Better education through badges?

If you were surfing the web in mid-2004, you were almost certainly using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to do it. Despite frequent concerns over its security, stability, and speed, this single tool for viewing content online was then used by more than 95 percent of Americans using the internet.

Shortly thereafter, and with the help of a crowd-funded, full-page ad in the New York Times, a small non-profit named Mozilla quickly began to erode Microsoft's market share with its new, open-source Firefox browser. Today, even though Internet Explorer remains the default software on the still-ubiquitous Windows operating system for personal computers, only about one in four web users browse with it, while many millions now use Firefox along with Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

Today, Mozilla is undertaking a new challenge that, along with other recent technology-driven trends, has the potential to radically transform how Americans get educated and find work. The project is called Open Badges, and it might someday replace the résumé, the job search, and even education as we know it.

Classrooms are but one of many settings in which learning occurs, but demonstrating the sum total of what you know and what you can do on a college or job application often means turning over a transcript with little more than course titles and letter grades. Open Badges is a platform that allows anyone earn credentials by completing coursework or learning new skills in formal to quite informal settings. Badges are typically competency-based and tell potential employers exactly what types of skills or knowledge a person has acquired while allowing students to collect their certifications earned from a variety of educational providers.

A high school student could earn a badge for getting closer to proficiency in a foreign language, another for developing software in a computer-programming language, and a third in a traditional class where the teacher utilizes Moodle course-management software. Outside of class, the same child could earn a badge for learning about robotics with 4-H or meeting physical-fitness goals at the YMCA. Existing education platforms like Kahn Academy already utilize their own internal system of badges that might someday be compatible with Mozilla’s platform.

For every household name that issues Open Badges—even Microsoft is offering them to teachers for integrating technology into the classroom—there will likely be numerous lesser-known organizations getting in on the game. These issuers will have the power to convert existing credentials into this new flexible format or develop new ones with the hope that the public will find them valuable.

Some may see a downside to the fact that a badge will not come with a guarantee of quality since anyone can create one. For now, badges are tied to the reputation of the issuer, but it is certainly conceivable that students could eventually rate the badges or respected third-party organizations could add value through some form of accreditation. Ultimately, Mozilla’s platform could one day create a more dynamic market for valued skills and knowledge that makes it easier to connect those seeking talent with those who possess it.

The implications for our traditional education system are potentially huge. Just as consumers benefited when the music industry moved from a sales model based on whole albums to one based on individual songs, so too will students be better off when they can create their own education playlists. Napster was certainly revolutionary, but it took iTunes and the iPod to move mp3 technology to the mainstream. We may soon see similar trends in education and the workforce.

Members of a younger generation are already accustomed to sharing just about everything online, so why not the valuable skills they have earned? But in a still-lagging economy where new skills can set job applicants apart, the more than thirty-six million American adults with some college but no degree may find real value, too. This new platform could help students, especially adult learners, make themselves more marketable.

Certifications need not only be for hard skills mastered by completing assessments; they could also encompass valued attributes like writing, public speaking, timeliness, teamwork, or leadership. Just as increased freedom for music listeners has created a greater diversity of accessible options, this market-based approach will allow badge issuers and earners to find innovative ways to demonstrate well roundedness.

Early indications are quite positive for Open Badges, which now has strong backing from the MacArthur Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. The success of this endeavor will depend on the extent to which established and new players develop marketable, in-demand certifications that are widely earned. Still, with technological and economic changes promising more big shifts in education and the workforce, Open Badges seems to be coming along at just the right time.

Michael Brickman
Michael Brickman is a National Policy Director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute