Here is my response to David Wiley’s very interesting blog post about an educational badge system, similar to the Mozilla Open Badges program.

David, I didn’t mean to be unpleasant in my Twitter responses to you. I’m still grateful to you for agreeing to be a WatchKnow (now WatchKnowLearn, and now in the able hands of Dr. Joe Thomas) advisory committee member. I didn’t mean my remarks personally or even especially confrontationally–I was just giving you my honest reaction, in response to your call for comment. I care about this because I’ve written about something similar, and as someone who has started an ambitious project that got away from him, I see significant potential for that happening here. I also care because I really think that something like this may well lie in our future. So let me develop my points more fully.

1. About the word “badge.” As the above discussion [on Wiley’s blog] makes plain, this talk of “badges” marks this whole endeavor as one started by boys, or former Boy Scouts. On a marketing point, I would worry about losing some traction with the female majority of the college-going public. Speaking for myself, I don’t like the talk of “badges” because this implies that hard-won credentials are merely bragging rights, or a mark of authority, of the sort Boy Scout badges or police badges are. I have a Ph.D. but I don’t put my diploma on display like a “badge”; that’s bad taste [unless you’re a doctor, in which case the diploma serves as an important selling point]. Also, you aren’t reporting much thinking about how this whole project will be received by academia; academics are not apt to find “badges” very compelling.

2. So, let’s talk about the whole idea of academia confronting this endeavor. Far be it from me to speak for academe (you’re the paper-publishing professor, not me), I think this deserves some consideration.

Let’s begin here. You say, “the gold standard for learning credentials is acceptability by employers.” I’m not sure what this means, exactly. Is this a statement about what degree-seeking students (the customers of universities) believe, what “society in general” believes, or what is really, in fact, the highest conceivable standard in your own personal opinion?

When it comes to evaluating someone’s B.A. in Philosophy, do you want to say that “the gold standard” is “acceptability by employers”? Would that mean that I am a better philosopher if my degree has a better chance of getting me hired? Speaking as a formerly under-employed philosophy major, that sounds utterly ridiculous. A degree is, objectively speaking, supposed to indicate some actual level of intellectual attainment in the field. Surely you don’t mean to say that, if an employer hires me for such-and-such a degree, that indicates that I have reached that level of attainment in the field? Of course it doesn’t mean that.

3. Speaking as someone who hires people from time to time, to help with my projects, what I’m looking for depends entirely on the job. When I was looking for a voiceover person, the absolute only thing I cared about was the quality of her performance. But when I was hiring editors for an educational website, I was looking for the ability to write, as well as do or understand other things that a college education trains to do or understand. In that case I required a college degree and in fact was strongly preferring an M.A. in the relevant subject area.

Suppose I were hiring ten years from now and, lo, a dozen candidates lacked an M.A. but had “badges” that, the candidates (or some organization) claimed, was “equivalent” to an M.A. So how do I evaluate this claim of equivalence? My mind might have already been made up (I know that various companies are hiring such grads with no more complaints, so far, than they have about their recent college grads). But if it is up to me, I am going to look at the process whereby the “degree equivalent” is granted.

If a “badge” is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I’m not likely to take it seriously, and most others won’t either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill “degrees,” the whole endeavor will–obviously, I think–not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of “badges,” but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Your blog makes it very clear that you don’t propose a system in which badges are self-claimed. You want badges awarded by some sort of objective body. That is, of course, as it should be. (By the way, why not Excelsior College? They’ve been doing this, although they award things that they call “degrees” instead of “badges.”) But what do you imagine this objective body would look like?

The impetus behind your proposal, and the Mozilla white paper (which I read a version of a while ago), does not seem so much to be to make credentialing cheaper and more lightweight, as it is getting it away from academe altogether. Well, why? Come on now–do you really think that a Google employee is going to be able to evaluate a “badge” portfiolio better than a professor of computer science, who has long experience doing exactly this sort of thing?

4. You mention that badge evaluation might be, somehow, “crowdsourced.” This is a startling claim. It is one thing to crowdsource an encyclopedia article or software. We know why those work, at least as well as they do work. Why on earth think that evaluating credentials is something that could be accomplished Wikipedia-style? Perhaps (I doubt this, but just suppose) you are proposing that people vote on whether a person has made the grade. Well, I obviously don’t know, but I seriously doubt you’ll get many volunteers to do the hard work of portfolio evaluation–unless identified personalities are involved and the evaluation is not done in “blind” fashion. I mean, if people can get “badges” by getting a thumbs up from some benchmark number of people in a community of practice–boy, count me out. You mention gameability; that very suggestion positively screams gameability, precisely because personalities are involved. If the crowdsourcing is suitably double-blind, I doubt you’ll get many volunteers. In my experience, people volunteer for the fun stuff. They don’t volunteer for the real gruntwork; you have to pay people for that.

I’m guessing that you think that grading should be kept as independent of personalities as possible, and moreover, you agree with me that employers and graduate schools etc. are going to care, a lot, about the quality of the “badge” evaluation program. Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that this is going to end up calling in the professionals–the experts, in whatever field. After all, if I’m looking at two candidates, one of which was credentialed by some outfit I’ve never heard of, and the other of which was credentialed by Harvard, well, I’m going to respect the “badges” of the latter quite a bit more, won’t I? Surely the “badges” as recognized by more prestigious institutions will be worth more. And even if, in the move to bring this sort of system into the online world, there is some shuffling of players (say, Harvard makes the switch to an online badging system, but Yale is late to the game and fails), that won’t stop there from being competitive credentialing.

I think a lot of the starry-eyed dreaminess about this whole venture stems from the fact that it would seem to take credentialing out of the hands of elites and put into the hands of the masses. Well, I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Why should it? Indeed, what about your project, insofar as it is plausible, puts credentialing in the hands of the masses?

Well, the credentialing isn’t put into the hands of the masses. It is put into the hands of people who are willing to take money from people to evaluate exams, portfolios, etc., in exchange for small and large credentials. The only thing that makes this more “open” is the fact that one does not have to enroll as a student at an institution in order to get the credential. And that is something I’ve supported, wholeheartedly, at least since 1995.

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Let me add something I didn’t put on David’s blog.  I find that a lot of the talk about Web 2.0 (and 3.0) stuff is, in a certain way, very unreflective.  The whole idea of Open Badges is very interesting, but it absolutely demands a careful philosophical examination of a whole series of questions.  But I don’t see a lot of evidence that this sort of thinking has been done by many people in that whole movement, or scene, or whatever it is.  Despite a rather flimsy white paper and support by a major foundation, Mozilla seems to be going off half-cocked.  And let me tell you something–it’s one thing to go off half-cocked when you’re making an encyclopedia.  It’s another thing altogether if you’re proposing a way to compete with universities.  Surely, if there’s one thing that absolutely demands careful forethought, it’s the design of a system that attempts to replace [or even credibly compete with] university education.