The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”
That, from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, of course, is all I could think of on reading Kevin Carey’s New York Times piece “Show Me Your Badge” a few days before the election.
I hope most of us thought the same.
Carey was writing about “a digital badge, a new type of credential being developed by some of the most prominent businesses and learning organizations in the world.” But that doesn’t make me more impressed. Carey goes on:
Badges are gaining currency at the same time that a growing number of elite universities have begun offering free or low-cost, noncredit courses to anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to learn. Millions of students have already signed up for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. By developing information-age credentials backed by a wide array of organizations outside the education system, creators of badge programs may be mounting the first serious competition to traditional degrees since college-going became the norm.
Or maybe not.
However these badges are earned, it is always through a process that cuts out creativity and innovation. Because the benchmarks have to be based on what has been done, not on what can be imagined or on real innovation, the badges cannot help (if eventually used in colleges and universities) but narrow what has been, for the most part, an expansive system of education. Critical thinking is replaced by memorization of processes and pathways.
The interest in badges comes from observation of digital games:
Anyone who has ever seen a teenager glued to a screen for hours playing World of Warcraft can attest to the powerful lure of digital rewards. The buzzword is “gamification” — the use of gaming elements like points, levels and badges to engage with a product or service. Carnegie Mellon researchers are finding that integrating badges into courses motivates students to keep learning.
Thing is, games are closed systems created by someone else. And rewards “earned” are rewards “given.” Nothing is created within the system–unless the system has a means for going beyond it. If it does, of course, it doesn’t need internal rewards or badges.
Let me put aside the value of credentialing, in earning a degree–for that brings up another whole set of arguments. Maybe I will go into them some other time. Instead, let’s look at this for what it is, something simple (ignoring, also, that the badges can carry information for advertisers–another question completely) awarded for completion of specific tasks.
I learned a great deal as a Boy Scout, but I never got anywhere with it. I just couldn’t manage to retain the cards with the lists of things I had to do to progress or to earn merit badges. I did everything for a dozen or so, but I really wasn’t interested in the paperwork or, frankly, even in the badges. I wanted to do things for themselves, not for such paltry rewards.
Though I never succeeded in the hierarchy of Scouting, the things I learned without attaining certification have stood me well. I have the skills; who needs the badges?
Let me show you what I can do instead of a badge saying I can do it.