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Digital Badges Instead of Grades: Pros and Cons

The traditional methods of assigning letter grades to students at all levels of education has repeatedly come under fire for its perceived

Image courtesy of commonsensemedia.com

Image courtesy of commonsensemedia.com

limitations. Alfie Kohn, writing in High School Magazine, has criticized grade-based education for allegedly shifting students’ focus from the material being studied to the attainment of a desired grade; he also accuses this system of encouraging students to choose an “easy-A” curriculum and think less deeply about the subject matter.

Today’s world of web-based information exchange, however, has brought about a potential revolution that could eventually make traditional grading obsolete. This revolution involves the awarding of digital badges — electronic images signifying a student’s successful self-education in a particular field of learning or skill. One of the pioneers in this approach is web browser giant Mozilla, which endorses the use of what it calls Open Badges, an open standard of web-based learning that allows students to collect a “digital backpack” of electronic images that demonstrate their learning achievements “through creditable organizations” for networking or employment purposes. But the long-term benefits or problems of the digital badge system remain largely virgin territory. Here are some of the pros and cons on both sides of the argument:

Digital Badges Instead of Grades: Pros

Untethered education – Mozilla states that the digital badge system gives students the freedom to pick and choose which subjects and skills they wish to focus on, allowing them to essentially construct their own individualized curriculum. In so doing, they can select courses and programs that complement each other to “tell the full story of your skills and achievement.”

In “A Bridge to Real-World Applications,”  Katie Ash, writing in Education Week, notes that a digital badge system would leverage the way modern students perceive and learn so much about the world — through online interaction. It also allows the possibility of recognizing “soft skills,” such as leadership or communication, in addition to the mastery of concrete subjects. This flexibility would serve to unite formal and informal learning to create a more natural educational experience.

Digital Badges Instead of Grades: Cons

A less “serious” system, according to the Ash Education Week article, brings up the concern of “gamification” — the awarding of badges for achievements that students would normally pursue for their own pleasure or gain. The fact that badges can theoretically be awarded for just about anything could cause the outside world to take them less than seriously, eroding the authority of those badges that actually represent concrete, valued skills and abilities.

Structural shortcomings – While the loose organization and lack of traditional educational hierarchy in a badge-based system may promote more flexibility in the learning experience, awarding badges for achievements not traditionally associated with formal education may actually create discomforts of its own. By requiring validation of subject matter that would normally be picked up informally, the argument goes, students could feel constrained about how and what they should learn — the exact opposite of the badge system’s intent.

 The Future of Online Learning?

While the discussion of digital badges has largely confined itself to higher education so far, organizations serving grades K through 12 are now seriously examining it. One such institution, a non-profit youth organization called MOUSE, has begun awarding digital badges to underserved youth for a variety of technology-based skills and achievements. If this means of measuring online learning mushrooms in popularity, it may not edge out traditional grading completely, but it will make a strong statement about the need for education to mimic the evolving world by becoming less centralized, rigid and location specific. Time will tell whether the badge system is the future of educational verification or merely a useful new facet of it. 

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