If you’re like me, you haven’t earned a badge since the Brownies (or Cub Scouts) in second grade. But a growing chorus believes that badges are a very special tool for 21st-century learning. They’re everything that a standardized test is not: a modular, personal recognition of a specific accomplishment or skill achieved in, or especially out of, school that can be displayed publicly. Attaching badges to achievements makes informal learning more like, dare we say it, a game; and a widely accepted badge system could even supply employers with super-granular, more timely information about an applicant’s qualifications.
This month, badges got their big break. The MacArthur Foundation announced $2.5 million in grants to be awarded to 30 winners of its Badges for Lifelong Learning competition. They administered the contest in collaboration with Mozilla, which is building an open-source Digital Badge Backpack that is meant to provide a single platform any badge maker can use to allow people to collect, store, and display their badges online in one place from youth through adulthood. (Full disclosure: I wrote about badges in Mozilla’s Learning, Freedom and the Web e-book.) A boldface cast of winners included Disney-Pixar, NASA, Intel, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, and not surprisingly, the Scouts. (A parallel contest sponsored by the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs, Education, Energy, and Labor awarded grants to three systems designed specifically for vets, to help translate their military skills into credit in college or the job market.)
“The badging system is a way to acknowledge valuable learning in a leveling-up process,” said Lisa Clements, who helped design the Wilderness Explorers badges for Disney-Pixar. Integrated with an existing curriculum involving sea turtle biology and conservation, fourth through ninth graders can complete both online research and offline activities to earn the Hatchling, Swimming, and Elder badges. “We know that if you learn something in order to do something with the knowledge, it’s faster, stickier, and more transferable,” Clements said. “In a digital platform you have an opportunity to connect learning in a way that’s organic.”
[Image: Disney’s Pixar]