badges for civic skills

Here are two proposals for “civic badges” entered in the Digital Media and Learning Competition. Public comments are being welcomed on the DML site–please click through to read and discuss:

(For full disclosure, I played a role in drafting both proposals and might be involved in the work if either was funded.)

Background: Major organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla (which produces the Firefox browser), and the US Department of Commerce are interested in “badges.” The idea comes originally from scouting: scouts win badges for skills or accomplishments like packing a backpack or raking neighbors’ leaves. But in an age of sophisticated and stylish computer games, the “badging” concept no longer feels childish. Youth and young adults are now accustomed to attaining levels of competence and success online.

In the educational context, badging offers several potential advantages: 1) It is an alternative to high-stakes testing. It can motivate people to learn–and schools to teach–without creating new ways to fail. 2) It can make labor markets work better by indicating exactly what skills an individual has. It can thus help people obtain jobs they would otherwise miss–and help firms find the right workers. The same advantages would also apply to unpaid civic work. 3) It allows the tasks of education and assessment to be shared or distributed, instead of being assigned to schools alone. The same badge could be awarded by a school, a church, or a private firm.

I see special advantages for civic skills. They are ignored by today’s high-stakes tests, yet adding new civics exams would simply create new ways for students to fail. Also, teaching active citizenship has traditionally been a shared responsibility of schools and civil society. With badges, many organizations could teach and assess citizenship. Finally, civic skills are intrinsically controversial. Some people think that occupying Wall Street is a valid skill, while others see it as a threat. The same is true of organizing prayer breakfasts in public schools. If states must provide standardized curricula and tests in civics, they will try to strip out all controversy. But a badging system is flexible: diverse groups can create and award badges, contributing to a rich and contentious democracy.