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Could Digital Badges Mark the End of the ‘Easy A’?

Alex Wukman
Jun 25, 2013 · 10 min read

With nicknames like “clapping for credit,” “rocks for jocks,” and “physics for poets” the ‘easy A’ courses have become legendary as quick ways for students to meet requirements and bump up their GPAs. However, some professors are starting to think that overly broad survey and appreciation classes are among the things contributing to ‘grade inflation.’

Chris Healy, a computer science professor at Furman University, is one of the leading authorities on the phenomenon of rising grades. A recent report compiled by Healy and former Duke University geology professor Stuart Rojstaczer found that, from 1990-2006, the average GPA at public schools went up by 0.18 points, and during the same period the average GPA at private schools went up by 0.22.

Healy explained that GPA increases have been a subject of debate in academia for decades. The report identifies two distinct eras of grade inflation, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and late 1980s to present.

“The first phase of grade inflation stopped abruptly in the 1970s, but the phase we are in now shows no signs of stopping,” Healy said. “It’s more gradual and it’s eating away at academia.”

Rojstaczer believes that grade inflation is a response to a demand, specifically the demands being placed on professors by students and parents for higher grades. After calling administrators who fail to clamp down on rising grades “spineless” he cites Yale as an example of inflation run amuck.

“Right now grades are so high at Yale that getting an A minus will prevent a student from getting Latin honors,” Rojstaczer said. “The only reason professors give out A- is because they think a student doesn’t deserve Latin honors.”

Healy calls the continuing upward creep of GPAs part of “an arms race,” with universities competing to insure that students are able to find jobs or get into graduate, law, or medical programs after graduation. However, he doesn’t think professors are doing students any favors by awarding higher marks.

“If 3.5 becomes a ‘non-competitive GPA’ then 3.7 becomes the new standard,” said Healy. “How long before everyone gets a 4.0 and grades become meaningless?”

Healy looks at Princeton University policy of limiting the number of A’s awarded to 35% of each graduating class as a possible solution to grade inflation. Rojstaczer thinks that artificially capping grades is not going to be enough to stem the tide.

“There has to be external pressure, if employers say ‘because we can’t tell who was a good student and who was a mediocre student we won’t hire anyone from college x or university y’ it will get schools’ attention,” Rojstacer said. “When institutions are publicly embarrassed by their lack of integrity a change will be made.”

While schools like UC Berkley have implemented policies capping student GPAs in specific courses, others have begun exploring ways to supplement or replace grades with a system that is more reflective of student learning.

The Old Ways Aren’t Working

“Saying that a student got an A, B, or C isn’t enough anymore,” said Southern New Hampshire University president Paul LeBlanc. “When an employer gets a transcript that says someone took Sociology 101 and got a B minus what does that mean? It means that he or she did better than someone who got a C plus.”

Frustrated by the ambiguity inherent in letter grades, Southern New Hampshire decided to do something drastic—they eliminated grades altogether. Instead of awarding A’s and B’s to students, SNHU’s new “College for America” associate degree program uses interlocking competency units to evaluate students’ ability to master interrelated tasks.

The stackable nature of the competency units allows employers and other schools to drill down and see how a student did on the assignments necessary to display mastery of subjects like reading, writing, or science. According to Leblanc, SNHU’s decision to experiment with a new credentialing method was motivated by a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional credit hour.

“A traditional credit hour says ‘we can fix time, but learning is a variable.’ We wanted to flip that and say that time is a variable and learning is non-negotiable,” said Leblanc. The inherent limitations of the credit hour, a unit initially proposed 1906 so professors could receive pensions, is not lost on education organizations and tech centric reform advocates.

The cries for change from people like Elon Musk and organizations like the Lumina Foundation prompted the Carnegie Foundation, the organization who originally created the credit hour, to announce in the fall of 2012 that they were undertaking a year-long study to reexamine how students are assessed. In a written statement the foundation explained that the decision was based on the belief that “a revised unit, based on competency rather than time, could improve teaching and learning.”

