Badges: the Boy & Girl Scouting of Higher Education

The Mozilla Foundation has launched a new initiative to organize a framework for alternative education accreditation. Their project, “Open Badge Infrastructure”, seeks to establish a new standard for validating non-traditional learning experiences.

There’s a lot of good critiques out there already, so I’ll try and add some new thoughts to the conversation: Go here for a number of other opinions

This “open” badge alternative credentialing idea has been floating around for the past couple years, but has just recently been gaining traction. As more and more alternative educational groups recognize the need for a re-design of the accreditation system, Badges are being recognized as a possible answer.

The badge framework has a lot going for it. The idea nicely meshes with other alt.ed concepts, like game-based learning, and “knowledge-map” style progress grids that help improve student motivation and achievement tracking. Most importantly, the Badge system has the ability to bring together all types of traditional and non-traditional learning into one flexible, scalable standard. In addition to the standard university degree and the few professional credentials that exist (LEED, CPA, RN, etc.) students will be able to access (and get credit for) their educational experience from a variety of platforms.

In a given year a student could earn Badges from a traditional university, an arts center, a garden program where they volunteer, and a peer-to-peer online learning forum. In reality, we all know that–often times–our independent work, non-traditional classes, and volunteer experiences are more valuable than our normal classwork. This framework offers a comprehensive system that can value types of learning that–unlike those of the standard university–are more integrated into life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the badge system is its inclusion of personal and relational accomplishments. In addition to badges in “Javascript Expert” and “Electrical Circuitry”, you can gain level-ups by earning the “Team Player” and “Motivator” badges. The idea is that, to employers, these less tangible qualities are often more important than a student’s g.p.a. or academic specialty.

Here’s the description from Mozilla:

“Learning today happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it’s often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements that happen outside of school. Mozilla’s Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web — through a shared infrastructure that’s free and open to all. The result: helping learners everywhere display 21st century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, andlevel up in their life and work.”

I see three main questions that will arise from this:

1. A big initiative, The Digital Media + Learning Competition (organized by Hastac, in collaboration with Mozilla) is calling for new proposals on how to best implement this Badges concept. In their request for proposals they say that “Organizations and groups with “badge friendly” content, programs, or activities” should apply.

This phrase “badge friendly” is the kicker, because it entails that certain things are not badge friendly. What these things are is certainly open for debate, but it is likely that skills/experience that are more creative and require qualitative analysis will present difficulties. Additionally, skill sets that are unique, constantly in flux, or in progressive fields will be difficult to credential in a standard fashion. If certain things are left out of the badge system, does it lose its credibility? For a new system to be wholly accepted, its accrediting process needs to offer equality and completeness.

2. That brings me to the second question, the problem of standardization. Although the university system is downright awful at providing an acceptable standard of quality among college graduates, it doesn’t exempt this new idea from the same critique. The problem with traditional college degrees is that the type of new institutions grows and changes too rapidly, while the grading standards varies wildly between schools, or even programs within schools. An “A-” at M.I.T. is different from an “A-” at Dryer University. Meanwhile, grading standards have been falling across the country, as schools are increasingly valuing student retention and graduation rates over academic rigor.

Meanwhile, the only real standard for valuing a student’s overall college experience is the prestige of their alma mater. If student Jack studied Creative Writing at the University of Iowa that means something, but if student Jill studied it at the California University of Pennsylvania that doesn’t mean much… yet Jack and Jill both have the same “badge”, they both have a B.A. in Creative Writing.

How could this new “open” badge system improve on this standardization, this quality control, issue? It will be especially difficult, especially considering that it hopes to incorporate the existing system, and add a lot of new badge-issuers into the mix with very few controls or limits.

3. This brings me to the final question, which may actually offer some solutions… If this is supposed to operate as a truly “open” educational accreditation system, outside the boundaries of the traditional institution, what will the student assessment process look like? There has to be a full-proof method for awarding these badges to students who have met the requirements. Those who have written on the subject describe a hybrid system. Some of the time badge approval will be granted by compensated experts, we know them as teachers. Other times, however, badges can be granted through a peer review process. This possibly is the scariest, but also most powerful component of the new badge system. This peer review process, in many ways, is the best hope it has to revolutionize the process and create a truly “open” accreditation system.

At first glance the peer review concept seems disastrous. I can’t help but recall a number of English writing workshops in college where my peers were completely unhelpful. They had rarely even read what I wrote, and their minor grammatical suggestions were not only unhelpful, but usually involved the addition of an incorrect comma. I never wanted their help because they didn’t genuinely offer it; I just wanted to sit and talk with my professor, the paid expert.

After some though, however, there may be some ways to ensure quality in the peer-review process.

1. Appeal to our selfish need for self-preservation or our dignity: constantly remind students that, when they are reviewing the work of their peers, they are reviewing their own work. This only works if peer assessment is actually not quite peer assessment, but only done by students who have already received the badge in question. Every time they approve a student’s work for a new badge, they are letting that student represent their discipline. If a “Javascript Expert” badge-holder approves someone who isn’t any good at Javascript programming and that person performs poorly for employers, a consensus will grow that the “Javascript Expert” badge (and, therefore, all badges) is a worthless credential.

If, somehow, the badge structure can self-monitor in this way, it could be successful.

2. As mentioned, badge-issuers should always be people who have already completed the badge. This way, they will not only have incentive to uphold the quality that badge represents, but they will also know the content really well and act as capable critics. What’s the old saying? “a teacher need only be one step ahead of the students”… here that could work.

3. In addition to the social mechanism that could ensure quality assessment from peers, there needs to be a system that would ensure a good quantity of assessors. Simple: after your first badge, for every new badge you are awarded, you are required to assess the badge application of 3 (or more) students, offering them written feedback and a decision. This way you ensure a large and consistent pool of potential assessors.

4. Finally, in order to ensure un-biased quality assessments from peers, each badge-applicant should be assessed by at least 3 peer assessors. The number may depend on the complexity of the badge requirements, the margin of error for assessors, or the limits of the available assessor pool.


Although most of us haven’t heard about this yet, I think it has the potential to make big waves in educational assessment over the next decade. It’s similar enough to the old system (and integrates easily with it) that it will not be completely disregarded by traditionalists, but it also aligns nicely with the goals of progressive tech-minded educators and economic reformers. But, most importantly, the boy and girl scouts will finally get the credit they deserve.


All this being said, I’m still not sure what this “badges” idea means. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure if it’s the right idea. It could go a long way towards improving the way things are, but may just cause more fracturing of energy and purpose in an already confused system.


Further reading:

Open Badge Competition

Hack Education blog