In 2009, when I was researching and writing the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It, I could offer a critique of the current system of standardized, summative, end-of-grade testing, but had little to offer that addressed the key positive contributions of standardized testing: its ability to be graded by machine (or by humans with a template) and provide the basis for comparisons of outcomes across disparate institutions. Originally pioneered in a doctoral dissertation at Kansas State Teacher's College by Frederick Kelly in 1914, the item-response test was adopted widely and almost immediately because of these two features.
Many esteemed critics over the years have pointed out that multiple-choice tests are a poor instrument for motivating learning, for instilling an appreciation for complexity, or for accurately testing what one actually learned. They encourage “teaching to the test” and “learning to the test,” especially in our post-2002 No Child Left Behind world where public school teachers can be penalized and schools closed if kids don’t do well on such tests. However, until another system addresses the key attributes of standardization and automation, school life will continue to be governed, preschool to professional school, by EOGs, SATs, ACTs, GREs, LSATs, M-CATs and the like. Many have designed alternative systems, but these have not yet been widely adopted and have never displaced standardized testing as the most widely accepted cornerstone of our educational assessment apparatus. No one has invented a better educational mouse trap.
Until now. Digital or Open Badging is the first real alternative to one-best-answer testing that both has those features and addresses key other learning objectives--and, it must be added, is being adopted in numbers that make its acceptance as an alternative system feasible. With the announcement of the Clinton Global Initiative's adoption of badges, the Chicago Summer of Learning, and universities, informal learning centers, and many other programs devising new badging systems it is possible that we are on the verge of a major change in "how we measure," one that better counts what we value and values what we count.
What about digital (sometimes called "open") badges makes them a better mode of assessment than currently used standardized testing? Digital badges can be customized so that they are awarded for a range of skills, achievements, interests, or accomplishments valued by the institution that offers the badge—not by a set of standardized values prescribed by a test that may or may not be suitable to the values of the organization. Badges can be awarded by peers, and the reasons they were awarded travel the badge so anyone who wants to see that HASTAC has given me, let’s say, a Prolific Blogger Badge, can click on my badge and find out that I’ve blogged on this site XX number of times. HASTAC does not, currently, offer such badges but we could decide to. If we did, we could decide what things we wanted to badge and, if someone achieved those, the badge would come with “meta data” that would tell you all the attributes that, institutionally, HASTAC had arrived at in decided who would or would not be recognized.
The advantage of digital badges over test scores is that they are customizable and verifiable, and they can be awarded outside normal, traditional institutions charged, in our society, with credentialing expertise. Unlike other customizable formats—such as resumes—it is harder to “fudge” badges since they come with the meta data that tells you why they were awarded and can provide contact information for the person or institution who awarded them.
Nor is it just institutions. Because learning and achievements and skills can happen anywhere, you can also have peer-awarded badges that, again, acknowledge how and why you received one. Perhaps you taught yourself to code and another programmer worked with you on an online project (this is how much of the open source coding in the world happens) and wanted to give you credit for your tireless contribution. You might receive a coder badge. Open source coding organizations such as Top Coder and Stack Overflow have been using badges in this way, quite successfully and seriously, for many years; indeed, their use in the open source coding community (tested and tried by anonymous collaborative web developer partners for many years) is the inspiration for this wider application of digital badging. With digital badges, If someone else wants you to collaborate with you on a future project and sees the badge on your website, it, they would click on it, and could find out why it was awarded to you and even contact the person who awarded it for more detail. Since reputational systems reflect on both the giver and the receiver, there is a high degree of trust—much as one sees on the trusted respondents and reviewers on GoodReads, Amazon, Yelp, or other peer-recognizing operations.
Badges offer a possibility for more equitable ways of measuring achievement than many current high-cost structures, ranging from traditional higher education to for-profit institutions to various re-certificatioin or retraining programs that are often cost-prohibitive, depend on location, and often come with officially recognized prerequisites (a high school diploma, GED, or college degree). Badges can also take a variety of personal skills and help you "create" a career: I've seen this with street artists, self-taught and highly accomplished, who learn web skills and become designers. Badge systems can help facilitate making assorted and even random-seeming skills (graphic design + programing skills + project management ability) visible as "careers."
Mozilla’s Open Badge Initiative has even created standards for badges, a “backpack” where you can keep your badges, and has pioneered security, privacy, and interoperability issues. Check out Mozilla’s beautiful and easy-to-use website to find out more: http://openbadges.org/
Have questions about badges still? You should: as with any major systemic change, there are upsides and downsides, unexpected consequences and uneven developments. This is a sea-change. Finally, we may have something flexible enough and widespread enough to displace Kelly's 1914 test. As Dan Hickey, Rebecca Itow, and others part of Dan's Indiana University research team have noted in their research on badges, appearing on Dan's website and reposted on hastac.org, no system will displace the current one until it is widespread, a bit of a catch-22 (and a common enough circularity in many new system designs, until there is a tipping point that bursts through the feedback loop of acceptance-standardization-verifiability intrinsic to most peer-review): see the excellent, lively discussion, for example, between Dan Hickey and David Gibson (two major scholar-teacher-researchers in the assessment world), on these issues: http://hastac.org/blogs/rcitow/2013/05/30/design-principles-assessing-learning-digital-badges
For the last two years HASTAC, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and in partnership with Mozilla, has run the Digital Media and Learning Competition on Badges for Lifelong Learning to support a number of institutions interested in developing and actually trying out badging systems for their institutions. We supported thirty major and highly diverse institutions--in schools, museums, after school programs, universities, the military, the entertainment world, Fortune 400 corporations, small firms, and more-- who have spent this time exploring, experimenting, and now implementing an array of badge systems that address some issue within their organization.
A major museum is using badging to help inspire kids who come to summer programs--and to help them maintain a community of other kids who earned badges once they return to Akron or Peoria or Laramie, excited by all they saw and learned at the museum and now with a community of other kids with whom they can still learn together about a favorite subject on line. Badges for Vets is finding a way that all the skills and talents that a vet learns in the military might be put into a coherent form that will help him or her find a job in civilian life. And schools are pioneering invention, exploration, and discovery as "badgable" skills--not just selecting the one right answer from four available on a very static, silo'd subject.
This week, HASTAC will begin to publish final reports from two years of what has been tireless and inspiring work. The reports are long and detailed, addressing the mechanics of a particular badging system as well as the larger issues of learning lifeong. This, along with the DML Research Competition (much of which is being republished on this HASTAC site already), will provide many examples of how your institution can use badging for its own goals.
Finally, there is an alternative that seems to be picking up the kind of widespread use that may displace the existing assessment apparatus. Is bading perfect? Not at all. Is it better? Way better. Stay tuned to this week's reports and, in the meantime, visit our badging resources pages here: ://hastac.org/collections/digital-badges