Thomas Toch, a senior managing partner at the foundation, noted that one of the main reasons Carnegie decided to try and decouple student learning from time spent in a classroom is because of online education.

“Online education is an important catalyst for our project,” Toch said. “As online learning has become an increasingly viable method of delivering education it’s become apparent to us that a time-based metric might not be the most efficient way to judge student performance.”

Reinventing the Wheel

It’s not just small schools and large non-profits that are looking for new ways to measure student achievement. The ability to easily attach a portfolio of students’ work to transcripts, diplomas, and resumes is proving to be an attractive option to schools across the country.

Among the schools exploring ways to more accurately reflect a students’ coursework is Purdue University. Purdue recently began experimenting with ‘open badges,’ digital files that mirror SNHU competency units, in its non-credit bearing, NanoHubU program. The badges are being distributed through Purdue’s Passport, an app that allows instructors and advisers to issue badges for mastery of skills like atomic force microscopy and the fundamentals of nanoelectronics.

Kyle Bowen, director of informatics in information technology at Purdue, explained that “badges offer a different way to think about learning” and that they are a way to recognize learning that happens in-class and across the web. He went on to say that, unlike grades, the badges aren’t meant to be specific to Purdue.

“For badges to be a common currency there has to be a common marketplace,” Bowen said. To help create the common marketplace Purdue designed Passport to work with the Mozilla Foundation’s badge backpack, an internet wide infrastructure that allows recipients to export badges to places like social media or employment site profiles.

Spread Beyond the University

While being able to export a badge for mastering ‘thermal energy at the nanoscale’ to a Linked In or Facebook page is convenient for students, Purdue’s decision to align its badges to Mozilla’s standards is extremely useful for employers. Sunny Lee, a project lead on Mozilla’s open badges initiative, explained that creating a common standard and language “allows badges to be compared.”

“When we started the backpack in 2010 we saw badges in informal learning communities that were being used in ad hoc ways, locked in their native environments and unable to be exported,” Lee said. “By taking badges out of their specific learning communities—whether a formal community like a college or university or an informal one like a programming site—they can be used by employers to more effectively evaluate candidates.”

Lee explained that, after developing the backpack, Mozilla spent the next two years “populating the ecosystem” with high quality badges. Although the foundation’s guidelines require any badges submitted for inclusion in the backpack contain reviewable metadata, they do not stipulate where the badges can and can’t come from.

“We think that hobby badges can help tell the story of a possible candidate,” said Lee. “If World of Warcraft wants to align their badges with our standard they are more than welcome to join our ecosystem.”

Rewarding Life-Long Learning

The desire to recognize learning received outside the classroom is one of the main factors helping to push for a wider adoption of badges. Jonathan Finkelstein, executive producer and founder of LearningTimes, said that the BadgeStack Project his company recently started is “interested in ways that cast a wider net when it comes to achievement.”

“Credit has mostly been the domain of classrooms,” said Finkelstein. “But what about the rest of your life? What about where you display that knowledge?”

Finkelstein explained that most colleges currently don’t have a mechanic to export things achieved outside of the classroom and that BadgeStack is about making the tools needed to implement badging protocols available to learning communities of all sizes.

“We work with K-12 education, colleges, professional associations, online communities,” Finkelstein said. “We don’t think of them as badges, we think of it as giving credit.”

Finkelstein is far from alone in working to create pathways to recognize learning and skills that aren’t always measured in traditional classrooms. Preetha Ram, an associate dean at Emory University, said that part of her inspiration for OpenStudy, an open social learning network and crowd sourced credentialing system, was a need for soft skill documentation.

Soft skills, like teamwork and problem solving, have begun to be recognized as one of the keys to workplace success. A recent Department of Labor report described soft skills as “critical to developing a strong, vibrant workforce.” However, soft skills are notoriously hard to identify on a resume or a transcript.

