Yesterday, I was writing about differentiating mastery and competency in the light of movements such as competency-based education and degree programs.
The Mozilla Open Badge project and other initiatives have tried to standardize the use of badges for documenting learning. I like the idea but I don't see that badges have made any serious entry into educational institutions.
Badges have been used to mark what a person knows or what they can do. Proponents say using them is more student-centered and more about real student learning. It's certainly more real than using seat time and time on task as a measurement. Because a student has completed 9 credits hours proves nothing, and more often we hear that employers also question that getting an "A" grade for those 9 credits also doesn't prove any mastery or competency. Enter competency-based or evidence-based approaches to learning.
I still think about the merit badges I earned in scouting when this topic comes up. The badges were extrinsic motivators and they worked for me and most of my fellow scouts. You wanted to get them. I liked the ceremonial awarding of them at meetings and the recognition. My mom and my "den mother" were pretty conscientious about signing off that I had completed the requirements to earn them. But much of the work I had to do was on the "honor system" and I'm sure I cut corners on some things and got away with it.
If I earned a badge for "climbing" (as in rock and mountains), would you say I was competent at the sport? Would you say I had mastered it? I don't think I'd be comfortable saying either one of those things. I had learned about it and I had done some actual activities involved with it. I had not mastered it and I'm not sure a real climber would say I was competent enough to do it on my own or very seriously.
As Bernard Bull and others have pointed out, this same critique can be leveled at letter grades. Do both make school about "earning instead of learning?"
We also associate badges with video games and in the gamification of learning, they play an important role. In the pure gaming environment, earning badges, points, power pills, or whatever tokens are given sometimes does take precedence over learning. Then again, some games aren't much interested in learning.
It's better to think of badges as markers, milestones of progress rather than as a goal.
The Mozilla project and others have tried to give more trust in badges as credentials and educational currency. Education has always valued tests, scores and credits as evidence of learning even though we have been arguing about it for hundreds of years and continue to do so.
If the organization awarding the badge is credible, then the real concern is what evidence is being used to determine the completion. As with the goals and objectives we now hold as important in schools, some things are more easily measured.
Want to earn the "Miler" badge? Then run a mile in under 5 minutes and have it verified by the teacher or coach. Want to earn the "Team Player" or "Leadership" badges? Then... play on a team... be the captain... Hmmm. Those are tougher things to measure.
Students, teachers and schools have talked for a long time about trying to get away from a reliance on just grades, but grades persist. Portfolio assessment and other movements have made a dent in some instances, but the quantifiable test score still wins the day. That stopwatch on the mile runner is easily validated. Today there is more testing and data being used and more complaints about its use.
Learning Beyond Letter Grades was a course offered last year that examined why so many schools use and rely on letter grades. "Where did they come from? What do they tell us and fail to tell us about the learners? What is the relationship between letter grades, student learning, and assessment?" That's a lot to ask in a six-week course, but it comes from this desire many of us have to consider authentic and alternative assessments, peer assessment, self-assessment and badges.
Some badges set an expiration date, meaning the badge bearer will need to return for more training or provide updated evidence to keep the badge. That's an idea from the world of professional development, licensing and credentials. If you earned a computer programming or phlebotomy badge in 2001, should it still be valid today? Perhaps not.
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