There’s a Badge for That: Exploring the Open Badges Movement in Higher Education

(Left to right) Provost Randy Swearer interviewed “rock stars” of the open badge movement Joanna Normoyle, Kyle Bowen, Emily Goligoski and Kevin Carey at the Transformation Imperative event on Jan. 29.

Anyone familiar with the Boy or Girl Scouts is familiar with merit badges. Learn to shoot a bow and arrow? Get an archery badge. Learn how to treat and prevent minor injuries? Get a first aid badge. It’s a simple concept that demonstrates learning. And, with potentially profound changes in the world of higher education on the horizon, there is a growing movement to use badges to note achievement at colleges and universities.

“A badge is a little bit of an unserious word, but it is a very serious and profound idea,” said Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Carey spoke with three other panelists on campus Jan. 29 at the second Transformation Imperative event, a semester-long series of talks on the future of higher education.

Provost Randy Swearer interviewed Carey along with Emily Goligoski, design and community manager for Mozilla Open Badge System; Joanna Normoyle of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California at Davis; and Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue University. “Our panelists are the rock stars of the badge movement,” Swearer said. “They are at the forefront of what could be a great disruptive change going on in higher education.”

“Badges are not only symbols that contain a lot of information, but they are also portals to even more information,” Carey said. As the head of hiring for his department, Carey said he is frustrated by the old system of shuffling through piles of resumes to find qualified candidates for open positions. “Probably the most meaningful information I get about a candidate’s education is the name of the college they went to,“ he said. “If it is one of a handful of very selective schools, that tells me what this person was like at 17 years old, but not much else.”

Carey said he envisions a system where students and professionals can display their skills and knowledge, no matter where it was learned, in a system that is visually friendly, searchable and relevant. Badges are one solution to the problem.

Each of the other panelists was involved in implementing a badge system. Goligoski’s employer Mozilla will roll out version one of its open source badge system this spring. More than 45,000 badges have already been created and awarded in the beta phase of the project, she said. Both Bowen and Normoyle’s universities have implemented badges in some fashion in their curricula.

“We wanted to develop a flexible learning credential,” Bowen said. “A badge is an assessment that becomes a visual symbol of achievement. It allows students to demonstrate what they know.” Purdue’s Passport system is used by about 90 institutions worldwide to create badges that represent learning both in and out of the classroom. Similarly, Normoyle is working on implementing badges for the upcoming fall semester as part of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems curriculum at UC-Davis. Students would be able to use the badges as part of an e-portfolio to demonstrate what they have learned.

Swearer and the audience challenged the panelists with questions about how badges could be used to supplement or augment traditional university credentialing. “As technologies change and evolve, we have to pay attention to how education is changing,” Swearer said. “Everything from what a degree means to what students are taught is subject to change. As a university that is able to innovate and move very quickly, I think we are in a great position. We have a great opportunity to lead, and so far we have been able to seize it.”

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