Digital badges and the purpose of education

We have now come to the end of the sixth topic – Recognition – in Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC.  For me, this has been the least satisfying of the course topics so far. I have been trying to work out why this is so, and think it must be because I have somehow failed to ‘recognise’ what it is all about ;-). At some level, which I am finding it difficult to identify (I am hoping that writing this post will help), I have not been able to align my own knowledge and understanding with this week’s course content. This has been somewhat demotivating.

I started off on the wrong foot. When I saw the topic ‘Recognition’ I thought we would be digging into how knowledge is distributed across a network and how we identify or see this as knowledge. I thought this might lead to further discussion about how we learn across a distributed network. And, yes, on one level the topic was about this, but it was much more about ‘giving’ (or collecting) recognition for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviours and keeping track of this through the award of badges.

It took me until the end of last week to realise that the topic wasn’t really about assessment or learning, but ultimately about how to automate the issuing of records of achievement in the form of badges. This is what Stephen worked on for most of the week; he has shared his learning on how to do this on his Half an Hour blog. See the Badge API and Setting Up Badges. He is rightly pleased with this outcome. A job well done. He could award himself a badge 🙂

Meanwhile the rest of us were exploring how to create a badge in Badgr or similar sites, with greater or lesser degrees of success. See the end of this post for links to participants’ posts. A very useful post was shared by Random Access, who, it turns out, has extensive experience of working on Open Badges with the Scottish Social Services Council. I liked the video explanation of Open Badges shared in that post, which I’ll include here, and the emphasis on authentic learning experiences and reflecting on learning. It’s worth watching the video and reading the whole post.

Stephen also emphasised authentic tasks in his summary for this week. He hopes that these will be designed by humans to balance the possibility of biased algorithms. I think this is one of the things that has been troubling me. It has all felt a bit detached from the learner – a mechanism for determining at scale ‘what counts as success’ and how we measure that success.

As well as badges, Stephen discussed competencies and competency frameworks. He writes in his summary for this week Badges, certificates and awards are recognition entities. So are endorsements, references, and plaudits. I have said in the past that the recognition entity of the future will be a job offer.’ This of course has implications for the purpose of education. I really hope that there is more to education than collecting a personal backpack of badges to prove to employers that we are who we say we are, and that it is more than an encounter with robots or algorithms (Gert Biesta talks about this in his video talk about The Beautiful Risk of Education – with thanks to @mark_mcguire for sharing this in the #el30 twitter stream).

Stephen shares the draft writing of his weekly summaries in a Google Doc, which is a great example of open practice and the summaries are so very helpful This week he wrote:

The traditional educational model is based on tests and assignments, grades, degrees and professional certifications. But with xAPI activity data we can begin tracking things like which resources a person read, who they spoke to, and what questions they asked – anything.

This concerned me – so I commented:

Is this what we really want? How can we avoid living in a ‘Big Brother’ /panopticon world?

Laura Ritchie replied:

In reply to Jenny – to me this is more about the possibilities of a more broad understanding and acceptance of evidence rather than a surveillance model. I doubt Stephen is suggesting ‘spying’ on students or tracking/mapping, but that instead it could be something they catalogue as part of ‘evidence’ for some task/concept.

I doubt it too, but that’s not to say that this couldn’t happen. In fact, unless the purpose of education remains really clearly thought through and all these developments are clearly underpinned by clarity of purpose, then I think it would be easy to slip into practices which might be detrimental to learning.

Biesta sees the purpose of education as going beyond student-centred education. He sees it as learning what it means to live together in the world. Ronald Barnett hopes that the student will develop a sustained will to learn. (Barnett, T., 2007, A Will to Learn. Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty. Open University Press ). Etienne Wenger discusses in depth, in his book, Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, issues related to how learning changes who we are. These are just three of many authors, not to mention philosophers, who have questioned the meaning and purpose of education.

Stephen believes that’ new decentralized network technologies will enable individuals to manage their own credentials’ ( see this week’s summary). In his final paragraph he writes:

These developments represent a signal change in the deployment of both learning analytics and artificial intelligence in education in the years to come. Today, such systems focus on process, and centrally and institutionally designed, and benefit teachers and employers far more than they do individual learners. Indeed,  the only people not benefiting are the learners themselves, with their own data. And that’s what can and must change.

Having reached the end of this post I realise that I do understand that if teaching and learning are to happen at scale across a distributed network, so that there is the potential for anyone anywhere to have access to an education, and learners can be in more control of their learning,  then we need new systems to recognise and validate this education. I suppose my concern is whether these new systems can or will encourage the type of purpose for education so eloquently discussed in such depth by authors such as Biesta, Wenger and Barnett, and whether learners will ‘recognise’ that there is more to education than being awarded a badge, a certificate or even a PhD.

