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How Will Mozilla's Open Badges Project Affect Higher Ed?
November 15, 2011 - 6:17pm

Yesterday marked the deadline for the first round of submissions for the 2011 Digital Media and Learning Competition. This year's topic: designing badges (and the supporting research) for lifelong learning.

The DML Competition is tapping into a larger project underway by Mozilla, with support from the MacArthur Foundation (among others). The Open Badges Project is working to create an alternative -- and accepted -- form of certification that combines merit-earned badges with an open infrastructure framework. Yes, much like the badges often associated with Boy or Girl Scouts, these badges are meant to help showcase various skills and competencies.

The Open Badges Project is a recognition that "learning looks very different today than traditionally imagined. Legitimate and interest-driven learning is occurring through a multitude of channels outside of formal education, and yet much of that learning does not "count" in today's world. There is no real way to demonstrate that learning and transfer it across contexts or use it for real results," Mozilla's Erin Knight told me in an interview for O'Reilly Radar.

Mozilla is responsible for the design of the technical infrastructure of the badge ecosystem. This means, no surprise coming from Mozilla, that the technology is open-source (documentation, source code). In the organization's words, the infrastructure is "designed to support a broad range of different badge issuers, and allow any user to earn badges across different issuers, web sites and experiences, then combine them into a single collection tied to their identity. This collection of badges can then be shared out to various audiences across the web, resulting in real-world results like jobs or formal credit."

Of course, making an open source and openly accessible system like this flies in the face of the proprietary systems that currently control those "real-world results like jobs or formal credit" -- namely, universities. The proposed Open Badges Project challenges not just certification, but also assessment. What does it mean that anyone can issue any sort of badge? Does a badge offer a better representation of skills or competencies than having a formal degree? If so, when? Will these badges be meaningful -- to students, to schools, to employers? Will they be accepted? If so, by whom?

The timing of the Open Badges Project coincides with our asking serious questions about the cost and the value of a college degree, and even though there are critiques about badges as "gamification," there are certainly lots of interested parties in the development of the idea -- the Department of Education, for example, and the Department of Labor.

Mozilla and Peer 2 Peer University have been piloting a program to award badges for some of P2PU School of Webcraft offerings. And in many ways, the School of Webcraft is exemplary of the need for this sort of alternative certification program. Anyone can take the free peer-to-peer classes via P2PU to gain skills in Web building and design. These are highly sought-after skills (and skills, I should add, that aren't synonymous necessarily with a degree in computer science), but the problem with these and other informal online learning opportunities is being able to show on a resume or job application, that one has successfully completed the coursework and mastered the skill. A JavaScript badge from P2PU, for example, could be just the thing that these students need.

To get an idea of the other sorts of organizations that are interested in creating badges, the submissions to the DML Competition are a good place to start. (You can view them here.) There are proposals for badges for citizen science, badges for serious games, badges for teacher PD, badges for youth technology leadership.

HASTAC's Cathy Davidson argued yesterday that the Open Badges Project and the DML Competition might herald a "tipping point" for digital learning. She points to the different submissions noting that "there are many, many of us who are frustrated with our inherited systems and want to come up with new ways of deciding what we want to count, what we want to value and acknowledge and credit and reward. A badge system can be the symbol of all that, visible proof of some quality of participation and contribution that previously wasn't even defined."

Indeed, it could portend not just new definitions but also a major shift in power, away from the formal educational institutions to other sites where people teach and learn on a daily basis. This isn't to say, of course, that schools and universities can't and won't award badges of their own. And it's not to say that the Open Badges Project necessarily marks the end of college credentialing as we know it.

Or does it?

 

 

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