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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 27, 2013 at 9:54 PM

The future of credentials: Will degrees and resumes make room for the badge?

The Providence After School Alliance issues this badge to  students who complete their 10-week program.

The Providence After School Alliance issues this badge to students who complete a 10-week photo program.

How do we tell other people what we’re good at?

It’s an important question. Not just when it’s time to look for work, but when we’re signing up for activities, applying to colleges, or just trying to pass second grade.

The systems we use to convey that information have been around a long time.

What if they got way better?

An eclectic network of technologists, educators, businesses and nonprofits is quietly working to revolutionize credentials with a set of ideas that has an unassuming name:

Badges.

I’d heard about badges — think Girl Scouts, but geekier — for a while. But it wasn’t until I talked with locals involved in the impressively collaborative push to develop them that I realized how much we need them and how well they fit the picture of where we’re headed.

“The model of granularity in music purchases has moved us from the album to the song,” longtime Seattle education industry strategist Frank Catalano told me last week. “The model of granularity in proving skills or expertise is going to move from the certificate or degree to the badge.”

Badges are tough to define because, well, people are still defining them. Basically they’re this: digital tokens someone issues and others earn that signify a learned lesson, demonstrated skill or earned experience in a verifiable way. When others access one of your digital badges on whatever sites you choose to display it — like a job network or online profile — they see data that explain who issued it and what you had to do to earn it.

Seton Hall University issues this badge to a student who is prepared to run for a seat on its Hall Council.

Seton Hall University issues this badge to students who have prepared to run for a seat on its Hall Council.

If résumés are a bunch of claims, badges are a bunch of evidence.

For an idea with runaway potential, badges are being handled with care. Mozilla, the nonprofit that brought you the Firefox Web browser, is spearheading the effort to badge the world not by beating the pack, but leading it. On OpenBadges.org, Mozilla is both building an open infrastructure upon which people can create their own badges and moderating a conversation about how they could best work.

The site lists more than 60 partners in badge creating and designing, including Disney-Pixar and NASA. They have a call every Wednesday morning for anyone interested in badges. You can just drop in.

New ideas soar when they solve a big pain point. The issues are clear enough for recruiters: It says here you’re a developer. But do you know Ruby on Rails? If a reputable badge from a reputable source bears witness to the skill, finding the right hire gets easier.

More interesting are the pain points you don’t even see until badges show a better way.

Take education.

This is one of many knowledge-based badges NOAA issues through its Planet Stewards program.

This is one of many knowledge-based badges NOAA issues through its Planet Stewards program.

University of Washington researcher Katie Davis just won a grant to study the badge program being adopted by the Providence After School Alliance in Rhode Island. The program, which won funding from Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation and others, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is out to give kids credit for learning that happens outside the classroom.

Kids learn all the time. Heck, we all do. And yet the only place where learning seems to count — if our system of grades, diplomas and degrees is any indication — is in school.

Talking with Davis, a former elementary schoolteacher, was the first time I saw that for what it is — a problem.
PASA got the local school district to accept some badges as school credit, a critical step, in Davis’ eyes. For any new idea to have a deep impact in education (and there are a lot these days), it has to break into that traditionally slow, bureaucratic bundle of conventions. Slowly, maybe, but surely.

Otherwise, badges might just codify what’s already there — add a game layer to education without really changing it. And what if the extrinsic value of getting one dilutes the intrinsic value of learning something? What if kids treat them as a chore instead of a motivator? What if, well, they’re just not cool?

“I’ve heard now from very idealistic people,” Davis told me over coffee in the University District. “I want to know how it works.”

Todd Edebohls old internal Amazon employee profile showed off badges earned as of 2001.

Todd Edebohls old internal Amazon employee profile showed off badges earned as of 2001.

Ambitious badge-heads see a world where that continuum between education and career is still grounded and meaningful but free, finally, to be personal. That’s another place technology is taking us: We have our own devices, our own custom set of apps. Do we still have to learn in groups on a locked, preset path, and conform to whatever skill bundle earns one or another excruciatingly expensive diploma?

Todd Edebohls, CEO of Seattle-based career-charting service Inside Jobs, which supports the Open Badges project, first ran in to badges when he was at Amazon.com in the early 2000s. Amazon still issues badges internally for everything from team skills and hiring referrals to milestones in company culture. Edebohls once earned a badge for eating a lot of chicken wings.

Badges are a big and risky idea and, for the most part, still just that.

But it’s a shared idea. And its time is coming.

“The community will figure it out,” Edebohls said. “We’re smart.”

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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