This is the third in a series intended to describe the process by which education reformers are transitioning us from neighborhood schools to learning eco-systems. For additional background you can read “From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade” and “Questions We Should Be Asking About Future Ready Schools.”
Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the drumbeat for “innovative,” “personalized” education has grown stronger and more insistent. Key to the successful implementation of Education Reform 2.0 is convincing the public that education in school buildings with certified human teachers is obsolete. The No Child Left Behind Act laid the groundwork. It created increasingly hostile working conditions for teachers, inhumane learning conditions for students, and emphasized standards and test scores above all else.
While the public was sold a story that national standards were about ensuring equity for all children, parents of children enrolled in predominately low-income districts know that is not true. Time and time again we have seen that the standards-based accountability frameworks established under NCLB focus on outputs, NEVER inputs. These laws did not secure additional resources for children in need. They were designed to raise expectations for college and career readiness while kneecapping, through ongoing austerity budgets, our schools’ ability to meet our children’s most basic needs. Imposition of Common Core State Standards, value-added measures, high school exit exams, third-grade reading guarantees, test-score based “turnaround” policies, data-walls, and the like, have gradually institutionalized a punitive, data-driven approach to education across our country.
So what exactly does that have to do with badges? Well, data-driven education and badges go hand-in-hand. It makes sense once you realize the end goal is to replace our current system of public education with individualized pathways geared to “anytime, anyplace, any pace” learning mediated largely through technological devices that collect and aggregate educational data. The data is all aligned to The Common Educational Data Standards and now xAPI or Tin Can has replaced SCORM to make collection of online and offline educational data easily trackable.
This is not limited to K12 or even P20, the powers that be envision this process of meeting standards and collecting badges to be something we will have to do our ENTIRE LIVES. If you haven’t yet seen the “Learning is Earning” video-stop now and watch it, because it makes this very clear. Badges are representations of standards that have been met, competencies that have been proven. Collections of badges could determine our future career opportunities. The beauty of badges from a reformer’s perspective is that they are linked to pre-determined standards and can be earned “anywhere.” You can earn them from an online program, from a community partner, even on the job. As long as you can demonstrate you have mastery of a standard, you can claim the badge and move on to the next bit of micro-educational content needed to move you along your personalized pathway to the workforce.
In this brave, new world education will no longer be defined as an organic, interdisciplinary process where children and educators collaborate in real-time, face-to-face, as a community of learners. Instead, 21st century education is about unbundling and tagging discrete skill sets that will be accumulated NOT with the goal of becoming a thoughtful, curious member of society, but rather for attaining a productive economic niche with as little time “wasted” on “extraneous” knowledge as possible. The problem, of course, is that we know our children’s futures will depend on flexibility, a broad base of knowledge, the ability to work with others, and creative, interdisciplinary thinking, none of which are rewarded in this new “personalized pathway/badging” approach to education.
The reformers needed to get data-driven, standards-based education firmly in place before spotlighting their K12 badge campaign. Low-key preparations have been in the works for some time. In 2011, Mozilla announced its intention to create an Open Badges standard that could be used to verify, issue, and display badges earned via online instructional sites. The MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) supported this effort. In 2013 a citywide badging pilot known as “The Summer of Learning” was launched in Chicago. 2013 was also the year that the Clinton Global Initiative joined the badge bandwagon. They have since agreed to incorporate badges into their operations and work to bring them to scale globally as part of the Reconnect Learning collaborative.
Other partners in the “Reconnect Learning” badging program include: The Afterschool Alliance, Badge Alliance, Blackboard, Digital Promise, EdX, ETS, Hive Learning Networks, Pearson, Professional Examination Service and Council for Aid to Education, and Workforce.IO.
The Chicago Summer of Learning program expanded nationally and has since evolved into LRNG Cities, a program of the MacArthur Foundation. According to their website: “LRNG Cities combine in-school, out-of-school, employer-based and online learning experiences into a seamless network that is open and inviting to all youth. LRNG Cities connect youth to learning opportunities in schools, museums, libraries, and businesses, as well as online.”
In some ways such a system may sound wonderful and exciting. But I think we need to ask ourselves if we shift K12 funding (public, philanthropic, or social impact investing) outside school buildings, and if we allow digital badges to replace age-based grade cohorts, report cards, and diplomas, what are we giving up? Is this shiny, new promise worth the trade off? Many schools are shadows of their former selves. They are on life support. It is very likely that expanding the role of community partners and cyber education platforms via badging will put the final nail in the coffin of neighborhood schools. But before that happens we first need to ask ourselves…
Do we really want pathway designers and non-credentialed mentors guiding our children instead of certified teachers who understand pedagogy and child development?
Do we want a public education framework built on the constant input of data into devices in order to earn badges for the skills others value? Is that productive or emotionally healthy?
Do we want an integrated, holistic approach to teaching children that is attuned to their humanity or are we sticking with the data-driven version that has been thrust upon us?
What would the adoption of a “badging” approach to K12 education mean in terms of local control of curriculum? Are we really comfortable handing over the education of future generations to employers, museums, online games/simulations, and learning management systems that are unaccountable to voters?
What are the privacy implications for K12 badging? Are there going to be badges for social-emotional qualifications, too? Because that certainly seems to be the direction that CASEL and NAEP are headed.
Do we want to be that reliant on technology that has such a short lifespan, is vulnerable to hacking and technical problems, and is actually very expensive (cost and energy-wise) to maintain?
Badges appeal to our desire to accumulate and collect. They quench our craving for short-term gratification and allow us to indulge in healthy (and unhealthy) levels of competition. In an age of the quantified self, badges serve to create and reinforce our identity in the virtual world. Badges have their origins in scouting (oh those sashes) and later gaming and avatars. They seem so harmless, fun even. But would we really want to be reduced to the contents of an online backpack of badges? Is that something we want for our children?
I can see how badging could work as a SUPPLEMENT to a properly funded, equitable public education system that prioritizes developmentally appropriate instruction and human teachers and offers a rich, IN-SCHOOL curriculum for children up to the age of 18. IF you have ALL of that in place, feel free to supplement with badges during out-of-school time for children who choose to take advantage of such programs. But don’t require it. And don’t use it as a means to outsource education to community partners and cyber education companies.
While right now badges may seem an innocuous novelty, if they end up being used as a substitute for an independent system of public education we’re in real trouble.
More on badges:
The Business of Badging and Predicting Children’s Futures