Our team (LEAD and Project Wet) just competed as Finalists in the DML Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition which was sponsored by Mozilla Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC. And while we ended up unfunded winners this time, we greatly enjoyed the opportunity to create a badging project together that we intend to pursue.

But what is badging? And what gives it potential for enhancing learning in the future?

As a part of the Open Badges Project, an open source infrastructure is being created on the web that will serve as the ecosystem for a wide range of electronic badges that many organisations can issue and display.

Now how much jargon did I just use to try to describe this? Let me try again…

Imagine that you take a course, online or in person, that gives you some skills in systems thinking. At the end of it you have the choice of a certificate in paper, or an electronic badge. You choose the badge. What do you get?

The organisation that ran the course is the “Badge Issuer“, and they have a set of criteria that you have to meet to get the badge. These might be that you 1) showed up, 2) engaged actively in the conversations, and 3) passed a little assessment test or did a project that showed that you understood and could use the new tools and skills (or maybe just that you showed up).

So now you qualify for a badge. The Badge Issuer sends through a message to the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) run by Mozilla, and a badge comes back directly to you (the learner) in a “Badge Backpack” which is a personal online space where you can collect your badges. At this point you might only have 1 badge for this systems thinking course in your backpack. But the backpack is there now, and you can take other courses and get other badges that will start to fill up your online backpack.

Now what can you do with your badge? There will be a number of “Badge Displayers” who will let you post your badge on their site. These are sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, your website, WordPress, and job and recruitment sites. As the learner you have complete control over where you post your badges. They don’t show up automatically anywhere, and you can manage them, delete them, or put some here and there.

So what does the badge do? Some badges that you might already be getting on FourSquare or other sites are mainly icons, or pictures of your achievements (like being the first of your Friends to go 4 times in a row to the same coffee shop). The OBI badges would have more data in them, so that when you clicked on the badge you (and anyone who sees them displayed) would find out more about what you had to do to get the badge, who issued the badge, and potentially what your “score” was on the assessment.

This all a part of the “Metadata” that is “baked” into the badge. Metadata means that when you click on the badge you would get a small screen that would give you and anyone who views it this information – it is effectively a gateway to evidence about your learning. There would be a “Criteria URL”  which would give people the criteria that you had to achieve to get awarded that badge. It might be that you just needed to show up (but maybe you flew 10 hours to get there, so that was a real achievement), or that you had to pass a test by 75% to get the badge. All of these things would be the same for anyone who had that badge.

The second URL that would be baked into the badge could be an “Evidence URL” which would be different for each person who got the badge. This would be the evidence that you produced during your learning process – such as the title of your systems thinking project, or your individual grade (you only needed 75% but you got 95%).

All of this would be embedded, or baked, into the icon of the badge. It would also remind you of what you did to get it.  All of this would be a part of the badge that would come flying into your badge backpack. The badge issuer would have built the criteria into the badge before you came into the systems thinking course, and then added your evidence once you were done. Voila you have a badge!

Why badges?

We are learning all the time. We learn on the job, we take additional courses, we learn through mentoring and coaching. There are so many valuable ways that we augment our capacities, many of which go completely undetected by our peers, teachers and employers (current and future). Children learn important life lessons through extra curricular activities, but these do not show up on their grade cards. College students learn about collaboration, project management and negotiation through their courses, but these do not show up on their transcripts (although they might be the most important qualities for a new employer). As adults, we might include on our CVs that we are good managers, or have good people skills, or are are excellent communicators, but potential employers have no effective way to check this and we have often have no opportunity to prove this to them – no real evidence to show.

And these skills, through our badges, can travel with us whereever we go – our personal Backpack will stay with us. And while we might have started it during our school years, we can keep and add to our badges throughout life as an electronic portfolio of achievements that we can keep to ourselves or share.

In the future, employers might seek certain badges for specific positions. A certain mix of badges might qualify you for an internship. You might want to change your career path without going back to university; and launching a concerted effort to work on and achieve a number of badges in relevant competency areas might be what it takes to prove that you are qualified to make that shift.

Badging inspires some heated debate – detractors talk about the comodification of learning, and about the impact of moving from intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for learning. Proponents point to the empowerment factors – that badging allows for self-regulation and more democratic learning and it provides a cost-effective way for people to get an education. All interesting indeed.

This is an experiment, and from the sounds and efforts that the Open Badges community is making around it, one that will get a good run while people tinker around with the concept, build the ecosystem, and start issuing their badges. By this time next year, you might have your first one…