Online “Badges”: Do They Threaten Colleges?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article (Jan 8, 2012) wondering whether online “badges” pose a challenge to colleges and universities. Here’s the phenomenon:

The spread of a seemingly playful alternative to traditional diplomas, inspired by Boy Scout achievement patches and video-game power-ups, suggests that the standard certification system no longer works in today’s fast-changing job market. Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of “badges” to certify skills and abilities. At the free online-education provider Khan Academy, for instance, students get a “Great Listener” badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short educational clips. With enough of those badges, paired with badges earned for passing standardized tests administered on the site, users can earn the distinction of “Master of Algebra” or other “Challenge Patches.”

This has the potential to be a serious challenge to the traditional university. The reason is that universities serve two functions in modern society: one function is to help students learn. That’s the one we professors spend most of our time thinking about. The other function is to credential young adults as being prepared for the workplace: what I call the certification function. That’s the one a lot of students (and parents) are mostly thinking about. The certification function is not necessarily linked to the learning function. Yes, in a well-functioning university, the certification attests to master of knowledge learned. But how many of you have heard the cynical phrase “You pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn”?

Employers need information to help them know who they should hire. They could develop tests and systems in their human resources departments, but they don’t need to, because they are getting this information for free–from universities. If it weren’t for universities and their degrees, employers would have to come up with some other way to acquire information about potential hires. They don’t want to design their own evaluation system and manage it from their human resources department; they want to continue getting it for free.

Voila! Enter the badges. Exactly what employers need: A mechanism that serves the certification function, and that doesn’t cost anything. From the perspective of the employer, it’s the same function that universities serve. Of course one can argue about their relative effectiveness at serving that function. At this time in history, I absolutely trust the university degree a lot more than these badges, but things could change quickly. So will universities lose their monopoly over the certification function?

The Chronicle article quotes David Wiley, a professor at Brigham Young University: “We have to question the tyranny of the degree…As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely.” The potential is that a system of badges could completely reframe the relationship between employers and universities. Universities benefit tremendously from their monopoly over the certification function.

Is it really that serious? What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Online “Badges”: Do They Threaten Colleges?

  1. I don’t think these ‘badges’ have the the potential to replace colleges, but they do have the potential to change how they work – and perhaps create new roles for them.

    Badges work on an honor system. They’re designed to give incremental feedback and positive reinforcement (attaboy!) to motivate continued participation and further learning. They work fine as long as that’s their purpose. When they acquire an immediate economic value – as in, become accepted credentials for, say, a job – that’s likely to change. In interesting hint of how that might work is a quote from the article regarding the student who has attained ‘Hero’ status for helping other students with their homework: “A paycheck would be “an honor” but would make the experience feel like toil”. Once earning a badge becomes something done for reward, not just satisfaction, it’s likely to become a new experience. Not just fun anymore.

    The process is also likely to become a target for serious fraud. Organizations that issue badges that are accepted by employers will have to deal with proxy test-takers, plagiarism, unethical institutions that sell fake credentials and the other issues that plague the education system today. It might be easy to say that “technical systems would ensure that students earned the digital badges they claim”. However technical systems to deal with malware, for example, need constant updating to meet emerging threats. That suggests it won’t be that simple – it’s more likely to be an ongoing issue that will require constant maintenance and dedicated technical resources.

    Who has those resources, and experience in dealing with the underlying issues that make them necessary? Colleges. I am strongly in favor of democratizing learning and broadening access to information. However, the ‘certification function’ will probably always require some curation to maintain the integrity of the qualification it issues. I also suspect that, for the most ‘recognized’ certifications – even if they are micro-certifications – this curation process will not be free.

    Then again, I could be wrong. Who knew that you could crowd-source an encyclopedia?

    1. Or, maybe badges work in complementary fashion to schools and universities. My son’s third grade teacher asked him to solve multiplication problems at http://www.arcademics.com, and in thirty minutes last night he printed out seven certificates (badges), that say either first place, second place, third place, or fourth place, depending on how many problems he solved per minute. No question that it motivates him in a similar way to a videogame–quick, instant feedback. Yes, it’s a long way from this to a certification that an employer would find helpful. But to me, it seems a good example of what Clayton Christensen would call the early stages of a disruptive innovation.

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