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 – http://daveymoloney.com/el30/el30-recognition-task/

Roland Legrand – https://learningwithmoocs.com/uncategorized/el30-task-congratulations-you-earned-a-badge/

Frank Polster – http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/elearn-3-0-week-6-recognition-task/

Kevin Hodgson – http://dogtrax.edublogs.org/2018/11/30/when-you-give-yourself-a-badge/

Lou – https://learningreflections.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/week-6-recognition-task-create-a-badge/

Random Access – https://randomaccesslearning.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/recognition-assessment-realising-the-potential-of-open-badges/

Laura Ritchie – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/12/01/connected-learner-badge/

Matthias Melcher – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/el30-week-6-automated-assessments/