The recent announcement by Udacity to offer nano-degrees really got me thinking. It’s, of course, a new word - a hip and buzzworthy word especially with the geeky crowd (nano!). So now we’ll add that to the list beside credential, badge, microcredential, certification, certificate, pathway, industry-recognized credential, points, and probably more that I’m missing.
Let’s face it, the alternative credentialing space, as its called (words that don’t have consistent meaning themselves), is hot right now. Policy changes and exemplars like SNHU have opened the gates for more types of learning and more recognition that matters to employers and other stakeholders beyond the degree. It makes sense that there are a lot of players jumping at the opportunity to leverage the potential openings, make an impact, get a piece of the pie.
But I think we are really at risk of failing ourselves, and more importantly, the learners, if we segment too early.
Names are just words, but words really matter. If we start calling each project something different, not only are we confusing people and holding ourselves back from showing the true size and power of this work, but we are designing from the beginning, even if unintentionally, for NON-interoperability. Or should I say outeroperability or extraoperability (see, I can make up words too!)
What we’ve learned over and over, is that to really influence systematic change in learning, you need an ecosystem. To do this at the scale we all talk about, we need interoperability and connectedness across lots of organizations and stakeholders. We need need providers and contributors, with their own personal agendas, to be able to do their work, but in a way that feeds into a broader context. Otherwise, we’re designing more prescribed pathways that only touch a certain set of learners. Silos might impact a small segment, but will not lead to systematic change. In so doing, we’re limiting learners’ agency and limiting our own success.
Words really matter to people. In many occasions, I’ve gotten some scowls and exasperated comments when I assert that a badge is a credential. To many, a credential is a very specific thing and the implication is that we’re hurting ourselves and the effort by using that word. A quick look on dictionary.com returned the following:
#2 is the ticket here. Anything that can tell us something about someone with confidence. That’s definitely what we mean by ‘badge” and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Udacity means by ‘nanodegree’ and MIT means by ‘degree’. Again, I’m not trying to be naive or ignore the obvious nuances and need for validity and assurance here, but just trying to point out that the words are really not as different as we think they are. Or if they are supposed to be, then we’re doing a really bad job explaining why they are different and need to be different.
I’m not necessarily saying that ‘badge’ should be the word for everything. Or maybe I am. I personally think it could be, b/c a badge is simply an evidence-based digital record of something. That something could be a single skill, or a higher order collection of skills that represents something more like what we now call certification. I think badges can represent low stakes, informal learning experiences, as well as high stakes, stacked skills/competencies (nanodegrees are just sets of badges, no?). It’s simply more information that we need to put into each badge to distinguish. There
may be should be different types of badges like skill badges or certification badges to help distinguish and evaluate. But whether you agree with that or not, most importantly, I’m saying, let’s all agree we’re working with the same low level thing so that we can design for interoperability from the beginning at the bottom…still leaving lots of room for innovation and customization at the top, with the market, but making sure all of this great work is connected for the learners, for the ecosystem, for us.
Many of you might be thinking, ‘Wait, didn’t you make up a new word too? Why ‘badge’? Why not just call it a credential?" You don’t miss a thing, do you? :) Back a few years ago, the term ‘badge’ was something that was building on all of the interest and usage of digital badges in the social and game space at that time. We started this work at a time when the concept of alternative credentialing was only a few whispers in hallways, and the audacious statement made then was what if we used these digital badges, these digital records, as learning credentials. Again, words matter. I think it was important then to have a different word to start that conversation, which it certainly did, but now that there is momentum, adoption and interest, we’re at a time when its important to use the same words, or at least again, agree on which words we’re using for what.
I think the first step is being intentional and consistent with how we define a badge, and how these other terms are defined and used as well so that we can make a conscious decision together about what words to use and be clear about how it all fits together. Luckily the Messaging WG is tackling this head on and in addition to building talking points for key audiences, also developing a glossary of terms in the alternative credentialing space.
If you’d like to contribute to that effort, please sign up for the working group at badgealliance.org. You’ll be added to the mailing list, where you can post opinions and thoughts on this important matter and we can work it out together. Also, don’t hesitate to shoot me a note or post a comment here.
I guarantee that we’ll never settle on a word or words that everyone agrees with. But I am sure that we are all after the same thing and that we have enough of the right minds and perspectives at the table to make some conscious decisions on how to leverage each other and make the most impact. We have to design interoperability in from the beginning and that starts with the words we choose.
What do you think?