A Global Take on the ‘Badge’ Debate

The only e-mail I ever remember getting from someone in Rwanda was in praise of MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, which makes the teaching materials used in MIT courses available free. The Rwandan, a vice chancellor, was excited about having access, in some form, to MIT’s offerings. I was reminded of that message when a colleague’s article, “‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas,” seemed to catch on fire in its comments field. A second reminder came in the form of a commentary about how MIT is taking its online offerings a step further, with certification: “MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency.”

Within the United States, debate about whether certifications in individual competencies may someday replace degrees is often centered on the fear that such “badges” will make learning a splintered commodity, rather than a holistic experience that graduates critical thinkers who can make a broad contribution to society. But from developing countries, as my Rwandan correspondent let me know, the view is very different. There is a hunger for knowledge, in any form. You need a brick or a board to start building a house. You need a course to start building a curriculum.

When I reported an article on Libya that was published this week, the Libyans and their supporters made it clear to me that some of the country’s needs are urgent, and specific. Companies would like to be hiring more mechanics trained in Libya, and not importing them from Ghana. Libya needs to broaden its sources of income from oil, and some Libyans are betting on tourism. The country has historically been a crossroads between Europe and Africa, with many ruins that have a thousand years written in them. But tourism will require hotel managers and receptionists with customer-service training.

That is not to say many Libyans did not speak of the need for young people with broad educations and inquiring minds who might make great executives or politicians. In a plaintive footnote to my reporting, a Libyan who had been attending a program for future diplomats at American University, Walid Bomathaka, sent me an e-mail after the story was published. He hadn’t replied earlier, he said, because he had to sell his computer to raise money. I asked him in our e-mail exchange what sort of education would be useful for him. His reply: “I need the ability to listen to others and understand them, and to make a decision after listening to others.”

Is there a badge for that? Sounds as if he wants to be a leader. (Indeed, he is eager to get back to American University, and he hopes for Libyan government support and a U.S. student visa.)

Sometimes U.S. citizens compare themselves to Europeans and think of themselves as being from a young country, where universities are only 375 years old, like Harvard, instead of 800, like some of their European counterparts. But the United States is middle-aged, at best, compared with many countries that are trying to build new higher-education systems. Take the United Arab Emirates, for instance, which celebrated its 40th birthday last month with “National Day.” Even when a country has the money to import laborers to work 24 hours a day to build campuses, as the emirates do, creating a curriculum and finding professors to fill those classrooms can still be quite a challenge.

Young countries are looking for quick ways to get the educated work forces they need. They don’t have a couple hundred years to build venerable institutions.

The university students who leave developing countries to go to developed ones are largely from wealthy families, middle class at best. Some less-well-off students are able to go to Germany, which does not charge tuition for foreign or domestic students, or to a few elite institutions elsewhere in the world that are able to offer strong scholarships or need-blind admissions. It’s the rare student from an impoverished family in a developing country, though, who is able to overcome the inherent disadvantages in his or her situation to get to the academic level needed to study in the industrialized world.

A badge-centered education might make educational content accessible to those students who don’t have access to the high-powered language tutors and college consultants who foreign students often need to reach Australia, Britain, Germany, or the United States.

My argument here is not for or against badges. My suggestion is to take a more-global perspective in the debate.

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