehta, 2011).

In a period of credential inflation, in which a degree has become both more necessary for occupational attainment and less certain in yielding economic rewards, as well as more costly to individuals, along with escalating collective costs to providing higher education, we should have, on the basis of historical patterns (Collins, 1981),  expected the critique of higher education with which we are all by now familiar. Whether we should have anticipated the emergence of the kind of alternative pathways to certification that I am discussing is another matter. Prevailing  accounts of the role of credentials in status competition anticipate an “irreversible” “spiral of competition for educational attainment and rising credential requirements for jobs” in which “self-consciously alternative forms of education end up emulating the credentially (sic) pattern of mainstream education...” (Collins, 2011 [2002], 233).  On the other hand, Collins earlier observed that when the limits of credential inflation are reached “[c]heaper or nonformalized means of acquiring culture spring up: rival schools with shorter courses or no formal (state-sanctioned) certificates...” (1981, 194).

The proposed alternatives to credentialing by college degrees challenge not only the existing credentialing system, but also sociological theories which assume that education attainment is merely a symbolic positional good, and that education credentials certify primarily prestige, not practical skills (Collins, 1981). Rather, the proposed alternatives are predicated on the validity of aspects of human capital theory,  the tenets of which many sociologists are prone to dismiss , e.g., that acquired skills and knowledge contribute importantly to worker productivity (Baker, 2009). 

A system of badges challenges the function of higher education as society’s primary  “sieve” (Stevens et al., 2008). It also appears to challenge the widely- and deeply-institutionalized idea of the primacy of formal schooling as a source of authoritative competence in modern societies (Meyer, 1977; Baker, 2011a,b).

(Click here to access the full version of Insurgent Credentials



Hi all,

As I have been pursuing my research into badges, I have stumbled onto BadgeStack, which is a badge system offered by Learning Times (which the best I can tell is related to Jossey-Bass). See e.g., : and . They claim to have been the first badge system compatible with the Mozilla Open Badge structure.


My questions are: (1) Is involvement with badges by the for-profit sector extensive? Are there other examples? Is such involvement likely to grow? (2) What does the involvement of the for-profit sector in badges portend for adherence to the principles of badges as socially innovative, flexible, empowering, egalitarian, etc. (3) Is the involvement of the for-profit sector of concern to those centrally involved in the badge movement?

One aspect I noticed is that Learning Times provides "learning systems." This makes me wonder whether the badges BackStack offers will reinforce learning as accumulation.

I'd love to hear what folks in the badges community / world think about this.


Thanks much.






That was a great post.  I was happy to learn about innovations at GSU as they gave me my first academic position in the department of Ed Psych and Special Ed.  Your comments about context are right on the money.  The 21st Century is all about context, and things like the Khan academy that remove instruction even more from contexts that are meaningful for learners are problematic.  I have a recent blog post that talks about how we tried to address this issue at  I am looking forward to following your effots at GSU and hope I can help.  I have a project documenting the design principles that emerge from the DML awardees, but I think many of the most useful princples will come from projects like yours and I hope to also track them






Kudos again on a great paper and an awesome webinar.

This is a great question and one I have been pondering a bit.  There are a number of for-profits in the mix.  I know that some folks have some concerns and they cover the gamut.  Some of it reflects existing rifts along the open-source/proprietary  and liberarian/democrat/republican splits.  I personally don't find that very interesting.  But certainly as you allude to, there are other more complex issues that are likely much more consequential.  In particular one has to ask about the role of badges in the bigger "race to the cheapest" debacle where whoever can get some population to pass some test by whatever means for the least money wins.  With my current project I am relucant to be specific, but we all know the examples

However----I believe that some of the most interesting innovations WILL come out of the for profit sector.  I think that the for profit explosion around linux and Moodle are good examples of how entrepreneurs can advance both badges and profits.  I have spoken with the folks at Learning Times and they seem pretty well poised to capture a big chunk of badgework in the near future.  I have been particuarly impressed with Karen Jeffries who has a small startup in Chicago called ForAllAssessment.  We used their new system in a pilot we summarize here  I thought they were awesome and was blown away by their committment and concern with important stuff.  There are more where they came from IMO and they add an important dimension to our efforts





The paper Sheryl has posted is a very short "think piece" that I did for a seminar of sociologists of education in May.

I hope people involved in badges projects find it of interest,

And I hope you will share your thoughts about the paper, and suggestions  / criticisms for me as I continue to learn more about the badges phenomenon.

I'll look to see if anyone posts comments here, but I would also appreciate any comments you would care to send to me directly.

My email address is .

Thanks much.


Thanks, Michael.   On the face of it "badges" seemed like a no-brainer to me, but I suspected that there was a myriad of political, sociological and psychological reasons why they might not succeed in providing real competition to higher education accreditation.  This excellent paper lays out more of the sociological and psychological barriers that I could think of myself and in a way is a bit discouraging.  being a technologist myself, I tend to consider the idea of predictions in sociology next to impossible (perhaps I'm wrong) so I suspect that the only way forward is to "suck it and see".  Michael did bring up two very important points in my opinion.  One was that "validity" would be a very important issue for acceptance by employers.  I might have preferred the term "reliability" and I would have added that we need tools that will make it very easy for employers to verify badges and aggregate them.  Indeed the second important point follows on from that.  If the psychology of the market does place a very high value on degrees (merited or otherwise), institutions may use badges give credits for other forms of learning which can be put towards degrees.  In which case, verification and aggregation again will be important issues.



