The spread of a seemingly playful alternative to traditional diplomas, inspired by Boy Scout achievement patches and video-game power-ups, suggests that the standard certification system no longer works in today's fast-changing job market.
Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of "badges" to certify skills and abilities. If scouting focuses on outdoorsy skills like tying knots, these badges denote areas employers might look for, like mentorship or digital video editing. Many of the new digital badges are easy to attain—intentionally so—to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom.
At the free online-education provider Khan Academy, for instance, students get a "Great Listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of videos from its collection of thousands of short educational clips. With enough of those badges, paired with badges earned for passing standardized tests administered on the site, users can earn the distinction of "Master of Algebra" or other "Challenge Patches."
Traditional colleges and universities are considering badges and other alternative credentials as well. In December the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it will create MITx, a self-service learning system in which students can take online tests and earn certificates after watching free course materials posted by the university.
MIT also has an arrangement with a company called OpenStudy, which runs online study groups, to give online badges to students who give consistently useful answers in discussion forums set up around the free lecture materials the university has long posted as part of its OpenCourseWare project.
But the biggest push for badges is coming from industry and education reformers, rather than from traditional educational institutions. Mozilla, the group that develops the popular Firefox Web browser, is designing a framework to let anyone with a Web page—colleges, companies, or even individuals—issue education badges designed to prevent forgeries and give potential employers details about the distinctions at the click of a mouse. Hundreds of educational institutions, traditional and nontraditional, have flocked to a $2-million grant program run in coordination with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, seeking financial support to experiment with the educational-badge platform.
Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students using Mozilla's proposed badge system might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online résumés detailing what they studied. And students could start showing off the badges as they earn them, rather than waiting four years to earn a diploma.
"We have to question the tyranny of the degree," says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Mr. Wiley is an outspoken advocate of so-called open education, and he imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus. "As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely."
The idea is already well established in some computer-programming jobs, with Microsoft and other companies developing certification programs to let employees show they have mastered certain computer systems.
Some observers see a darker side, though, charging that badges turn all learning into a commodity, and thus cheapen the difficult challenge of mastering something new. Rather than dive into an assignment out of curiosity, many students might focus on an endless pursuit of badges, argues Alex Reid, an associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo. "The presence of a badge could actually be a detriment to an otherwise genuine learning experience," he wrote on his blog earlier this year.
But in an interview, he agreed that in today's tough job market, people are searching for alternatives that better reflect the range of their qualifications.
What is the best way to certify higher learning? And who gets to decide?
The Lure of the Badge
When it comes to biology, Catherine Lacey is a Level 40 Hero. That's her ranking on OpenStudy, where the University of Western Australia student spends up to 30 hours per week answering homework questions posed by students around the world. The level indicates time spent on the site, and Hero is the hardest-to-attain badge. If you think of helping with homework as a game, she's got the high score.
The 20-year-old first stumbled upon the OpenStudy site while surfing the Web. She was hooked after an answer she tossed out yielded an online medal signaling that her knowledge had served as a lifeline to a struggling student. "I said, Wow, people think I'm smart," she recalls. As she spent more time on the site, "achievements start popping up," she says. Now her online persona on OpenStudy, TranceNova, has racked up a page of merit badges, including one for helping people with MIT open biology courses.
She receives no pay for all the time she logs on the site. A paycheck would be "an honor" but would make the experience feel like toil, she told me. "I don't see it as a labor, I see it as no different than going out to the movies with friends." Going out with friends is one thing she doesn't do much (calling herself "not that social"), so for Ms. Lacey the site is an important outlet.
So far that Hero badge isn't listed on the student's résumé, but she might add it if she ever applies for a teaching job. "It's a measure of how much time and effort I've put into this and what other people think of me."
That's just what OpenStudy's designers hoped for. One of them, Preetha Ram, argues that "massively multiplayer" online games like World of Warcraft do a better job exciting players about learning complicated controls and fictional missions than professors do motivating students in the classroom. "We've been called a massively multiplayer study group," she says with apparent pride at the comparison. Ms. Ram is no gamer herself, though—she has spent her career in academe, and she is on leave from her job as associate dean for pre-health and science education at Emory University.
She wanted to take her ideas about peer-to-peer learning beyond her own classroom in Atlanta, so she helped start the company, which now has offices in Georgia and in Palo Alto and backing from the National Science Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the venture-capital firm Learn Capital.
Far from replacing university degrees, her goal is to fill a gap by recognizing soft skills that traditional grades and diplomas often miss. Students who help out other students in face-to-face study groups have no way to show the effort they invested there, she contends. "We all know that teaching someone is the best way to deepen your understanding of the concept," she argues. And she says that crafting a clear answer to explain tough material to a peer is a the kind of soft skill that employers say they increasingly value.
Winning recognition for underappreciated educational activities drives many of the college officials who are experimenting with badges.
The University of Southern California's service-learning division, for example, is among the first-round winners of the MacArthur grant to try the new badge platform. Called the Joint Educational Project, the USC program works with professors to run community-service projects that grant students extra credit for volunteer work.
"The service-learning community has struggled with how to identify and recognize the outcomes that students learn, like civic knowledge and diversity," explains Susan Harris, an associate director of the project.
One of its proposed badges would recognize "Mentorship." Ms. Harris hopes such a badge would carry more cachet than simply listing volunteer work on a résumé.
Throwing open educational certification and multiplying the number of skills recognized could lead to résumé overload, though.
A world of badges would also create extra work for both job applicants trying to organize and present their badges and to employers trying to judge their actual worth. All badges could seem more flash than substance, like the "flair" worn by the waitress in the movie Office Space.
One thing badge proponents I talked with seemed surprisingly blasé about was the possibility of falsely claimed skills and certificates.
"Seventy-five percent of most résumés already have at least one very stretched truth," says Sheryl Grant, who helps run the MacArthur grant competition, through her work with Hastac, or the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. "People say, 'You could just make up a badge or give yourself a grade.' Yeah, but if you got caught for that you're taking a chance just like anything else." And technical systems would ensure that students earned the digital badges they claim.
Accreditors say they haven't looked into the issue seriously—at least not yet.
"The idea of badges hasn't risen to our radar as a concept, but I think we can't ignore it," says Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. "The whole idea of learning beyond high school has changed," she adds. "College used to indicate that not only did you have a skill set in a particular area, but that you gained a body of knowledge that made you a well-rounded person. People don't care about being well-rounded anymore, they just want to get a job."
Fundamentally, badges are all about perception, so it's difficult to predict whether the key players—employers and job applicants—will click the like button on the concept.
"The biggest hurdle is the one I had, which is prejudice," says Cathy Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. She says she initially viewed educational badges as frivolous, but is now a leading proponent as a co-founder of Hastac.
"People seem to think they know what school is and they know what work is," she says. "We live in a world where anyone can learn anything, anytime, anywhere, but we haven't remotely reorganized our workplace or school for this age."