Using digital badges to measure student competency and achievement in areas that do not fit inside the traditional classroom has been growing for quite some time now, evident by the increasing number of programs now available.
A digital badge is essentially an image posted on a website, resume or social media profile that servers as a hyperlink to all the information necessary to interpret that image and its significance in terms of student competency or achievement.
The Smithsonian Institution, for example, offers the Quests badging program for youth to explore their interests and demonstrate their knowledge and skills in various content areas through online projects and activities.
The idea of badges is rapidly gaining attention, and students are being encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity now as it can only help, not hurt, when it comes to showcasing their skills to admissions committees through e-learning portfolios or on their Facebook page, which university officials are already looking at.
Some people in postsecondary education are concerned that a “badging economy” that allows individuals to obtain proof of competency in relevant skills areas outside of a traditional higher education curriculum could threaten traditional methods of obtaining a professional credential, such as college and university programs.
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In the traditional college application process, students have always possessed a limited set of tools in their profile, including grades, SAT and ACT scores, AP exam results, extracurricular activities, essays and recommendations.
A world in which everything a student does, whether inside or outside of school, can be measured and categorized by a digital badge would – with a common set of standards and if viewed as legitimate by colleges and universities – greatly change the college admissions process, as well as how students think about learning.
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Mozilla has introduced its Open Badges Infrastructure, which aims to be that common set of standards for digital badges. Students are able to create a Mozilla backpack, where they can collect, store and share their badges.
Some experts see badging as a potential equalizer, as students in schools without access to a full range of subject offerings or AP tests could, either through their schools or through an extracurricular program, obtain badges in subjects that may have the potential to carry the same weight as AP scores.
Badges for competencies in areas such as teamwork could quantify so-called soft skills that universities are currently unable to measure outside of essays and teacher recommendations. If students earn badges as proof of achievement or competency through extracurricular activities, badges could become weighed as part of the college admissions process.
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In essence, digital badges have the potential to solidify many of the more unquantifiable portions of a college admissions profile. This, in turn, could lessen the stranglehold that grades, SAT scores and AP exams currently have on the process.
Some worry that the ability to quantify everything may negatively affect students’ motivation to learn for learning’s sake – that badging itself could simply create yet another opportunity for a college admissions arms race.
While being mindful of these potential pitfalls, it's important to recognize the potential benefit that digital badging has in allowing students to construct learning portfolios that more accurately reflect who they are as unique individuals.
While badging may never replace grades and scores as an important measure for college admissions, it could allow students whose intellectual prowess and potential for achievement are not properly measured by these traditional tools to construct a profile that more accurately presents their strengths to colleges and universities.