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Badges: No, not Outside of Academia, Inside ePortfolios

Posted By Walden Teagan, Sunday, March 18, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

March 18th, 2012

Beyond the Course: ePortfolios’ Value for Credentialing

All talk of badges now assumes they are ways for people to not go to college and still get a job and advance their careers. No where does anyone I know of talk about badges within a formal learning environment through assimilation within an eportfolio.

ePortfolios support an alternate teaching-learning paradigm. This much we know. This paradigm applies not only to the course, but to a course of study in a major, to the whole college career and beyond. Understanding the value of an eportfolio in a course requires one lens, but to understand the eportfolio at the enterprise level requires a different lens.

Once the course is over, if all that students take away from an eportfolio-based learning experience is a grade as validation of their work, the values of eportfolio can seem transient – valuable during the course but not beyond. Grades as a sole measure no longer convey the information about a person that we once thought they did.

We in the eportfolio world say that having the evidence behind a grade makes a big difference, but if the world ignores the evidence, the eportfolio work can seem meaningless in terms of advancing in the world.

Assessment and credentialing methods and values, in the end, largely determine how students learn. What determines the grade also determines the pedagogy. How do we build hooks or entry points to the eportfolio evidence beyond the presentational Web page?

The Move Toward Badges

And, now entering the assessment and credentialing arena is the badge. Badges are the latest head-nodding hot concept: say the word "badges” at a conference this month, next month, and possibly the month after, and people will nod. Sure, we know what badges are and even have a good feeling about badges because the term is associated with the scouts or clubs or games – activities we choose to participate in, often as young people.

What are badges and how can badges serve in higher education and how, in particular, do they fit within an eportfolio-based learning design?

Badges have always been physical badges, something you sew onto a uniform perhaps, validated by a paper certificate, or a military ribbon, or a badge you receive through gaming or in the world of programming. Importantly, badges result from demonstrating ability for a specific skill or a skill level, and, often are granted by peers. See also "micro-credentialing:”

Recently, The Mozilla Foundation, HASTAC ("haystack”;see for the latest HASTAC discussion on badges), and the McArthur Foundation joined in an effort to create a national digital badge infrastructure to serve as an independent credentialing mechanism for learning. See also a blog by David Wiley of BYU: -- posted in late 2011, not 1996.

This is scary stuff for administrators in the academy: higher education institutions no longer own the knowledge of our culture. With loss of the millennial monopoly on knowledge, higher education institutions are vulnerable to schemas for alternate credentialing. If badges gain as much credence as a diploma for getting a job, or even more credence, since a badge is more directly related to a specific skill, higher education is in trouble.

But, notice a very important stipulation that all discussion of badges involves: badges are outside of academia. I think this is the worst way to think of badges. Badges work best and can be implemented now with eportfolios, and they will add value to eportfolios.

How Badges Can Work Inside Academia

The system in higher education now: no matter the achievement, only a letter grade results. Letter grades are the least informative assessment possible. Letter grades say nothing of the specific ability or skill or skill level they symbolize. A student can get an "A” for writing a short narrative paper in an introductory course or for senior-level field work spread over many weeks. It is an undifferentiated, non-specific, teacher-generated abstraction. To compensate for what has been lost by the nihilistic grading system, instructors then have to write letters of recommendation in a mostly futile attempt – often years later – to create meaning for the grade she or he recorded for that student.

Badges have caught people’s attention because they address the vague abstractness of grading: they relate to a specific skill and are generated by peers. At the very least, badges would add concreteness to abstract grades. Within an academic setting, badges could then be validated by the course instructor.

Badges, then, perform a similar function as electronic portfolios: they add evidence for assessment, another data point to fill out the picture of learners’ achievement.

Badges outside of academia will face the challenge of getting validated by recognizable experts. Academia may have lost its millennial monopoly on knowledge but it has not lost its experts. Badges, then, may not challenge academic credentialing directly as an outside alternative, despite the efforts of The McArthur Foundation, HASTAC and Mozilla. But, within academia, they may challenge the teacher-centered abstract process of academic credentialing.

Is the Badge Movement Good for the ePortfolio Community?

Badges also challenge the eportfolio community. Will badges supersede the need for eportfolios?

AAEEBL and the eportfolio community advocate evidence-based learning but employers say they don’t have time to read the evidence. Perhaps our community has yet to make the process of using evidence clear. Interestingly, the concept of badges may help to do so.

Imagine an online or PDF resume that includes links to pertinent eportfolio evidence but also refers to peer-generated badges for "Collaborative Project Skills,” "Editing Biology Lab Reports to Publishable Quality,” "CSS Web design Within Collaborative Projects,” or "Distributable Peer Review Expression for Complex Projects” and other micro-skills. Badges are perhaps the necessary palpable and intuitive bridge needed for eportfolio advocates and practitioners to carry the day.

Our community faces the challenge of comprehensibility: eportfolios serve so many purposes it’s not clear they serve any purpose. The badge, on the contrary, is intuitive. Not only that, badges may be the actual missing link in the eportfolio cosmos. They are a marker of a particular slice of the evidence/data in the eportfolio. They are a shorthand way of summarizing a "report” from eportfolio data.

We need to consider how we can incorporate badges into eportfolios. I do know that some or all eportfolio providers are considering badges and how they can be technically incorporated.

But, a danger faces badges: if they are granted by teachers, and lose their peer-review aspect, they lose most of their power and usefulness. If they become a badge for passing a course, then they become just an alternative grade.

Instead, through incorporating badges, academia has the opportunity to extend the concept of peer-review to undergraduate and graduate students. Faculty engage in peer-review throughout their career, on tenure committees, on editorial boards of scholarly journals, on scholarly conference program committees, as reviewers of new scholarly books or articles, and so on. Peer-review is familiar ground as it reigns supreme among faculty.

And, now, badges provide an avenue to open peer-review to students. Using badges as a mechanism for peer-review at the undergraduate level would be in step with other efforts to involve undergraduate students in research -- not made-up, "as if” research, but research into openly-contested problems in a field.

Authentic Learning

We have the means to design undergraduate learning along more authentic lines. At major research universities, faculty are creating digitally-enabled ways to engage undergraduates in advanced research through visualization and simulation – understanding the principles of physics, for example, in more concrete, manipulable ways despite the fact they may not be able to use the advanced formulas of physics.

The same impulse is leading many academics to involve undergraduates in the processes of developing knowledge. Peer review is at the center of developing knowledge and badges are a way for undergraduates to be recognized for achievement in knowledge development. Being published or making a presentation at a conference may be beyond the abilities of undergraduates, but receiving a peer-generated badge is not.

The McArthur Foundation – HASTAC – Mozilla Foundation initiative is just underway. I think we as the eportfolio community have a stake in this initiative. Let’s have conversations regarding badges and discover how the eportfolio community can incorporate badges.

For more reading about badges, go to an article that Randall Rode at Yale University pointed me to at digital pedagog:


The AAEEBL Annual Conference registration is now open. Boston July 16-19.

Also: AAEEBL Northeast US Regional Conference in Providence is this coming Friday, March 23, at Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus.

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