When I first presented the paper to some fellow sociologists, they warned me against making any predictions. But, if we believe in our explanations for what was or is, why shouldn't we endeavor to forecast possible outcomes of ongoing processes for the future? I will not be betting on the accuracy of any predictions I might hazard to make, but I think that thinking about what possible trajectories for badges will ensue will help me ask good questions, and look for relevant data.

I think that you are right that for those who see real possibilities for badges, you will just have to persevere, and see. The variety of possibile outcomes for badges is wide. 

I used "validity" rather than "reliability" because I was trying to refer to whether badges will actually provide information on what employers want to know about prospective employees, not to whether measures are consistent. (Something can be highly reliable, and consistently wrong.) 

Just what employers are interested in is not at all obvious, and how they currently "use" credentials is not well-studied or well-understood by sociologists. See the work of David B. Bills, for example, e.g., The Sociology of Education and Work (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).





By asking if badges are a "threat" to degrees as preferred credentials, I do not intend to convey any sense that I see this in a negative light. I mean only to ask if the use of badges might supplant degrees and result in colleges and universities declining. For some badge proponents, e.g., see David Wiley's quote about the jig being up, that is to be devoutly wished for.

I appreciate your point that badges may well recognize "soft" skills that are otherwise only implicitly recognized. But, I would not automoatically contrast that with "hard" skills certified by diplomas and degrees.

First, it is not obvious what diplomas and degrees certify, or even why some employers require them. Some, certainly, are intended to certify "hard" skills, e.g., we presume an engineering degree means the holder knows, and can do, certain things. But, why might a retail chain's manager training program require a college degree, major unspecified? I think it is for "soft" skills presumably required to succeed in college, e.g., reliability, adaptability.

My father managed a "dime store." Thses were variety stores like Woolworths and Kresges. I asked him why he required employees, including folks who worked in the stock room, to have a high school diploma. He sruggled to answer, but it boiled down to trusting them more. This meant that a dropout / school leaver who quit school because she needed money or was bored to tears would not have had a chance for a job in my dad's store even if she could have done the job just fine. 

Second, in some cases, badge projects seem to emphasize "hard" skills, e.g., skiils acquired in the military, as in the Badges for Vets project.




OK, I agree there's something about 'having a degree' or 'having a PhD' that is, to some extent, social sorting. Surely, though, that's based on an outdated (dare I say it, gentrified) model of education.

What I really like about badges (and, major disclaimer, I work for Mozilla as Badges & Skills Lead!) is that they make explicit what remains implicit. Whilst there are some (like Wiley) who see them as effectively blowing up the Academy, I see badges having much more of an augmenting role for an increasingly flexible, mobile, and diverse workforce.

I think we're pretty much in agreement here. Wouldn't it be great if the intangible qualities in terms of your store manager father hiring only high school diploma-level candidates could be made tangible? :-)



Hi Michael, thanks for allowing this to be posted on HASTAC. I thought your think-piece was well-written and thought-out.

I can certainly see where you're coming from in terms of positioning badges as a 'threat' to higher education institutions and, in particular, to the generic degree. To my mind, though, badges allow us to capture new forms of learning, that which people are doing beyond institutions, and which currently people only recognise implicitly.

So, for example, people can and do make decisions based on LinkedIn recommendations. These recommendations tend to focus on softer skills but the assumption is that the 'hard' skills, existing certification, is there in addition. I see badges as making explicity that currently implicit recognition of soft skills rather than directly challenging the hard skills credentialised through existing certification such as degrees?


Michael's article is thought provoking and something for my colleagues at GSU to start thinking about.  I started using badges in my classes last year with mixed success (I was working on my model).  This time around I have a better idea, and with help from our University Relations department, professional looking badges. 

I see badges as stepping stones that lead to milestones (or a metabadge).  There are badges that only appear in the course to commend students for passing through certain content or discussion points.  The culminate in a final badge that I hope to "push" to the student's ePortfolio (with data embedded as to the competencies).  The final badge is called the "Paws Up: Biology Apprentice" badge.  Paws up references our mascot, and as for biology apprentice, it deal with this being the first major biology class.

Our University has been working on a grant from the Lumina Foundation to look at incorporating Degree Qualification Profiles.  My suggestion is that we can as an institution (even down to individual departments) build milestone badges linked to our DQP.  For example, when students show general competency (common core) and specific competency in introductory biology, chemistry and physics, we give them a badge (this would also show the other basic elements of the DQP).  This continues throughout, with a final badge a graduation that students could link an unoffical transcript to (ok, so there are legal issues with this, but they can be worked out).

While I like badges, and think they are great ways of providing markers for students, there is one core concern I have: that badges can degrade to just showing content exposure.

Most academics I think are starting to realize that what we offer is not just content, but content in context.  While content is important (even critical in some fields) the more important task is to help students navigate the content to build connections and ultimately to start thinking in the paradigm of the field.  Khan Academy is OK with content (I have some issues with the biology content), but the biggest problem I've seen in looking over video lectures like that is that they do not weave together the content.  Ultimately, it is still pedagogy (teaching to children) instead of moving the student to a more adult form of learning (andragogy); namely understanding the framework of knowledge, applying that knowledge and adding to that knowledge.