Yesterday I attended a thought-provoking event looking at the future of badges. I must admit I was surprised when the session started as I thought it was a discussion on the future of badgers, following the recently overturned government proposal to cull our badger population. I jest, but having said that, before yesterday's session I knew as much about badges as I did about badgers ... not a whole lot!
I now understand that badges are digital tokens issued by an institution, body, organisation, and perhaps almost anyone and everyone in between to acknowledge achievement and accomplishments. Having learned this, and a lot more besides, what do I think about badges and their value?
I can absolutely see the value of badges in providing the potential to evidence wider learning outside of traditional pedagogies. However, whilst I'm fully on-board with the overarching goal and potential value of badges I have concerns about how they can be implemented and standardised to bring about real benefit.
I think the best way to explain why I think implementation is such a significant issue is by considering a real-life scenario and whilst there are many applications and uses for badges, I'll focus on the hot topic of graduate attributes and graduate employability. As a delegate said at yesterday's event it's unfortunate, but often true, that employers will often only look at the classification of the degree and where it was obtained in short-listing undergraduates. Therefore, one could reasonably state that the "degree badge" is perhaps the only thing that will open the door to graduate employment.
So, where is the real value in badges from a learner perspective? One could argue that if our culture remains one which places more emphasis on institution reputation and degree classification than on wider skills and experience then there is no inherent value in institutions issuing supplementary badges, at least for the undergraduate - since why would an employer invest time in understanding the credibility of a badge? And, yes, whilst there is meta-data behind the badges will this in reality provide anything meaningful for an employer - will an employer have the inclination to look at the data behind a badge if we reach the point of "badge saturation"? If each institution were to offer core badges for key graduate attributes - citizenship, leadership, communication, entrepreneurship and so on, and then each institution offered a badge which was largely based on these core graduate attributes, but each institution gave their badge a different acronym, with different meta-data, with this meta-data varying in clarity and criteria, and with variations in the valid elements of evidence to support the issuing of a badge; already, at an institution level, it becomes a challenge to implement, manage, and more crucially from an external perspective, a real challenge to critically assess the value of a badge.
Does this mean that what I'm really saying is this:
The only way for badges to succeed is through a standardised cross-institutional approach instantly recognised by employers and alike
Institutions have to offer the same "badges of distinction" across the core pillars of graduate attributes?
The criteria that defines what constitutes the highest level badge for say, entrepreneurship, be the same across all institutions?
Does there need to be a framework of quality control around the whole process to add credibility to what I see as the overarching goal of badges - to provide a clear means for others to identify wider skills and accomplishments?
Would a standardised, robust, quality controlled approach allow the evidencing of wider skills to become a real factor in graduate employment, allowing employers to look at graduates that not only have a "good degree" but who also have the highest level badges for innovation and importantly clear evidence to support why that badge was issued, perhaps through an eportfolio?
Would this clear framework not also provide a more meaningful journey for students, a greater tool for motivation and pro-activity, and a more effective dialogue with those in careers services?
I'm sure the above is what I'm saying and I may have actually entirely missed the point. This may well be the case, given that I thought yesterday's event was about badgers!
So, let's look at badges from a different perspective. Is the value in a badge really to start a dialogue between learner and employer or at a more fundamental level - to simply motivate the student. Is a consistent, cross-institutional approach, a paradigm shift too great and almost impossible to implement?
It was mentioned yesterday that perhaps the badge is purely a hook - a hook that starts a dialogue, which links to wider evidence supported by an individual's eportfolio - a hook which provides an easy trigger to start a conversation in an interview.
Badges, may well be all about this "hook", and therefore an open and free approach to badge issuing is valid. Perhaps, just as the dot.com boom resulted an influx of e-companies, some of which had less than favourable credentials, it is without doubt that e-commerce is now an epic success - it's just taken time for a clear online strategy and infrastructure to emerge. I expect that badges might have a similar journey with an in-flux of badges, which may in the short-term provide the "conversation-starter hooks" but saturation and self-accreditation will, for some time, be the barrier for meaningful uptake (across the HE sector at least) and which will see learners still need to revert to a more traditional means of articulating their wider skills.
And on a closing note relating to badgers. Do I think the idea of badges should be culled? Absolutely not. But there is significant work to be done in realising the potential of badges, not from a technological perspective, but in how they can be implemented in a meaningful way, and this issue crosses cultural, political and social boundaries.