Portfolios & Badges: Their Time Has Come

Marc Lesser (Senior Director, Learning Design at Mouse) is a leader in the national movement recommending portfolios and badges as complementary means to assess learner achievement. (For a sense of his thinking, read his “Improving the Way Education Supports Learner Identity: Digital Badges & The Information Age”). He represents Mouse in the Mozilla-led Open Badges Initiative as well as in related fora such as the #K12BadgeChat twitter conversation. He has worked especially closely with the Parsons School of Design, which has endorsed Mouse-issued badges, and with Credly, with whom Mouse has contracted for digital badging architecture on our Mouse Create learning platform. We at Mouse view portfolios and badges — in both their digital and physical forms — as central to our mission of closing the opportunity divide within technology.

Most recently, Marc and Mouse Design League Coordinator Maggie Muldoon represented us at a National Science Foundation-supported convening on badges & portfolios hosted by the University of Michigan. You can read Marc’s report here: “A Maize & Blue Convening on Digital Credentials for Admissions.” Later this month, Marc will represent Mouse again, this time at the Badge Summit kicking off the International Society For Technology In Education (ISTE) annual national conference.

Mouse’s work here, under Marc’s leadership, is the next stage in an initiative begun by others several decades ago — an initiative now beginning to bear fruit. I recall as a doctoral candidate in the early 1990s and then as an assistant professor a few years later, talking with deans of admission and of student life about the possibility of alternative credentials for student admissions and assessment.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and the Kentucky Virtual University (and collaborating with the Kentucky Department of Education), the concept of alternative credentials moved steadily to the center of our work. In Kentucky, a national petri dish for system-wide educational change after the Kentucky Education Reform Act in ’90, we looked at the work already being done in Vermont: the Vermont Portfolio Assessment Program started in late 1980s, with evaluation led by Daniel Koretz. (See findings & commentary from the ’90s here, here, here, and here; additional resources below). The Kentucky and Vermont efforts were also influenced by the thinking of Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, Dennis Littky and others in the Coalition for Essential Schools, and the related Annenberg Challenge.

National education, government, and industry groups paid attention to the concepts, as the digital revolution began to upend traditional occupations and the idea of a “knowledge economy” with a “creative class” began to gain currency. Among those thinking hardest about alternative credentials and portfolios at the time were the National Governors Association, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Education Commission of the States, the Council of Chief State School Officers, EDUCAUSE, and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The dream went unrealized then, partly because the concept was still too new (understandable legacy lock-in and mental adherence to what has worked for a century) and partly because we lacked the technology to execute. Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma” meets sheer lack of tools. No Child Left Behind also intervened in the early ’00s, with its stringent focus on standardized testing on ELA and math.

Ah, but now, with a new cohort of visionaries such as Marc, the dream is realizable. A generation later, with the digital revolution that much further advanced, the time is ripe, both intellectually and in terms of the tools themselves.

So, a call to action for admissions officers and registrars at colleges and universities: please help us together build a system of badges and portfolios that will help get many more young Americans to postsecondary education, and above all, into the majors, minors, internships and co-curriculars most appropriate for each individual. We ask universities and colleges to endorse and eventually grant credit to badges and portfolios, not to replace but to complement & supplement traditional transcripts.

The time is now!

Additional Resources:

Good analyses of the Kentucky and Vermont experiments, and similar, in more recent studies: Jay Mathews in Education Next (2004) and esp. Brian Stecher, Performance Assessment in an Era of Standards-Based Educational Accountability (Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, 2010).

Digital Promise and LRNG are among the national groups that have emerged in the new millennium to continue the evolution of badges and portfolios.

And some of our talented colleagues, many of whom have been key in this conversation for many years, have started “Badge News,” an open, bi-weekly newsletter to stay attuned to the fast evolution of this dialogue. Read more about Badge News and sign up

Other studies that set the foundation upon which Mouse, Digital Promise, LRNG and many others now work (the intervening decades have seen a great deal of research and practice in this area — my point is that Marc’s efforts today connect back to an established body of work, and should not be seen as an isolated vector): Paulson, Paulson & Meyer, “What Makes A Portfolio A Portfolio?,” in Educational Leadership, Feb. 1991; Mary Hamm & Dennis Adams, “Portfolio: It’s Not Just For Artists Anymore,” Science Teacher 58 (1991); Arlene Lois Garnett, Portfolio Assessment: An Authentic Method of Student Evaluation (1993); Thomas Reeves & James R. Okey, “Alternative Assessment For Constructivist Learning Environments,” in Wilson (ed.), Constructivist Learning Environments (1996); Elizabeth Hebert & Laurie Schultz, “The Power of Portfolio,” Educational Leadership (53:7, April 1996); Charlotte Danielson and Leslye Abrutyn, An Introduction to Using Portfolios in the Classroom (1997); Thos. Reeves, “Alternative Assessment Approaches For Online Learning Environments in Higher Education,” Journal of Educational Computing Research, July 2000.

By Daniel A. Rabuzzi
Executive Director, Mouse

Daniel [at] mouse [dot] org