Open Badges: A Gimmick or a Great Idea?

For the last eight months I have been working with my colleagues at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University to develop the application of Open Badges in Higher Education. What started off as a small-scale pilot has rapidly developed into a goliath of a project which none of us could have foreseen at the outset.

One of our key goals (besides the implementation of Open Badges) was to develop a visual design framework to demonstrate the progressive skills development and learning. This framework is being developed iteratively with a series of pilots held at Coventry University. We hope that with feedback and collaboration from other HE institutions this could be a first step towards a unified visual design template for Open Badges in Higher Education. This long-term goal is something that I am keen to push for, both for uniformity and to boost the credibility of Open Badges to those of us not so heavily involved in their development.

Four key parts to a badge: graphic, criteria, description, and evidence. The Open Badge in this case has been designed for #GameChangers (http://gamify.org.uk), a serious games programme led by the Sylvester Arnab at the DMLL.

Whilst there are some who are eager and willing to embrace the idea of Open Badges, there is also resistance. What does a badge give that a paper qualification doesn’t? What is the real value for students if employers don’t know what they are? Isn’t the label of a ‘badge’ too childish for students who pay £9000 a year for their education?

Badge or Credential, Language as a Barrier

It is this last question, the focus on the language used in Open Badging circles that I want to focus on. I recently read an interesting and intellectually striking article on the language used around Open Badges by Alistair Creelman that raises these same concerns. Creelman, quite rightly, points out that “we can’t control how people use language, so we need to find persuasive levers that work in the different situations (messes?) we find ourselves in.” The Open Badge community will continue to use the term Open Badges (I am guilty of doing so as we speak). My qualm is not necessarily with the terminology (though I agree with Alistair that the term ‘Open Badging’ isn’t the best term to describe the concept), but rather the way in which it is used.

Most disruptive educators are aware of what an Open Badge is, the different elements to one, and how they can be used within different learning frameworks. The difficulty that seems to arise is with those outside of the badging clique. When I started work around Open Badges, most of the material of relevance were written very much in an academic manner. Whilst this is by no means a bad thing, there seemed little content available that explained in laymen’s terms why, and how Open Badges can be used in HE institutions. As Open Badging is becoming a huge drive in schools, particularly in the USA, there was content aimed at those demographics but there seemed to be a chasm of openly available content tailored for HE institutions. Much of my initial ideas formed around the potential uses in HE came instead from conversations with like-minded individuals from Sheffield Hallam, University Campus Suffolk, and Make Waves (to name but a few).

The Media Practitioner Open Badge created by the Disruptive Media Learning Lab and issued through the Open Badge Academy (openbadgeacademy.com) platform.

I have a longstanding conflict with academic writing, perhaps down to my background in the liberal arts as a photographer. In my mind, the exciting element of Open Badging is its intrinsic link to social currency.

When talking about Open Badges within HE we sometimes assume a level of digital literacy, even digital fluency that could perhaps be misplaced. If we are to get students on board with the concept of a badge then the language should not be a barrier to entry.

With the students I teach I often use the analogy of a CV. How can you prove you have the skills that employers are looking for? Every CV says something along the lines of ‘I work well in a team’ but lets evidence that. How? An Open Badge, I mean a ‘digital accreditation’ of course!

Whilst a few of them are genuinely intrigued by the idea and want to learn more about the development processes behind badges (they tend to be my Digital and Social Media students), many turn their faces up in boredom if you delve into the academic foundation on which the idea is built.

I’m not saying that the academic language around Open Badges is of detriment to their wider adoption, but I feel we have to be careful that we don’t get carried away and lose sight of the reason why we wanted to adopt badges in the first instance. Every now and then I find it useful to pinch myself on the arm and remind myself that we developed badges to showcase student skills and learning, something which sometimes gets lost in the pool of conversation and discussion within the HE badging community.

What’s happening?

You can keep up to date with the Disruptive Media Learning Lab’s Open Badging project here or check out my colleagues Jacqui Speculand, Koula Charitonos, Gemma Tombs, and Lauren Heywood’s thoughts on the subject.

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