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?