A Future Full of Badges

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 08, 2012

In the grand University of California system, the Berkeley and UCLA campuses have long claimed an outsized share of the public imagination. It's easy to forget that the state system has more than two great institutions of higher education. In the heart of the Central Valley, UC-Davis has grown in a hundred years from being the "university farm" to becoming one of the world's most important research universities. Now it's part of a process that may fundamentally redefine the credentials that validate higher learning.

Throughout the 20th century, scientists at UC-Davis, a land-grant institution, helped significantly increase crop yields while leading research on plant genetics, water conservation, and pest control. When the present century began, Davis leaders knew the times called for not just production but conservation and renewal. So they created a new, interdisciplinary major in sustainable agriculture and food systems. Many different departments were involved in crafting curricula that range across life sciences, economics, and humanities, along with experiential learning in the field.

The university also conducted a detailed survey of practitioners, scholars, and students to identify the knowledge, skills, and experiences that undergraduates most needed to learn. The survey produced answers like "systems thinking," "strategic management," and "interpersonal communication." They sound like buzzwords—and they can be­—but if taken seriously are nothing of the kind. Simultaneously understanding the intricacies of hydrology and plant DNA, the economics of federal agricultural subsidization, and the politics of community development is a high order of systems thinking. The first students enrolled in the program this past fall.

Meanwhile, across the mountains, in Silicon Valley, the Mozilla Foundation was also thinking about the future. Mozilla, a nonprofit organization built around the ethos of the open Internet, created the popular Firefox Web browser, which anyone can download, free. Along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla is sponsoring a competition for the development of digital "open badges." The first winners were announced last month, and one of them was the UC-Davis sustainable-agriculture program.

What is a digital badge, exactly? The MacArthur foundation says it's "a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest," which calls to mind the colorful pieces of cloth that Girl Scouts sew onto their sashes. But that's a simplification that borders on meaninglessness. The winning Davis entry describes something far more sophisticated and important.

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program's core competencies—"systems thinking," for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

Say you're an employer considering a job candidate. Under "systems thinking," the applicant's badge portfolio would include some of the UC-Davis courses he's passed, along with grades. But it would also include evidence of the applicant's specific skills, like "integrated pest management," which he might have learned working on a farm. Other badges would describe workshops attended, awards won, and specific projects completed. Each badge would allow the employer to click through to more detailed levels of evidence and explanation—documents, assessment results, hyperlinks, video, and more.

The badge system, moreover, isn't just a transcript, CV, and work portfolio rolled together into a cool digital package. It's also a way to structure the process of education itself. Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won't just earn badges—they'll build them, in an act of continuous learning.

Why does this matter? To start, consider that the sustainable-agriculture badge framework was designed with great care and purpose, based on what experts, employers, professors, and students believe is most important for the world we live in today. Can most existing department-based academic majors say the same? Many appear to be based on the "some combination of vague distribution requirements and whatever the faculty want to teach this year" system.

The majority of the badge competition winners, moreover, don't come from traditional colleges or universities. They include Disney-Pixar, NASA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Peer 2 Peer University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The badges movement is based on the idea that people should be able to gather useful, verifiable evidence of everything they learn, not just everything they learn while attending an accredited postsecondary institution.

Finally, the badges movement is open. The top-flight educators at UC-Davis may develop the first widely used badge system for sustainable agriculture, but they won't, in the long run, control it. Over time, farmers, students, civic groups, companies, professional organizations, and individual scholars will all contribute to a continuing process of helping people organize critical information about their lives.

Compared with the new open badge systems, the standard college transcript looks like a sad and archaic thing. Its considerable value is not based on the information it provides, which is paltry. What does a letter grade in a course often described only by the combination of a generic department label and an arbitrary number (e.g. Econ 302) really mean? Nobody knows, which is why accredited colleges often don't trust that information for the purposes of credit transfer, even when it comes from other accredited colleges.

Instead, the value of the traditional degree comes mostly from the presumed general authority of the granting institution—and the fact that traditional colleges have a legally enforced near-monopoly over the production of credentials that are widely accepted for the purposes of getting a job or pursuing advanced education.

Open systems tend to blow such lucrative arrangements apart. The doomed effort of for-profit academic publishers to maintain their grip on prestigious scholarly journals is one example. The imminent demise of the physical textbook market is another. Open badges won't be controlled by incumbent institutions with a vested financial interest in limiting the supply of valuable credentials.

Many of the first badge systems will fail, of course. They won't be designed well enough or properly connected to communities of interest. But some will take root and thrive. More users will beget more users. Employers will gain facility in the use of badges and confidence in those who bear them.

When that happens, it will create hardship for traditional institutions that now use the revenue generated from their undergraduate-credential franchise to subsidize the cost of graduate education, administration, scholarship, and other activities. But society as a whole will benefit enormously. The store of human capital will be more broadly and accurately represented by credentials that are useful in a mobile, interconnected world. Separating the credentialing and teaching functions of higher education allows organizations to specialize in one or the other.

Open systems make the world more egalitarian and less expensive. Higher education is in serious need of both.

It's not surprising that a land-grant university would be among those at the forefront of this movement. Such institutions have traditionally maintained an admirable balance between serious research and a broad commitment to distributing useful knowledge beyond the campus walls. The open-credentials movement will allow some colleges and universities to extend their reach to unimagined lengths.

Kevin Carey is policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.