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The digital badge buzz got started when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called them “a game-changing strategy” that could trigger “a quantum leap forward in education reform.”

Badges? Yes, like the Boy and Girl Scouts — but online. A quantum leap forward? I know. But here’s the argument: In today’s world, learning can and should extend beyond school walls — in after-school programs, volunteering, clubs and online — and badges can make all of it count.

Digital badges
Scouts help one another as they practice tying knots during a meeting for Boy Scout Troop 433 on Tuesday, March 4, 2014, at Mt. Olive United Methodist Church near Marion, Ind. From left are Levi Hofmann, Brad Burchell, Ethan Embry, Ben Weaver and Allen Farmer. Credit: AP Photo/The Chronicle-Tribune, Jeff Morehead

Some skeptics worry that badges introduce another reward-based motivation that could crowd out students’ love of learning. Others simply dismiss them as gimmicky. Badge backers, however, say badges make learning visible in a deep, granular way that traditional proficiency measures like test scores and letter grades can’t — whether it’s a fifth grader completing a library’s summer reading program or an adult learner mastering industrial design software.

Take a hypothetical badge earned by a high school junior during a summer program in computer science, for example. Just a click on the badge would not only explain the criteria for earning it, but also link to code written by the student, comments from peer collaborators or written assessments by instructors. Through social media, badges can connect like-minded learners and introduce new opportunities to dig deeper into a subject or sharpen a skill. Proponents say badges are especially useful for recognizing “soft skills” like critical thinking and persistence that are increasingly valued in the workplace.

Secretary Duncan’s heady predictions helped announce the first big badge push, in 2011, when the MacArthur Foundation created a nationwide contest for the best badge schemes. In 2012, MacArthur awarded around $2 million to 30 winning proposals, including badges for a program to help veterans translate their military training into civilian job skills, for computer science and robotics curricula and for nature conservation. MacArthur also funded researchers to track those projects for the next two years. Their final report will be published later this month.

While the badge universe has grown exponentially — about 300,000 badges have been issued using an open-sourced software developed by Mozilla, one of MacArthur’s partners in the “Badge Alliance” — those first 30 pilot projects are the most thoroughly scrutinized badges around. Their fates will be instructive. As this ambitious, multi-million effort draws to a close, I spoke to researchers who have followed it from day one. Those conversations suggest that badges will need at least two essential ingredients if they are to be more than a gold star sticker for the digital age — rigor and relationships.

“Badges are like a new currency,” says Sheryl Grant, director of badge research for the academic consortium known as HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Technology and Science Alliance and Collaboratory), another Badge Alliance partner, and the one that administered the pilot competition. “Currencies depend on a collective belief that something has value.”

And that value cannot be from mere participation, says Daniel Hickey, an education professor at Indiana University who tracked the badge pilots. For badges to be meaningful, they need to make specific claims about the learning they represent and link to evidence that backs them up. Some pilot programs, he says, took a year or more just to figure out what they wanted their badges to say.[pullquote author=”Sheryl Grant, director of badge research for HASTAC” description=”” style=”new-pullquote”]“Badges are like a new currency. Currencies depend on a collective belief that something has value.”[/pullquote]

“They had never thought, specifically, about what learning they provided,” Hickey says.

What’s more, Hickey adds, badges should go beyond what’s already covered by grades, tests, blue ribbons or other marks of distinction. For example, finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, a rigorous and prestigious high-school science competition, win thousands of dollars and a week in Washington, D.C., where they meet dignitaries and present their research to top scientists. In 2012, when the competition gave finalists digital badges as well, few bothered to claim them.

So the competition added badges for research papers judged to be college-level, and “initiative” badges, for students who had overcome hurdles such as a lack of advanced science courses or lab space in their schools. In 2014, 39 percent of the finalists claimed their badges, but the claim rates for research and initiative badges were 51 and 59 percent, respectively.

Ideally, of course, a badge won’t mean something just to the earner. It will also impress college admissions officials or potential employers. By that measure, badges have a long way to go. None of the college accreditation agencies yet recognize badges as course credit. While several universities award digital badges in select courses, most are still “considering” whether to work them into the admissions process. Most online human resources platforms can’t process them. People do post badges to their LinkedIn profiles, but it’s not common enough to track, says a spokesperson for the company — whose business depends on tracking everything subscribers do.

That brings us to the second key ingredient for badge value: relationships. Simply put, most badges will only be valued by organizations that already know and trust the issuer or that had a hand in developing them. The rigor behind a badge rarely speaks for itself.

Just ask Hillary Salmons, executive director of the Providence After-School Alliance (PASA), which offers workshops in subjects ranging from debate to dance to designing smartphone apps. When PASA started digital badges, students could find no use for them, so PASA dropped them after two years. Now PASA is planning to re-launch badges this spring.

This time, Salmons says, PASA is reaching out to local business and universities to find out how badges can be useful to them. “We’re asking them, do these skills we plan to measure seem right to you. Do you value them?”

The pilot project for Student Reporting Labs, a video journalism curriculum developed by PBS Newshour, ran into the same “what now?” problems as PASA did. In response, the developers whittled down sixteen badges to six, job-focused certifications, such as “video editor” and “social media producer.” This year, Newshour producers will review the work students submit for each badge. If they approve it, an email will go to the PBS station nearest the school saying that the Newshour rates this student job-ready, and a good candidate for future job and internship opportunities.

As the Badge Alliance closes the book on these first pilot programs, they have ramped up their efforts elsewhere. In 2013, they announced the “Two Million Better Futures” initiative to scale up digital-badge programs; last summer, they pledged “Ten Million Better Futures” by 2016. They’ve also helped launch six “cities of learning,” networks of formal and informal education providers developing badge-based programs in Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Columbus, O., and Washington, D.C.

While technophiles spin near-future scenarios where digital badges have pushed resumes to extinction and traditional college diplomas into obsolescence, Grant says the more likely and appropriate goal is to blend badges into those traditional systems of certification.

“We’re going to take this learning, and we’re going to try to get these systems to work in the same currency, without making everybody transform and reform everything they do,” she says. “We already have dollars. We’re talking now about adding nickels and quarters.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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