Digital badging is a phenomenon taking education by storm. For those unfamiliar with the practice, digital badging is a system by which students earn meritorious badges (akin to Boy and Girl Scouts) for mastering various educational and professional skills, including critical thinking, invention, and collaboration, among others.
Celebrating soft skills that are otherwise obscured by transcripts and resumes, digital badging appears to be a win-win. Students become motivated by a tangible credentialing process, and employers and admissions offices are better equipped to accurately evaluate applicants. In fact, the benefits are even more widespread; the burgeoning practice has already spawned numerous companies, such as Credly and Mozilla Open Badges, which house digital badge platforms and provide technical support to educational institutions.
Educational heavyweights such as former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have backed the practice. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Digital badging has the potential to revolutionize education.”
How has digital badging (which has only been around since 2011) gained so much traction in such a short time? In short, it’s an answer to a primary, well-documented challenge affecting educators of both K-12 and university students: demonstrating the relevance of coursework to students by connecting it to their goals and values. If a student can clearly identify and connect the relevance of what he/she is learning to what he/she is trying to accomplish, this exponentially increases engagement, thereby increasing academic performance. On the other hand, feeling a disconnect between one’s goals and classroom content leads to a lack of engagement and often derails a student academically. A lack of student engagement is arguably the most significant obstacle to successful education in the U.S. today – and it is where digital badging demonstrates its potential.
Consider the following example of a high school student named Cedric. Cedric is an aspiring professional dancer who feels bored and disengaged in his pre-calculus math class. Math does not come easy to Cedric, and when feelings of frustration set in, they invite questions like, What is the point of this? Why even try? Many educators may attempt to convince Cedric of the importance of learning for learning’s sake. Others will appeal to the importance of respecting authority and following the rules, and still others will warn him about the consequences of failing for his future career and/or college search. But, these reasons often fail to convince students like Cedric. Many disengaged students don’t appreciate the importance of learning in and of itself. Teenagers often like to rebel, and they rightly question how the failure of one class will truly impact their futures. Not to mention, long-term planning and delayed gratification remains a challenge for many adolescents.
Digital badges offer an entirely different kind of response. Cedric should persevere in his math class not because others are demanding it of him, nor because it is his only ticket to a college education, but because earning a soft-skill digital badge (e.g. perseverance, problem-solving, etc.) will serve his interests immediately and for the remainder of his life, whatever they may be. These badges, and the evidence that supports them, will be documented and displayed in his digital badge portfolio that will follow him for his entire professional career; they will be accessible by all college admissions, scholarship committees, internship organizations and employers. Whether he is applying to a college, dance studio internship, or part-time job to subsidize his dream, Cedric’s ability to persevere through challenges and solve problems will be documented and readily accessible by decision-makers empowered to give him the opportunities he desires.
Indeed, the fact that this digital badge is permanent, accessible, and desired by decision-makers cannot be understated. Educators often encourage students to develop soft skills to prepare them for the workforce, but their pleas predictably fall on deaf ears given how short-sighted, impatient, and skeptical adolescents can be. However, if students are able to see exactly how these particular skills are tracked and documented, and furthermore, if they can hear testimonials from companies and universities about how they award coveted positions based on said badges, the impact on student motivation should be significant.
Some say badging cheapens the learning process and leads to a “gamification” of education focusing too narrowly on student self-interest. Yet, to ignore the potential value of digital badging would ultimately be a disservice both for students and the educators invested in helping students help themselves.
by Austin Escher