Ramm explained that OpenStudy’s assessment system helps address the problem of proving soft skills by analyzing data on site member interactions. The assessment system issues badges to users who contribute to the development of the community, through things like answering questions or providing thoughtful comments.

“When we launched our assessment initiative in 2011 we had politicians and employers coming to us and saying that these employable skills are missing in a college transcript,” Ramm said. “We asked ourselves ‘what can we draw from the data that shows how a person will do in grad school or at a job.”

Despite the growing emphasis on soft skills, some organizations see badges as a more efficient way to represent hard skills. One of the largest groups having a hard time showcasing their skill set is veterans.

Although it has gotten easier for veterans to find jobs, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows total veteran unemployment at 6.6% for May, versus 7.8% for the general population, many veterans still perceive getting a job as difficult. An August 2012 study of veteran employment conducted by Prudential found that 60% of veterans think the greatest challenge in finding a job is explaining how military skills translate to the civilian workforce. Nearly 30% of veterans said they believe employers think they don’t have the necessary skills for the jobs.

The problems veterans face as they transition to the civilian workforce inspired Eric Burg and Robert H. Sparkman, two St. Louis-based Department of Veterans Affairs employees, to create BadgesForVets.org. The website, which launched on Dec. 20, helps veterans translate their service record into a civilian friendly resume by issuing badges for the training and experience they received.

Burg explained that, in addition to a resume translation service, the site is being designed to function as a Monster.com or CareerBuilder for returning service members and that the “overall mission is to create a pool for unemployed veterans and employers.” Unlike some other badge issuers, who see them as a revolution in awarding credit, Burg is more concerned with the practical aspects.

“For our purpose the badge is a tipping point to build interest from employers,” Burg said. “A badge is just another icon showing that someone has training.”

Industry Standards

Being able to certify that a student has the skills to meet employer needs is a growing concern both in and out of academia, and has even prompted industry groups to begin pushing for reforms to the education system. After realizing that one-in-three manufacturers were unable to fill vacancies the industry’s advocacy group, the National Association of Manufacturers, began calling for the expansion of competency-based education.

Jacey Wilkins, of the National Manufacturing Institute, explained that part of the problem companies like Toyota and GE face when trying to attract qualified candidates for the nearly 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs is perception, particularly amongst young people. Wilkins explained that millennials’ lack of interest comes from the idea that “people want manufacturing jobs in the US; they just want them for someone else.”

To overcome what Wilkins describes as a “moderate to severe perception problem” manufacturers introduced a badge system in March 2012. Wilkins explained that one of the reasons manufacturers were willing to embrace badges is that they help promote classroom transparency.

“So many times academic credentials are terms academics understand,” Wilkins said. “They don’t easily translate into terms that employers understand.”

NMI developed their badge program along a two tier system that focused on teaching both college and K-12 students the skills necessary to compete in the workplace. NMI’s first programs were rolled out at community colleges across the country, over 100 of who revamped their curriculum to better meet manufacturers’ needs and incorporate the new badges.

One of the most high profile colleges to adopt NMI’s new curriculum was the for-profit University of Phoenix. Bill Berry, dean of the University of Phoenix’s business school, helped the mega-college adopt NMI’s recommended curriculum. He explained that the school looked to a trade organization because “they have adapted to a new reality.”

“A degree is now an assembly of knowledge,” Berry said. “The curriculum is a variety of skills and competencies that can be met in a variety of ways.”

Berry went on to say that because the majority of University of Phoenix’s students are working adults, a population he characterized as “looking for their next promotion,” the school had to make sure that any changes to their curriculum included effective prior learning assessment.

“We want to make sure that students are learning what they need to learn, not learning what they already know,” Berry said. “We asked ourselves, ‘how do we keep students from having to start over?’”

Follow Alex Wukman on Twitter:@alexwukman

An Education

the age of learning online, bit by bit (pun intended)

    Alex Wukman

    Written by

    Houston-based freelance writer. Author: Great Destinations Galveston to South Padre. Poet and occasional playwright.

    An Education

    the age of learning online, bit by bit (pun intended)

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