As if the worlds that I try to keep up with were not overflowing already, more and more stuff to keep track of keeps coming. For several months I have wanted to take a few hours to get up to speed on the basics relating to the newer life-long-learning/educational reform/online meaning of badges. I had not quite done this, although I had read a few small online accounts and grasped the concept. I still had not taken time to do this background reading when today the phenomena took on a bigger life today.
The MacArthur Foundation awarded a two million dollar grant to HASTAC and the Mozilla Foundation (the Firefox people) for the purpose of funding a Digital Media and Learning Competition centered on the building of badge projects and the associated open technical infrastructure to make it all work. Here is how the MacArthur release begins:
Learning happens everywhere and at every age. Traditional measures of achievement, like high school diplomas, GEDs and college degrees, cannot convey the full range of knowledge and skills that students and workers master. To address this issue, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, HASTAC and Mozilla today announced a $2 million Digital Media and Learning Competition for leading organizations, learning and assessment specialists, designers and technologists to create and test badges and badge systems. The competition will explore ways digital badges can be used to help people learn; demonstrate their skills and knowledge; unlock job, educational and civic opportunities; and open new pipelines to talent.
There is a great deal of discussion of this new program going on online and the conversation suggests that many folks have already invested a lot of brain power into working out the norms, forms, and aims of the emergent badge-based education and credentialing landscape. I am interested and sympathetic but too new to have any deeply informed opinions (beyond my support for the open source software/open standards aspects, my overall belief in the importance of life long learning, and my recognition of plural educational pathways and diverse learning styles/goals).
As I begin to make sense of the badges approach, I can immediately see some ways that the approach would particularly serve some sectors of the world in which I work. Public folklorists have long pursued for themselves and built for their colleagues robust continuing education opportunities of diverse sorts. Public folklorists are very good at continuing to study and master a range of practical skills of a general sort that can apply to their work–video production, GIS systems, database development, etc. They are also good at providing to their professional community field-specific training events outside of the walls of formal higher education. Workshops and similar events are a staple activity whenever public folklorists gather. While these could be seen as standard continuing education activities typical of any profession, they go along with another dimension that is not so uniformly present in professional life, and that is mentoring and collegial support of a real and meaningful sort. Public folklorists to a high degree help, lookout for, coach, and support one another. Resource scarcity could have produced high levels of competition, but in my estimation it has instead fostered a strong communitarian ethos among U.S. public folklorists. (Its not an absolute quality but a relative one.)
It seems to me that this is an ideal kind of environment for badges to strengthen the the workings of what is present already. Public folklorists in particular learn by doing–in internships and in their jobs (something central to the badge scheme), learn through informal channels and in continuing education formats, and learn within a supportive community of practice. As a very clear way of gaining formal recognition for one’s ever growing skill set and as a way of conveying these skills in online and offline ways to employers, granting agencies, community partners, etc. badges seem very promising to me as a framework for strengthening public sector folklore work. Many of these same points could be made in connection to other areas to which I have ties–museum work and applied anthropology. The digital humanities people are of course already very aware of the badges discussion.
One of the best things about badge programs is that they can be organized by a diversity of groups and agencies (unlike formal higher education, which is built around colleges and universities and their slow moving practices).
In addition to the MacArthur release, see also the Mozilla announcement and their “About Open Badges” page, the competition announcement at HASTAC, and these these posts   by Audrey Watters at Hack Education.
I know that the badge business will seem crazy based only on my post (what is it? are they patches?). It will make more sense if one goes to these core sources and check it out firsthand.
Want the downside? Want the “What is totally wrong with all of this?” assessment? For a compelling account of the dystopic potential of badges, check out Alex Ried at Digital Digs.