More Thoughts on Badges

Every Thursday night, I go through all the links I've bookmarked throughout the week: all the education-related stories I've tracked. I write a massive round-up post of the ed-tech news for MindShift and for Hack Education.

Some weeks are more exciting than others. The lead-up to back-to-school, no surprise, was particularly full of announcements: [discount] [feature upgrade] [launch] [launch] {superfluous but well timed announcement]. You get the picture.

But this week. This week was a doozy. I'm sitting here with a long list of stories that are, pardon my language, pretty fucking mind-blowing. I hardly know where to begin: Pearson acquisition, McGraw-Hill division, McGraw-Hill investment, Chegg acquisition, COPPA revisions, SAT score downturn, student loan default rate uptick, Reading Rainbow for profit, and the shame of college sports.

Oh, and badges.

I'm looking at a week full of stories about profits and test scores and marketing and students' data and students' debt. It's pretty disheartening.

So, the badges.

I woke up to the hullaballoo this morning, sorta surprised, I must say, since I've been writing about Mozilla's project since February. If I'd have known it would be this big a deal, I really would have set my alarm and watched the webcast. I had a note to myself to consider stories on badges and Google Books settlements today, knowing there's be announcements, but I wasn't anticipating much hubbub. I've not seen much response -- positive or negative -- to the idea of digital badges until today, and I say that having covered the project in both education and tech circles. But there you go. With the official launch of the Open Badges Project and the announcement of the $2 million in grants from the DML competition, the criticisms have been unleashed.

And they're important ones, ones I hope the project and research address. Recommended reading: Welcome to Badge World and Bibbidi-Bobbi-Badge. I agree with a lot of the analysis here: we need to be wary about the commodification of learning and accreditation. We can't just focus on learning as some sort of instrumental task, whereby you accrue points when you've completed a unit in the curriculum. We need to be vigilant against attempts to take what's fun and playful and generative and turn it into a system, whereby the only thing that really compels you to opt for a particular learning goal or achievement is the promise to "LEVEL UP!" Ya know, sorta like the system we have now.

Again, the news of the week: the student loan default rate. The SATs. The Pearsons, McGraw-Hills. Quantification and commodification of education and certification indeed.

I guess the big question: is that what we have with the Mozilla project too -- commodification, work? Lots of folks seem to think "yes." Open Badges are the wrong sort of reinforcement of the wrong sort of values, salivated over by the wrong sort of people.

So yeah. Yuck.

But I guess I'm just not so sure we should dismiss the idea outright. Perhaps that's because my first introduction to the concept wasn't via Arne Duncan, but by Philipp Schmidt from P2PU who spoke about the project at OpenCourseWare Consortium meeting this year. Perhaps it's because I do work in the tech world, where the sort of problem Mozilla has tried to solve here is one that, admittedly, plagues engineers: how do you assess a developer's chops, particularly when so much programming skill is self-learned. Perhaps I'm being naive and generous because it's Mozilla. These are the people, after all, that liberated us from Internet Explorer. Mozilla is part of the force that keeps the Web open and free. So I like them. I do. And I like the idea behind having an open source system by which people can showcase what they've learned, what they've achieved.

And hey, if it's just a digital sticker-book with metadata, I guess it's time I ditch that Flickr widget on my blog anyways.

Image credits: Quinn Dombrowski


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