the movement to badges in education, and what it means for democracy

The idea of giving badges to people who can demonstrate specific skills is taking off rapidly.  A “badge” is shorthand for a portable credential, rather like the merit badges traditionally used in Scouting. (See the Boy Scouts’ badge for backpacking as an example.) In the modern, adult world we could have badges for being able to schedule meetings of more than four people, being able to write an effective op-ed piece, or being able to set up a social network.

Mozilla (which builds Firefox and other prominent software tools), the MacArthur Foundation, and Peer 2 Peer University have launched an explicit “badges” project. Meanwhile, the US. Commerce Department is leading a federal effort to promote digital literacy that may, I am told, soon generate recognized credentials that are similar to badges.

As the old song says, “This could be the start of something big.” We are used to credentials that come only with the completion of whole courses of study. For instance, a high school diploma signifies that you have successfully completed four years of high-school-level courses (or the equivalent). That system creates dilemmas:

  • You can obtain the credential without necessarily knowing anything relevant or useful: it can just measure years spent in the institution. Or …
  • Its value can be more “objectively” measured by means of some kind of high-stakes test, such as an exam that is required for graduation. But heavy use of tests encourages test-prep instead of real education. Also …
  • If we want to know whether a prospective employee or student can do something specific (such as participate effectively in a meeting), the available standardized test scores may be of no use.
  • Many people fail to obtain general credentials. About a third of our young people reach age 19 without a high school diploma. A substantial majority reach age 25 without a bachelors degree. Yet many possess particular skills that would have market value if they were recognizable.
  • You can develop valuable concrete skills in school or on the job and (if the institution works well) can be recognized for your skills while there. But no one in a different school or job will know what skills you have: they aren’t portable. Recommendation letters are devices for transmitting information about skills, but they are highly imperfect.

Hence the idea of defining specific skills and providing portable credentials to people who can demonstrate them. The main advantages are solutions to the dilemmas noted above, i.e., better measurement, better incentives for learning, more portability, and less waste of skills that people already have.

But there’s also a practical opening here for anyone who thinks we haven’t been teaching the right things. I, for example, believe that we haven’t been teaching the skills and arts of association–of group-membership and collective action–that de Tocqueville saw as the foundation of democracy in America. We can advocate for those skills to be included in our curriculum requirements or standardized tests, but all the above-mentioned dilemmas stand in the way. Instead, I am tempted to jump on the “badges” bandwagon and advocate for civic badges (at all levels).

This is a supply-side strategy: trying to increase the number of people who have civic skills by providing relevant credentials. We could also pursue a demand-side strategy: persuading admissions offices and employers to seek individuals who possess specific badges. For example, the federal government will need to find 91,000 new employees each year for jobs defined as “mission-critical.” Imagine if they sought employees who had civic badges, like interviewing fellow citizen to determine their values and needs; or moderating public meetings. Advertising a need for those badges would have a powerful effect on curriculum.

By the way, I am very far from believing that the only objective of education is a set of concrete skills to which we can award badges. A liberal education is supposed to result in a coherent mentality that encompasses a sensitive appreciation of a wide variety of perspectives, moral grounding, aesthetic appreciation, and analytical rigor. But that is the outcome that a diploma ought to signify. By reserving badges for more concrete attainments, perhaps we can restore the appropriate meaning to degrees.