March 1, 2013

Why We Need Badges Now: A Bibliography of Resources in Historical Perspective

Category: Edtech
poster of different badges icons explaining badges are visual representations of skill or achievement

It was something over a year ago when we first began talking about badges as a powerful new tool for identifying and validating the rich array of people’s skills, knowledge, accomplishments, and competencies that happens everywhere and at every age.  That’s when we decided that this year the Digital Media and Learning Competition would be dedicated to an array of competitions on badging.  I remember when we started writing, blogging, talking, speaking, and in other ways trying to create a conversation around badges as an alternative mode of assessment, people would look at me like I was a little daft.  Boy Scout sashes?  Police badges?

It has been tremendously exciting and gratifying to watch this conversation catch fire, deepen, yield to debate, mature, progress, and turn into actual deployable badge systems that offer an array of new ways to capture and inspire learning.  The amount of research and writing on badges seems to be increasing exponentially all the time.  It is happening so fast, from so many quarters, that now we need some help sorting it all out and to provide help to researchers in the field, to teachers, and to assessment experts.  Two members of our HASTAC/Connected Learning/Digital Media and Learning Competition team have done just that.  They have done us all an enormous service by pausing to compile, curate, and even annotate the first bibliography on digital badges, a marvelously user-friendly bibliographic guide through the thicket of information and ideas in over 160 separate articles, papers, blogs, and other content types.

Sheryl Grant is Director of Social Networking for the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, and PhD student at the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Kristan E. Shawgo is HASTAC Special Projects Manager and Ci-BER Library Liaison, and recent MSLS graduate from SILS at UNC-Chapel Hill.  They invite you to contribute your own additions—no bibliography is complete.  But you can find here the best single compendium of scholarly and research articles as well as blogs, news stories, and opinion pieces on badges, categorized, curated, annotated with links.

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So why all this excitement about badging?  Why now?  The incredible excitement over badges is because they offer so much that our current assessment systems do not.  Even those who have issues with badging (and the bibliography Grant and Shawgo have curated includes critical commentaries too), agree that our current assessment systems are broken.

I’ve written elsewhere about the 1914 invention of the multiple choice test, how random it was, addressing the teacher shortage of the First World War, the soaring immigrant population in the U.S., and the new requirements for secondary education.  Frederick Kelly wrote his dissertation on the topic, pleased that the assembly line that could produce Model T’s could also efficiently pass students through secondary education by a standardized item-response test for “lower-order thinking” that anyone could grade.  In a teacher shortage, that was crucial.

And then the Scholastic Aptitude Test, less than a decade later, took up the single-best-answer test as its standard for higher education admission, transforming an automated test designed to certify in the fastest, most efficient ways lower-order thinking into the single litmus test for college readiness.  Worldwide, the multiple-choice test became the standard.  What a tragedy!  This highly limited test is now what we consider as the “benchmark” for learning excellence.  It’s been that way for decades, with a huge boost in recent years from the 2002 No Child Left Behind policy that makes such standardized, end-of-grade summative testing our measure for “what counts.”

Tragically, this way of counting leaves out so much of what we value.  We know multiple choice summative testing is deficient as a metric for knowledge learned, for subject matter coverage, for a range of different kinds of intelligence (including analytic, synthetic, combinatory forms of knowing).  It’s a flawed metric.  And, more seriously, it dis-incentivizes exploratory teaching in favor of “teaching to the test” and does nothing to motivate and inspire real learning.  Nor does it identify and validate the complex characteristics of intelligence, interest, skill, competency, and knowledge.

For all these reasons, badging is being embraced as a possible alternative model.  If you want to learn more, please visit

Banner image credit and permission: Mozilla