Understanding the symbolism of digital badges

Can alternative credentials like digital badges provide a more nuanced view of a student achievement?

badges-credential-studentWashington, DC — Kyle Bowen, director of education technology at Pennsylvania State University, said he thinks credentials, be they traditional grades or digital badges, are little more than symbols.

And symbols mean different things to different people, Bowen said Thursday at U.S. News and World Report’s STEM Solutions conference. To illustrate his point he brought up several well-known symbols, including the icon found on most hand dryers — the one that shows three red, wavy lines floating above a hand.

“To some, this means you press a button to dry your hands,” Bowen deadpanned. “To others, it means you push a button and you get bacon.”

His presentation got a laugh out of the crowd of educators and STEM professionals attending the “Customized Credentials Come of Age” panel, but Bowen’s larger point was that symbols aren’t much without context.

“You can’t talk about credentials without talking about symbolism,” he said.

Traditional grades, he claimed, tend to lack that context. On a transcript, an A-grade for one course looks the same as an A for another. But what if one of those two courses was taught by a Nobel Prize winner? Could that extra information help set students apart?

Bowen argued that such nuance is possible through the use of digital badges.

Digital badges are a type of credential that can denote achievement from learning both in and out of the classroom. They’re ostensibly images that can be attached to websites or online resumes, but inside the image’s metadata can be a wealth of detail about how that badge was earned.

“Unlike grades that lack that kind of detail, the badges contain it,” Bowen said.

(Next page: Finding Waldo)

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