Update: 05-12-18

In addition to the comprehensive comment from Stephen below, in which he responds to this post, he has also now posted this video, in which he explains his thinking with respect to this topic – Recognition – and why he thinks it important.

References to Participants Blog Posts

Davey Maloney –

Roland Legrand –

Frank Polster –

Kevin Hodgson –

Lou –

Random Access –

Laura Ritchie –

Matthias Melcher –

4 thoughts on “Digital badges and the purpose of education

  1. Stephen Downes December 4, 2018 / 7:45 pm

    The video might help with your unease, or it might not.

    I’m pretty sure I understand the basis for your unease. I think it stems from two major sources:
    – first, that ‘recognition’ as described in this module was not congruent with ‘recognition’ as I have described it in the past, in the sense of ‘knowledge as recognition’,
    – second, that there is more to education than recognition as defined in this module.

    With respect to the first: yes. In this way the video might help. Ultimately, I think that the two uses of the word ‘recognition’ ought to be the same. ‘Knowing that x is a doctor’ is the same sort of problem as ‘knowing that x is a tiger’, and are answered the same way, ‘we recognize that x is a y’.

    True, I did not talk about *how* we recognize in this module, except maybe a little bit near the end. When you say it’s about “how we learn across a distributed network” you are absolutely correct. But that’s not the purpose of this module (it would be the purpose of a module called ‘Knowledge’ if I had one).

    In this module, the objective is to get ‘from here to there’ – that is, from an understanding of ‘recognition as badges & certificates’ to ‘recognition as knowing x is y’. So I begin with an analysis of what we’re up to with competencies and badges, and (I think) maybe end up where I want to end up. (But it might take a few iterations of this module to make it work).

    With respect to the second, yes of course there is more to education than recognition (or at least, more than recognition in the first sense, as badges and certificates, etc.). I spend a bit of extra time in the video talking about how success can be defined by learners themselves.

    I also want to be pragmatic about this. I think that for *some* people the purpose of education and learning is a certificate or badge, and that’s it, where these are in turn currency that buys them what they want, like a better job, respect, whatever.

    For others (including partially myself) learning addresses the need to complete a task (making shelves, taking a good photo, repairing a bicycle). And here, my tasks and badges are just stand-ins for the much better tasks and rewards you will give yourself.

    And so on. There may be “more to education than recognition” but this is pretty hard to pin down, and probably varies for every person, especially with the wider definition of recognition (as in ‘knowledge is recognition’). Is there more to education than knowledge? Sure there is – education is the basis for community, for relationships, for entertainment, and on and on we go.

    ‘Recognition’ is one way to talk about one aspect of education. It was never intended to talk about the whole thing.

  2. Anonymous December 4, 2018 / 9:00 pm

    Hi Jenny
    I just want you to know that I have been reading your posts and thoroughly enjoyed them on many levels. They have caused me to think deeply about a number of issues of, what I also think, are extremely important to the evolution of education and humanity in general … so thank you. Each time I read one of your posts I started to formulate a response … but then never posted it as I didn’t think it was finished enough to post. So … sorry for not giving my responses. I’ve been busy working on a scifi movie script in which I use some of Iain McGilchrist’s ideas … and look at a scenario in the future when we are able to embed knowledge directly into a brain by copying and pasting neural circuits from one brain into another – rewiring the brain artificially. Your posts and Blog generally, has been very useful in helping me grapple with a variety of issues related to this.
    Thank you
    Bruno Annetta

  3. jennymackness December 5, 2018 / 10:30 am

    Stephen – very many thanks for your comprehensive response which is very helpful. I have updated the post to include your video which will also help any readers who might have been confused by my post.

    I think you identified the reasons for my unease correctly. I am hoping that education won’t become too mechanised and automated, or at least not to the extent that it becomes detrimental to learning. Hopefully the purpose of automation will be to free up space so that teachers and learners can focus on the aspects of education that are ‘more than recognition’.

  4. jennymackness December 5, 2018 / 10:35 am

    Hi Bruno – lovely to hear from you and thanks so much for your comment. How fascinating that you are working on a scifi movie script, although the scenario sound rather disturbing!

    This course is very interesting and thought provoking. It’s good to know you are following along. In case you have not found it, a wealth of resources has been provided on the course site at

    I hope work on your movie script continues to go well. Good to know that you have found some of this course’s content helpful.

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