Digital badges: the future of education?

With the rapid expansion of educational content on the internet, it has become easy for any interested person to gain access to some of the world’s best programmes of study. So for example iTunes U brings you free courses from the world’s leading universities, and elsewhere learned journals are publishing free access scholarly articles online. Knowledge is being democratised and opened up in a way that would have been unthinkable until very recently. The only thing still protecting ‘traditional’ universities is their monopoly of degree awarding powers. But is all this about to change?

Meet the ‘digital badge‘. This is essentially an electronic method of gaining recognition for activities undertaken, and skills or knowledge acquired. The intention of those promoting the concept is that digital badges will become recognised currency as a qualification. So will this be the ultimate modularisation, with people assembling their own programme of achievement and qualification? I suspect it is unlikely that digital badges will replace university degree qualifications for those who need the latter, but the informality and flexibility of the concept may potentially have an influence on how degree programmes are structured.

Universities are essentially the guardians of formal knowledge and structured inquiry. They will not lose their place in the field of education, but education itself will continue to change. Not all universities may find this transformation equally easy.

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3 Comments on “Digital badges: the future of education?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Professor Cathy Davidson, co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities Arts, Science & Technology Collaboratory) wrote an interesting blog post last month entitled ‘Why Badges, Why not?’ (, HASTAC endorses the MacArthur Foundation competition mentioned in the article linked to today’s post, however in her piece digital badges are not presented as *alternatives* to College degrees – this is exactly the case in the linked article – in fact she is also keen to show them as not representative of a process of “gamification” of education ‘Badges, Davidson argues, ‘may be used in games but games have very little to do with alternative forms of peer contribution and credentialing in most institutions. That’s important. This grand experiment is designed to not just explore but also to model new, interactive, participatory forms of credentialing for the 21st century.’
    The distinction is crucial, albeit I personally think that the potential for confusion is still to conspicuous to be dismissed. Later on in her post Davidson asks: ‘Are badges the answer? We don’t know.
    Certainly, we all know, they are not the only answer—they are just a small beginning, to encourage many new, vital conversations everywhere about what might work.’ I could not agree more with that!

  2. Self-managed learning is already strongly present in professional self-development, especially in universities where there are modules for this and that to be completed in your own time, that generate a record of successful completion.

    The more interesting element is that this is now becoming common in online resources for primary schools, so the upcoming generation of true digital natives who are only 7-10 years away from university enrolment will be very familiar with the model. They’re already used to printing out a small celebratory certificate when they finish an assigned number of learning tasks.

    The opportunity to replace high cost and time-extensive degree pathways with modular, free or pay-as-you-go engagement with open content and community-facing ideas is likely to be critical for the Humanities first, for obvious reasons. It will also become important in cultures where formal degree qualification in the non-vocational disciplines doesn’t necessarily produce a return on the student’s considerable investment. So part of this question is about the stability of broad public respect for degree qualification, as opposed to the learner’s individual interest in the content of a degree.

  3. […] class of 2005.  Against the background of our humming anxiety about whether students are going to stop paying for their education and hang out auditing our open content for free, his story of learning calligraphy as a freelancing, freeloading, highly engaged college drop-out […]

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