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Badges vs. Bachelor's Degrees

Been wondering about the next new thing in higher education? Well, it may already be here: Badges. "Say what?" you say? Yep, just like the Boy Scouts.

There's a highly interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that shines a spotlight on the badges initiative, which has been underway for some time now, apparently right under many of our noses. In my humble and sometimes not fully informed opinion, the badges concept likely falls into the "Do what you want and the money will follow" camp. Essentially, what badges entails is hooking up with a legitimate (hopefully certified or accredited) sources of learning (can you say, "MIT"?) and meeting the requirements for a very specific kind of discipline (think along the lines of mentorship or digital video editing). Once you have met the standards of the online course material, you receive your badge in that skill, which then becomes a resume line item.


This laser-focused cafeteriaization (whoa, a new tech term!) of educational credentials tends to fly in the face of the liberal-arts ideals of colleges and universities. Conceivably, one could go through life learning only about what one likes and has passion for. I guess the analogy might be a diet comprising only desserts.

Thinking back to my own college experiences, I know that my life is richer because of being exposed to information and areas that I may have happily ignored, if given the chance. However, our brave new world is hurting (economically) and the requirements for employment are becoming more and more specific. Thus, the badges concept appears to be an offspring of the mother of invention: necessity.

Let's take a lok at some key points from this highly interesting article.

'Badges' Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas by Jeffrey R. Young

The spread of a seemingly playful alternative to traditional diplomas, inspired by Boy Scout achievement patches and video-game power-ups, suggests that the standard certification system no longer works in today's fast-changing job market.

Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of "badges" to certify skills and abilities. If scouting focuses on outdoorsy skills like tying knots, these badges denote areas employers might look for, like mentorship or digital video editing. Many of the new digital badges are easy to attain—intentionally so—to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom.

At the free online-education provider Khan Academy, for instance, students get a "Great Listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short educational clips. With enough of those badges, paired with badges earned for passing standardized tests administered on the site, users can earn the distinction of "Master of Algebra" or other "Challenge Patches."

Traditional colleges and universities are considering badges and other alternative credentials as well. In December the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it will create MITx, a self-service learning system in which students can take online tests and earn certificates after watching free course materials posted by the university.

MIT also has an arrangement with a company called OpenStudy, which runs online study groups, to give online badges to students who give consistently useful answers in discussion forums set up around the free lecture materials the university has long posted as part of its OpenCourseWare project ...

... "We have to question the tyranny of the degree," says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Mr. Wiley is an outspoken advocate of so-called open education, and he imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus. "As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely." ...

... Some observers see a darker side, though, charging that badges turn all learning into a commodity, and thus cheapen the difficult challenge of mastering something new. Rather than dive into an assignment out of curiosity, many students might focus on an endless pursuit of badges, argues Alex Reid, an associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo. "The presence of a badge could actually be a detriment to an otherwise genuine learning experience," he wrote on his blog earlier this year ...

... "The biggest hurdle is the one I had, which is prejudice," says Cathy Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. She says she initially viewed educational badges as frivolous, but is now a leading proponent as a co-founder of Hastac.

"People seem to think they know what school is and they know what work is," she says. "We live in a world where anyone can learn anything, anytime, anywhere, but we haven't remotely reorganized our workplace or school for this age."

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Intriguing, no? I say, "Yes!" The really intriguing part is to ponder the possible long-range effect of the badge initiative if it really takes off. Can you envision a Badge of Science in computer engineering?  Or maybe a Badge of Arts in European Literature? If college marketing departments start to view all this as a theat to their hallowed halls, I can even foresee a bumper sticker some day that shouts, "Ban the Badge!" That might be a problem for the University of Wisconsin, though.  Think about it. (Hint: They're the Badgers.)

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