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)

Badges have emerged as one of the most-talked about types of what Cathy Sandeen, vice president of education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education, calls microcredentials.

These credentials can be used to provide a more nuanced view of existing learning, like Bowen proposed, but also to help provide credit for prior learning to students like veterans with military training.

Sandeen said only 25 percent of students are now what many consider “traditional,” meaning three quarters of students are people balancing courses, family, and work. Microcredentials can help those students work toward a degree, she said.

Currently, less than 40 percent of Americans between the ages 25 and 64 have any sort of degree.

“This whole world of alternative credentialing is incredibly important to our attainment goals,” Sandeen said.

Badges aren’t the only type of alternative credential growing in popularity, however. Though currently in a state of upheaval at some platforms, massive open online course (MOOC) certificates are also being eyed by universities and employers.

Peggie Koon, president of the International Society of Automation, said she finds the certificates valuable, but they aren’t a replacement for on-the-job training, especially in STEM fields.

“MOOC certificates are great to get one started, but to actually have a career in these areas, you need on-the-job training,” Koon said.

Where badges and certificates can come in handy is helping to differentiate students who do have the right amount of training and education, Bowen said. They can go deeper than a transcript to show which candidate is a better fit for a certain position, he said.

“How do we find the Waldos among all the other Waldos?” Bowen said.

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