Open badges offer a method of credentialing specific skills in a number of contexts. They can be used to support professional learning, they can be used to evidence skills developed in extracurricular activities (such as holiday activities) and finally they can be used to reward classroom achievement. In the educational system I work in, however, assessment is already criterion based. It is, therefore, already possible to lay a school report alongside the subject curriculum documents to identify the level of competence a student has achieved for a particular skill. In this situation any curriculum-based badges will, to some extent, be doubling up on the existing assessment. I still issue badges for work within the curriculum and I still see value in it, but many would argue convincingly that these badges represent an unnecessary doubling up of credentials.
On the other hand curriculum documents tend to be relatively narrow and subject specific. Students in the classroom can be awarded badges for co-curricular achievement, in the sense that they credential valuable skills which are not part of the formal curriculum, but underpin the curriculum. Some might refer to these as ‘meta-skills’, such as collaboration, research and time management etc.
The problem with these co-curricular badges is that they can easily lose their value if the criteria are not well thought out. In addition, badges issued through different sources will not necessarily be comparable. For example if I issue a badge to a student for “Internet search skills” the student and I will know what that involves, but will a third party understand it the same way? Finally how does my badge compare with a simular one from the school down the road?
21st Century skills
I would like to move on from badges for a while and consider 21st century skills. The term 21st century skills is used to refer to a collection of skills which will be of particular use in a post-industrial world, where routine skills and factual recall is of less value. There is as yet no definitive list of 21st century skills, but there is a consensus that they include such things as collaboration, digital literacy, problem solving and global citizenship.
These skills are universally valued by educators, but in general they are not well served by school curriculums and assessment methods. In addition, there is currently a political agenda pushing for increased accountability for schools and a need to measure success. This is evident in the common core in the USA and NAPLAN in Australia. While accountability is important, the danger is that this emphasis on numeric measures of success, comparing students and schools, can emphasise those elements of the curriculum which are most easily quantified. In other words test marks can overshadow learning processes, so collaboration, creativity and ethics (21st century skills) end up being neglected.
Bringing this all together
In summary we have a set of 21st century skills which are universally valued, but are in danger of being neglected because they are not easily quantified. We also have a credentialing system in open badges, which recognizes competency without seeking to make comparisons. I suggest we bring these two ideas together. Instead of seeking to replace traditional school assessments with digital badges, badges provide a parallel system to provide recognition for those skills which are ultimately more important, but not easily measured in a traditional testing regime. 21st century skills can be recognized and encouraged through the badges, while the existing assessment of the subject curriculum, NAPLAN and common core testing continue to serve their purpose, resulting in a balanced and effective education system.
The issue that remains to be addressed is the assessment of 21st century skills. I commented above that for badges to be effective they need to have well defined competencies. Fortunately there is work under way to provide an objective measure of competency for 21st century skills. A leader in this field is the ATC21S project headquartered at Melbourne University. Their particular emphasis at this stage is on the key 21st century skills of collaborative problem solving and learning in digital networks.
ATC21S have developed an empirical progression to define levels of competence at the developmental stages in collaborative problem solving. It is now possible to use this empirical progression to develop a series of digital badges recognizing competence in collaborative problem solving across the developmental stages.
So we have the tools, in the empirical progression and open badges, to begin to develop a robust credentialing system for 21st century skills. The next task is to work on defining the open badges for the existing empirical progression and as the work on teaching and assessing 21st century skills progresses, develop a badge ecology along side to assess and reward those skills.