We Do, In Fact, Need Some (Non-Stinking) Badges

My latest Chronicle column is about an interesting but little-noticed program run by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education that aims to create hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free online educational resources that will be available under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use, modify, and resell. Of course, such Open Educational Resources (OER) are only half of the equation:

That still leaves the problem of credit. Public libraries were the original OER, yet people can’t demand a diploma just because they’ve learned from a book. But here, too, new developments are under way. The latest and most sophisticated open educational resources have tests embedded within them because assessment is a fundamental element of learning. Feedback-based, assessment-driven “cognitive tutors” developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon are woven into science, engineering, and philosophy courses produced by the university’s Open Learning Initiative. For example, studies have shown that their online statistics course produces equal or better learning results than do traditional lectures. The same Carnegie Mellon experts will be helping the federal-grant recipients design their educational tools. Assessments create evidence. And that’s all a credit is, in the end: credible evidence of learning.

Similarly, videos produced by the free online Khan Academy include matched assessment exercises that students use to earn “badges”—academic credits of a different kind. The Mozilla Open Badges project goes a step further: It is focused on creating a new, open credentialing framework that can accommodate all manner of disciplines and professions, leaving teaching and learning to others.

These disparate elements are beginning to form an entire ecosystem for teaching and crediting human knowledge and skill, one that exists entirely outside the traditional colleges and universities that use their present monopoly on the credentialing franchise to extract increasingly large sums of money from students.

In response, one commenter said:

Dear Mr. Carey,

I sincerely hope you are operated on by a surgeon and cared for by a nurse with a “mozilla open badge” as their source of legitimacy in the field.  When you sue for malpractice I similarly hope your attorney just kind of figured law out on her own. Should be lots of good results.

Is there a worse counter-example than law? Newsflash: the bar exam is an open badge. It’s an independent assessment that, in theory, anyone can take, based on a distinct body of knowledge and skills determined by a professional guild outside of higher education. Some states require you to also go to law school in order to be a lawyer, others don’t. In California, you can apprentice for four years in a law office or judge’s chambers instead. The fact that law schools have managed to get laws passed requiring prospective lawyers to buy their expensive services doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Japan didn’t move to an American-style system of law schools until 10 years ago and they seemed to have been pretty successful in maintaining an orderly, law-abiding society prior to that.

The utility and propriety of systems that revolve around open education resources and open credentials is obviously going to vary a lot depending on the field in question. Journalism, for example, has a wary relationship with higher education in part because journalists don’t need academic credentials to prove their value in the marketplace. Their work is their credential. Michael Lewis’s only interaction with university-based journalism training involved writing a merciless critique of the Columbia J-School in The New Republic, but he still gets paid a gazillion dollars a word because he’s really good at his job. For the same reason, I was willing to spend a fair amount of time earlier this year carefully doing all of the reading and watching all of the lectures for the free online abridged version of Lawrence Weschler’s narrative non-fiction course, even though NYU isn’t going to give me a credential. It’ll show up in the quality of my work, I hope. In other fields it will be more important to have a credentialing process in place. But anyone who thinks that those processes need to be as traditional degree-centric as they are today is kidding themselves.

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