Badges – who do we trust, and why?

by Paul Maharg on 16/02/2017

I’ve been interested in badges for a while now, and impressed with what the good folks over at Mozilla have been doing to create open badges.[1] There’s a badge kit, discussed here, and you can carry your badges around in your backpack.  Cool stuff.

A couple of months back I’d just come back to Glasgow from Canberra, and was getting over jet lag, drowsing, reading anything to get you to sleep as you do, and in my case it happened to be Macedonian military culture in the Hellenistic period (I’d done a MOOC on the Greek Hero just for the experience of doing one (my experiences described here and here) and was still hooked on background reading) when it dawned on me, slow learner that I am, that what was called in Greek armies of the period a semeion, defined as a ‘visible sign, token, standard or signal’, was of course a badge. And that the military had been using signs for millennia, not just to signal what to do on a battlefield, but to signal who was supposed to be doing what, eg the guy galloping ahead of you with the horse trappings and the gold wreath round his helmet given to him by Alexander himself in front of the whole army, and whose sign you had on your belt and shield, he was a cavalry Companion, surrounded by his own close companions, and knew what he was doing and what you needed to do, and everything about him signified leadership. Which semiotic bonding was hugely important for you, surrounded as you were by your own unit companions whom you trusted in that critical moment.

There are three interlocking issues for Higher Education: trust, semiotics/aesthetics, necessity.  The first is raised in a good post by Scott Leslie on badges in HE, with lots of comment on recognition systems, building trust networks etc.  When Scott mentions that part of the problem is the connotation of the word ‘badge’ he’s right. The Scout uniform, an oft-quoted example, is itself a badge, one that contributed to the pseudo-military aspect of Boy Scout culture (aged 10, I have to confess, I was attracted but lasted all of three weeks — couldn’t take seriously the oath to the Queen, flag-salutin’ etc — and it was the wrong flag, the union jack, not the saltire, and there wasn’t enough wilderness stuff, which is what I’d really joined up for).  But underlying it, as Scott points out, lies the issue of trust — as he puts it, ‘who do we trust and why?’.  Doug Belshaw made a similar point when he pointed to the differences between Open Badges and LinkedIn profiles or CVs – ‘they’re a bunch of evidence rather than a bunch of claims’.

Second, semiotics is so important here: the look & feel of the thing as something that you want to carry with you, that you feel proud to say you’ve achieved and that you belong(ed) to that community. So the badge has to be a generally-acknowledged representation of the community of practice, it can’t be trivial even if it’s a counter-cultural something. For instance, at times of Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in the UK, Quakers (a notoriously unbadged religious community of which I’m one) often wear white poppies instead of red, to signify a commitment to peace and non-violence, amongst other things.  Of course, you could have levels of badges within which you work up the hierarchy, as per gaming levels in online games. But starting at trivial levels probably isn’t useful. And it’s hard to establish a semiotic system when the organisation (army, university, religion, online gaming world, whatever) doesn’t recognise it.  I don’t mean the culture and ceremony of the degree award – degree ceremonies, parchments, robes, bits of Latin, are curious affairs, actually fairly modern inventions in the UK, derived from German universities.  Badges are different: they could be the detailed, granular awards for performance throughout your degree, and worthwhile for that, you would have thought — though as the Insignia team at ANU point out in their blog here, the institution had problems with the team’s OLT project, and they had to go to a third-party provider, Credly, to supply the badges.

Thirdly, do we need badges?  If there’s no need, they’ll never be used or useful.  Let’s take a context to explore that: what might a legal education badge look like?  What is its important social context?  Actually, this isn’t as difficult as the trust issue.  In my post on doctoral study, I pointed out the need for PhD students to be given experience in recognising and using occluded genres in research.  Capable use of the genres by students, evidence of learning and experience, would be ideal for a badge, awarded by a supervisor, editor or co-editor, and which would contain what the student actually did or contributed to in order to be awarded the badge.  In its very useful paper Crowdsourcing an open badge system for research training and supervision the Insignia project shows how a research training curriculum for Higher Degree Research can be badged by reference to learning outcomes, training content and e-portfolio outcomes. 

If it can apply there, it can apply to other postgraduate and undergraduate learning zones.  And not just in Australia, but in any jurisdiction.  Indeed why aren’t we working towards cross-jurisdictional and global acknowledgment of accredited badge systems? Are badges like JD or LLB really sufficient any more to describe what our students do in their multi-varied degrees? Were they ever?  In the future, as I described here, envisaging a distributed decentralised institution, badges together with other emerging technologies will become more important to describe what our students have done, who they are; and who we are as academics and what our law schools do:

 In legal education, a blockchained environment might include learning objects, a comms system, a badge system (eg Mozilla Badges), a payment system, access to knowledge and skills environments and other decentralised functions.  Decentralisation — what’s the role of the LMS then?  I’d guess that we’re already moving away from it, and blockchained legal education will probably render it unwieldy, pointless.

Finally, and as always, there are regulatory implications to a blockchain + badges environment.  In its defence we might argue that it will act as evidence to counter studies such as Academically Adrift, that describe what is perceived as the poverty of learning gains among conventional students across a range of colleges in the US.[2]   Badges go beyond the either/or of input or output models.  They are evidence of experience, but point beyond experience.  Framed wisely, they can enhance the democratic polity the creation of which Dewey saw as an important aim of Higher Education.

  1. [1]This post is a version of a comment I made at the Insignia blog, an OLT-funded investigation into the use of badges in Higher Education, aspects of which I discuss below
  2. [2]See also Douglass, J.A., Thomson, G. & Zhao, C.M. (2012). The learning outcomes race: the value of self-reported gains in large research universities.  Higher Education, 64, 3, 317-335.  doi:10.1007/s10734-011-9496-x

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Tamara Hervey February 17, 2017 at 01:22

Great picture, thought-provoking stuff. As usual. Thank you.

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