Badges and the Gravitational Pull of Teacher Control
Information technology is the ultimate control technology; it is also the ultimate distribution-of-control technology. It is both centralizing and democratizing. Higher education, then, lives on the horns of this particular dilemma: should we expedite “delivery” or should we hand power to learners? Should higher education organize around delivery of content or distribution of control? (We can do both, of course).
Technology compounds the significance of this choice for higher education. It pushes out the limits of the continuum between delivery of content (for example, MOOCs) and distribution of control (for example, self-paced, evidence-based learning).
There is money in delivery of content; distribution of control is a harder sell. To the extent LMS’s are used in support of delivery of content, they are an easy sell; to the extent that eportfolios support distribution of control, they are a hard sell.
That centralizing (delivery of content) is more attractive and profitable is the challenge the AAEEBL community faces: the best learning occurs when students have the most control of their own learning. But institutions run most efficiently and profitably through centralizing.
Now, if all students, or even most students, wanted control of their learning, the challenge would be easy to meet. In truth, having control of your own learning is hard work and is scary. Some students thrive when they control their own learning but most prefer to be guided, scaffolded and taught. Therefore, the AAEEBL community and others seeking good learning opportunities run against not only inevitable vectors of profit and efficiency but of human nature as well.
And so it is with badges. I was at a session on badging in Ann Arbor recently. I hasten to interject that AAEEBL has been working on badging within AAEEBL for two years, is part of an international funded project on badging led by Deakin University in Melbourne, and sees badges as a natural complement to portfolios. Still, as encouraging as it was to see several institutions talking about badging programs already in full swing, I was concerned about what seemed like a given regarding badges.
Here’s why I was concerned: badges were a hot topic just before the MOOC tsunami of 2013. But, in that quiet badge year, badges and their proponents did not fade away but instead made progress. That’s good because even though MOOCs may seem historically more significant, in actuality, they probably won’t be seen as more than a hiccup in the development of online learning over time. In contrast, badges and the move to micro-credentialing could challenge how grading is done, how credit is awarded (even influencing the disappearance of grades), and could challenge the whole idea that students have to actually have a diploma for any of their work to count. Randy Bass said recently that eportfolios won’t challenge the business model of higher education institutions; but portfolios with badges could well do so. So, badges are potentially a very powerful new element. But only if they are used in particular ways. And, during the session in Ann Arbor, I was not certain those particular ways were faring well.
Badges have a number of potential values that are important to education right now.
- As context for a course grade. Digital badges display on a screen and can be clicked to reveal metadata about the granting of the badge: who issued the badge and based on what criteria? There’s more data, but these two metadata categories are very important. A course grade is usually given by an instructor who has reasons for granting a particular grade. Those reasons are lost in the highly abstracted single letter grade. But, in a badge, we see the reasons for one part of the final course grade.
- As a micro-credential. If, during several courses, during co-curricular activity, and even in non-curricular learning experiences, a student/learner builds up badge evidence of an important skill that is job-related, the badges themselves may convince an HR officer to hire that student before she or he receives a diploma. Badges have been talked about as an alternative to formal education. That could be a future possibility but I think the hybrid badge, formal courses with institutionally certified badges combined with life experience badges, will be the first step.
- As a valuable kind of evidence in a portfolio. Badges in portfolios make sense. Badges make good evidence: they are granted in recognition of ability in a certain discrete skill that might be part of a college course, part of a unit in a college course, or one element in a particular assignment during that unit.
- As a peer-granted recognition. Instructors generally can’t be present in student team meetings, especially if they are held out of class. Students that work on a problem in a group over several weeks get to know their peers quite well. If the assignment to work on a problem is structured to distinguish between roles in the team, then each student team member will most likely have a deliverable. That assignment structure allows each team member to show their capabilities and allows the team to decide whether to grant a badge or not.
Within AAEEBL, the CEO, Judy Williamson Batson, leads AAEEBL’s badge efforts. We granted some badges last year at the Annual Conference, so we know the system works. We know, in general, that learning designs are strongly influenced by assessment designs: students will pay attention to what “counts” toward their grade. If we want students to be engaged in learning, we need to think of not only learning opportunities but how we assess the results of those opportunities. Badges are one way to increase engagement in the process of learning. This is one reason why AAEEBL has a badge initiative.
I was concerned in Ann Arbor because it seemed the attendees at the badges session assumed badges would be granted by teachers. But if students are working more independently and out of sight of the teacher, doesn’t it make sense to emphasize peer-awarded badges? To pick up on the theme of this blog, badges may be most effective when they reinforce not the control of the teacher but the distribution of control to the learners.
Nevertheless, colleges and universities are adopting badges, some eportfolio vendors are making it possible to include badges in personal portfolios, and one more thread in the slow evolution of the nature and process of learning is getting stronger.