Posted by: Carol | January 13, 2012

Open Badging and its Implications for CTE

Have you heard about Mozilla’s Open Badges project? No? Well, if you haven’t yet, you may want to keep reading. Because if this, or something like it takes off, it may be – forgive the pun – a game-changer for the CTE field.

In the past few years – but especially this year, it seems – there’s been a lot of talk around how education can “gamify” learning, or incorporate the motivational strategies and design elements commonly used in games (including, but not limited to, video games). This has led to a lot of discussion of these gamification strategies, and debate about which components would be more or less effective in a school or classroom setting, in online settings, and in what combinations they might produce the effects that educators would like to see. Achievements are one of the most popular topics of discussion – essentially used in games to mark…well, achievement. For many gamers, achievements are rewards and recognitions of challenges that exist within the scope of the primary game’s objectives, as well as outside those objectives. Often, the visual representation of what the gamers receive comes in the form of badges. Think along the lines of merit badges, such as those utilized in Scouting.


Businesses – such as those creating mobile apps – are jumping on board the badging bandwagon. Badges are, after all, a pretty simple and relatively low-cost way of recognizing, rewarding, and promoting desired behaviors in consumers and users. For instance, let’s say you use the foursquare app. You’re out getting lunch, so you check into your 3rd Mexican restaurant. Bing! You’ve won the Mexican Restaurant-lovers badge commemorating the occasion (and your due-diligence in using foursquare). Say you’re tracking your runs on Runkeeper, and you just completed your first 5k. Bing! You’ve earned the 5k badge, to recognize and reward your accomplishment.

That’s great, Carol, you say. But what’s this got to do with CTE?

Quite a lot, actually, if the Mozilla Open Badges project has anything to say about it. More and more, we’re finding enterprising – and sometimes just flat-out disengaged – students turning to alternative and often informal sources of learning to acquire new knowledge and skills–employable knowledge and skills. These non-traditional educational sources may run the gamut from volunteering opportunities, mentoring or peer relationships, after-school programs, online courses, and informal online learning communities. The Mozilla Open Badges project is seeking to recognize and reward these efforts by developing a system that allows people to earn badges which act as a means of accreditation for skills and knowledge acquired outside of more traditional education settings. Badges, Mozilla argues, will allow a learner to display (to potential employers, schools, colleagues, and their communities) that they have met some predetermined threshold of knowledge and/or skills acquisition.

Not certificates. Not degrees. Badges.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Let’s say Martha S. is interested in becoming a web developer. Instead of going to the trouble of applying to a Computer Science program at a university, or enrolling in courses at her local community college, she goes online. She finds sites like P2PU, where she’s able to learn to code PHP, Ruby on Rails, and HTML by hand (if she should so desire). She starts to mock up a few different websites, creating a portfolio for herself, using her newly acquired skills. She checks in with peers at various online discussion forums when she runs into a problem she can’t solve on her own. She earns badges for these new skills (from P2PU, let’s say) and now she’s ready to freelance as a web developer or apply for a position at a company somewhere. In this scenario, the badges she’s earned for her web development skills are legitimate currency with which to pursue both career and learning opportunities.

For an engineer, who received his B.S. or M. Eng. back in 1986, these badges might actually have more weight with potential employers than his college degree(s), as the badges might indicate that he has a firm handle on more current, up-to-date technologies, knowledge, and skills.

Do you see where this is headed?

So, what does this mean for the CTE field? A couple different things, actually. As with all innovations, there comes good news and bad news. The bad news is that, while there may always be a place for the traditional education model (teachers/instructors, students, classrooms, testing, grading, etc), this place is progressively getting smaller and smaller. When you add in the burdens of cost, time, and difficulty of access (how many of us have seen students essentially drop out of a certificate or degree program because it was just too difficult to enroll in required courses in a timely manner?), it’s not surprising to see why something like the Open Badges project has so much appeal.

With heavyweight backing provided by organizations like HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Badges project is finding its footing. Leading industry, education, and governmental partners have all signed on to take part in the process of designing and working with the new system.

The good news is that there’s still a lot of room to participate in the discussion and process of developing these new, more informal education models. It’s been my experience that CTE professionals are the subgroup of the education community most willing to think outside the box and be enterprising in finding ways to provide students the essential skills and knowledge they need to be well-employed and well-paid. Check out the long list of organizations – – many of them already our partners in CTE projects and programs – who’ve decided to take a look and a leap. Consider how you, your programs, your college, and your students, might explore and benefit from the possibilities laid out by something like the Open Badges project and other “Open Learning” models.

I look forward to hearing about what you come up with.

And for those of you who run graphic, web, or industrial design programs, you might want to take a look at this opportunity for your students and faculty to work directly on developing the badges themselves.

For more reading on this topic, check out this Chronicle of Higher Education article.


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