Stinking Badges


(Ha, you thought I was going with the Brooks movie or Sierra Madre, right?)

Because this seems as good a place as any to note it, I think one person who doesn’t get credit enough on learning badges is Roger Schank. When I went to work for his company in 2000, he’d already been talking about a “merit badge” approach to assessment for years. And for certain projects with Harvard Business School Publishing and others, we essentially implemented those approaches.

Here’s Schank talking in 1999 about it:

“We won’t get rid of certification but perhaps we can contemplate new kinds of certification. Students should be certified as having accomplished something or as being able to do something. Like Boy Scout merit badges or Karate black belts or Truck Driver’s licenses, the proof should be in the pudding. A student should show his stuff, he should be able to do something and the attestation to the doing should be the certification.”

And if that leaves you thinking that “badges” was only one of many ways he expressed this idea, be assured by the time I joined the company in 2000, the merit badge metaphor was *the* metaphor used.

There were probably others at the time saying the same thing. I don’t know. But it seems like someone should give Schank some credit.

Incidentally, I have mixed feelings about badges. I was bullish on the concept even as late as 2007, but since then I have become more ambivalent.  I think I’ve become aware that while much of the badge talk centers around student learning, cognitive science, and motivation, the real reason badges are being pushed relentlessly is a lot of companies want to tap into some of that free taxpayer money for education, but don’t have the means or the patience to buy and run an accredited institution. The end game of all of this is that Facebook finds a way to skim money out of the Pell Program, or some Silicon Valley startup gets to take money from government-backed student loans.  That’s what badges are really about.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have new players in higher education, and I’m not saying badges aren’t a useful tool in our instructional design toolbox. It just makes me nervous when we discuss dismantling accreditation barriers through proxy issues like badges.

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