Online Badges: A New Pursuit of Higher Education

The Boy Scouts can be held responsible for popularizing the idea of earning merit badges for completing such tasks as lighting a fire or tying a knot. Now, this idea of earning credentials is becoming increasingly common in online education as a means to acknowledge skills and credentials. In the process, it’s also raising important questions about the traditional diploma model, as noted in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The exact name of the badge system may vary from institution to institution, but they all stem from the same idea – to encourage and acknowledge the pursuit of learning outside the traditional classroom. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s known as MITx, a recently announced online initiative where students anywhere can take tests at their own pace and earn certificates using materials through the school’s OpenCourseWare system.

“Students worldwide are increasingly supplementing their classroom education with a variety of online tools,” said MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif in a statement announcing the new initiative. “Both parts of this new initiative are extremely important to the future of high-quality, affordable, accessible education.”

The University of Southern California is also leading the way in badge platforms through its Joint Educational Project, which will rewards skills such as "mentorship," which can be earned through volunteer work.

"The service-learning community has struggled with how to identify and recognize the outcomes that students learn, like civic knowledge and diversity," Susan Harris, director of research and academic affairs at the Joint Educational Project, told the Chronicle.

Education startups have also been founded on this idea of earning badges. The five-year-old Khan Academy offers a free library of more than 2,700 videos, in subjects ranging from physics to finance to art history, as well as SAT and GMAT prep. By taking its tests, students can earn badges like "Master of Algebra," or even "Great Listener." Similarly, Treehouse, founded in 2010, provides more than 450 training videos in areas including web design, web development, and iOS, in which students can watch videos and take tests to then unlock badges to show their proficiency for a monthly fee. Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox browser, is even getting in the game with its Open Badges project, which is designing a tool to help people legitimately issue badges launched in the fall of 2010.

This badges system has solicited praise for making education accessible to a wide variety of people, providing continuing education opportunities, and highlighting skills that aren’t so easily recognizable by a college diploma. And cheeky Boy Scout references aside, it may even point out flaws in the standard education system. "The spread of a seemingly playful alternative to traditional diplomas … suggests that the standard certification system no longer works in today’s fast-changing job market," observed the Chronicle.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns about the proliferation of badges, including that the pursuit of badges could lead to a resume overload of credentials that educators and employers won’t understand or know how to value, the lack of an accreditation system monitoring the education materials, and the downside that a reward system could lead to the pursuit of badges for badges sake, that there could be a "shift from pursuing something because we are interested in it (and then retrospectively looking for a reward) to pursuing something strictly for the reward," warned Alex Reid, an associate professor of English at the University of Buffalo, on his blog.

Still, others think it will catch on for the right reasons – and help the hiring process in the long run.

"Badges are just the outward face for a completely new approach to education — an open approach which will ultimately make it much easier for hiring organizations to identify candidates with exactly the skill sets they’re looking for," wrote technology strategist Phil Bowermaster on his blog, Transparency Revolution.

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