The digital gunslinger entered the shadowy virtual saloon, shook the cyber-grit from his vector-based duster coat, and sauntered his way up to the lifelike representation of a barkeep. “Howdy-pardner,” offered the barkeep through a menu of text-based choices, “you’re new on this server, ain’t ya?”
The digital gunslinger reached beneath his duster, causing a moment of panic in the avatar representing the user playing the barkeep. Typing slowly, so as not to cause further commotion, the gunslinger’s player brought out his character’s clenched fist and scattered an even dozen small glittering emblems across the bar.
“Whew,” entered the barkeep’s player in the text field, “I can see you’re someone to be reckoned with. Why don’t you settle yourself at the bar? I’ve got a proposition for ya…”
Does this scenario represent learning? And can those digital badges that the gunslinger placed on the counter actually convey real world meaning and potential job-related skills? Of-course these aren’t some antique deputy badges or even the toy ones you played with as a child in your back yard. These badges are serious business, as evidenced by the recent efforts of the MacArthur Foundation to make them a part of the future of the education and business worlds. But what are digital badges, and will they ever be a part of your life?
What are Digital Badges?
The simplest answer is that a digital badge is an electronic credential that indicates your proficiency in a certain area. This blog, to a certain extent, is a kind of digital badge. It indicates to the world that someone has determined that I am a good writer and informed enough about higher education to publish my work. There is a lot of ambiguity in that statement and some obviously arbitrary decisions on someone’s part, but still, the very presentation of my work in this format gives it a level of credibility that the “dude running a server out of his mom’s basement” blog does not. This is the concept behind the digital badge design competition launched as part of the Digital Media + Learning Competition 4 sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, HASTAC, Duke University, UCHRI and Mozilla, among others. The idea is to create a system to recognize and acknowledge the value of learning through professional development workshops, afterschool programs, during peer tutoring, in social networks, at sports camps, in the military, and during game play (Badges for Lifelong Learning). The badges themselves are an indicator of this learning or specific skills associated with the learning. You are probably most familiar with them from online games and social networks, where they are displayed with your profile to indicate a level of achievement or accomplishment.
The purpose of the contest being proposed for this year’s Digital Media + Learning Competition is to craft a universal system for creating, awarding, displaying, and recognizing digital badges so that they carry both meaning and weight in the real world. The basic concept behind MacArthur’s Open Badge Infrastructure for Mozilla, is that anyone could earn badges from a recognized knowledge/information/skill source, display those badges within their mozilla profile, and have prospective employers recognize that knowledge or those skills as a valid credential on par with a college degree or professional license.
I am a strong advocate of the democratization of our society through education and technological literacy and I feel that this project has great potential. But I am a bit skeptical about whether digital badges will ever gain a strong-enough following among employers to have a real impact. Some of the potential obstacles to implementing a system of digital badges are:
- Deciding what will be represented? The basic idea from the contest website is that almost anything could be a potential source for earning a digital badge. Obviously, this is an overly-ambitious proposal. If too much is allowed to count, from too many sources, there will be no real value in the credential. There needs to be some quality assurance in order for employers to buy into this system. I’m not sure that the crowd source, wiki model will be good enough for the business world.
- Choosing what will be left out? The need for some quality control leads to the question what will be left out. Whether there is an application process or a model based on user recommendations, there will need to be a governing body or gatekeeper. You cannot have a supervisory system without some level of politics or economic influence entering into the equation. This limitation would seem to undermine the entire open infrastructure model at the most basic level.
- Determining who validates the validations? As this seems to be a model set up largely in opposition to the monopoly that higher education currently has on credentialing, it seems unlikely that any higher ed body would be in charge of the validation process. However, having a commission of trained educators would be the best match for implementing a system of validation. Another possibility is that the validation board could consist of industry insiders or a private organization (or several of them) with a mission of validating learning badges. However, someone will have to pay this group’s salaries, and that introduces the economic variable which will naturally exclude some types of content providers (N-F-P’s and independent creators of learning resources come to mind).
- Mediating higher education’s influence – In this discussion, it is critical to determine the role that higher education will play in the process. Currently, our colleges and universities are the sole conveyers of accepted credentials. If this system takes off, higher education’s monopoly would be threatened. However, the inclusion of Duke University and the University of California as principle administrators of this contest indicates that, at least some sectors of higher education are behind the effort and want to be major players in its creation.
While these obstacles may seem insurmountable, there are many possible benefits to the digital badge system that could produce a significant groundswell of support for the initiative.
- Community building – If this plan can really follow the open source ecosystem model being proposed, there is great potential for this effort to develop a natural growth based on community support and input. The wiki and Linux open source models are very successful examples of the ways in which individuals with the best interests of larger communities in mind can create something powerful and sustainable.
- Mentorship – This community-based model also provides an excellent avenue for engaging in mentorship as a way of building a workforce and networking for future employment. In order to achieve a digital badge, a learner would have to be an active participant in their own learning in conjunction with an experienced member of the group they ultimately want to join. This is an excellent example of Lave and Wenger’s concept of legitimate peripheral participation or communities of practice, a model that has worked throughout human history (as informal learning and apprenticeship) and that is deserving of a revival in the virtual world.
- Lifelong Learning – Perhaps the greatest reason to support the digital badges initiative is that it provides both an acknowledgement of and inspiration for lifelong learning. While some individuals are intrinsically motivated to learn, others require some external motivation. Digital badges could provide the kind of impetus for learning that would drive many more people to pursue new knowledge and skills throughout their lifetime. For those who are already motivated to learn, recognition of the value of that learning could also provide a push to take that learning further.
There are many benefits to the system that I would like to take advantage of myself, but the obstacles and politics of implementing a useable system seem overwhelming at this early stage of the project. I can say, however, as an east coaster currently living in the Wild West, that being able to carry my digital badges with me when I relocated would have made the transition much smoother. That’s one benefit to this whole system that I didn’t consider before – carrying universal and easily visible credentials to new locales would make our already shrinking global community that much more tightly knit.