This post has been inspired by a handful of sources. The barrage of op-ed pieces of late attacking higher ed as flawed and/or irrelevant (e.g., here and here). Alex Reid’s posts on “reputation badges.” And a recent discussion group at St. Edward’s about the relevance of higher education.
So, what do I mean by badge-ifying the university? I mean turning those esoteric life skills that we teach into something that can tangibly be measured and, more importantly, sold to an employer – badges that we can put on our resume or pin to our lapel. Please contain your rage and hear me out. Yes, it seems inane to turn critical thinking into a certificate. Or, turn adaptability into a two week seminar. But maybe there’s a way. And maybe it’ll be good for us, our students, and our students’ employers.
Why badges in the first place?
Certifications (badges) have become commonplace in the IT world. I can be certified in PHP, Adobe Creative Suite, Windows Servers, mouse battery changing, or any number of elements. And there’s probably 2 seminars next weekend that I can attend to get another certification.
But this idea of certification, commodification, badge-ification, or what-have-you is really quite widespread. College degrees are seen as a badge that we can use to get into law school, or get that nice job with the fat paycheck. Classes that our students take are “gotten out of the way” – or in other words, marked off of a degree plan checklist as a form of a badge on their way to graduation. Internships are not a place to apprentice in your trade, but a chance to list a well known company on your resume.
Sounds terrible, right? And it definitely has its drawbacks. We no longer pursue an education or experience for the content, but for its badges. (The Boy Scouts and their merit badges have ruined us all!) But I contend that it’s just a by-product of large, mobile capitalistic economies.
Let’s role play and pretend that I’m an owner of a small business in a town of about 300,000 people. My web designer recently resigned and I need to replace him. Having had a web presence for 10 years or so, I know what qualifications I need in my new web designer: creative and critical thinking skills, problem solving, adaptability, and the ability to learn. Specific programming skills aren’t that important. I’ve seen web technologies come and go, and since I’m hiring for the long term any specific technology isn’t that important.
I run an ad on Craig’s List announcing the position. And, not surprisingly, I get 100 reasonably qualified applicants. (That number is conservative, by the way.) I would love to judge each of them on the qualifications I’ve determined, but it’s quite challenging to figure out whether someone is adaptable or a problem solver. I just don’t have the time, energy, or mental gymnastic abilities to do that for 100 individuals. So I fall back on their badges – whether they know PHP, are proficient with my content management system, and have working knowledge of my server’s OS.
Using these badges, I whittle the pool down to just two applicants. They come in for interviews and I can then try to judge them on those esoteric qualifications I initially wanted.
But at the end of the day, badges were the most efficient, most pragmatic way for me to sort through the massive pool of applicants I got.
The flip side:
I’m a web designer in a town of about 300,000 people who’s looking for a job. One day, I pop open Craig’s List and see a position listed for a job at a small business that’s right up my alley. So I decide to apply.
As I’m drafting my application letter and resume, I try to get in the head of the employer. I know he’ll be swamped with applications. So to make myself stand out in the crowd by emphasizing my vast array of technical knowledge. That’ll jump right out and grab the employer’s attention. I’ve earned far more badges than my peers because of my propensity with new systems and drive to learn. Just before I send off my materials, I remember that training seminar I went to a couple weeks back. Hey, that’s one more badge I can list to stand out in the crowd.
Sure, I’ve got all these intangible things going for me. I’m highly driven; I love to learn and play with new technologies; I’m really creative. But those are really hard to communicate in a brief letter and a resume. So I focus on my badges.
Neither of our two personas really want to focus on badges as the primary qualifications at stake. But the nature of the game requires it. When you’re dealing with large pools of qualified applicants and limited resources to communicate qualifications, badges are the natural fallback. There’s no better solution for the dilemmas both our personas are faced with.
Why badges in Higher Ed?
That’s all well and good for technical fields, but why have badges become so important in all the disciplines? I’d contend it’s because of the changing demographics of our college students. Faculty who have been around for a while often lament that students no longer care about “learning” – they just want skills they can put on a resume. And I think those faculty are right; higher ed has become dominated by a drive for badges. That’s why there are so many technical schools and community colleges.
But why? It’s because we have a different group of individuals in our classes. College enrollment has skyrocketed. Since 1970, it’s up 238% (source). Since WWII, there has been a huge desire for a college education by the middle class. The G.I. Bill’s 8 million college-bound soldiers is just one example of that move. Success in the middle class now requires a college degree; a high school diploma is grossly insufficient.
What that means for our classrooms is that we have a large group of students who are there for reasons other than a “love of the mind.” Though I have no hard numbers for this, I would contend that the same percentage of the population goes to college because of a desire for knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The life of the mind most likely appeals to about the same percentage of people as it always has. But our college classrooms now include students who are there for other reasons. Badges.
Trying to deny this fact is an exercise in futility. Trying to ignore it, a sure way to a slow demise. Trying to embrace it, potentially a way to revitalize our image and empower our students.
Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!
What do I mean by embracing badges? I don’t mean that we should all be come technical schools. Let me repeat. We should not become technical schools. Basic technical skills without the kind of reflective thinking that we teach is pointless and counterproductive. The world still needs students who can question the nature of existence, challenge preconceptions, and work to change the future. In other words, the world still needs the kinds of ideas that we have been teaching for centuries.
But the world also needs badges. The raw numbers of our economy demand a simple and direct way to categorize and quantify skills and people. As much as my humanistic instincts rail against that, I see no other option.
So is it possible to turn those esoteric skills that we teach into badges? Maybe. I’m not proposing a class in critical thinking, or self-reflection. That’s not how you learn those skills. You learn them by taking a multitude of classes over several years, and by complementing those classes with extracurricular activities. They’re not something that can be taught in a two week summer seminar.
Rather, I’d like to expand on an idea floated by Julie Sievers. End-of-degree portfolios. To graduate, students must produce a portfolio that demonstrates they have learned what they are expected to have learned during their time in college. I support her idea of basing a college degree off of the ideas that one has learned, not the courses that one has completed.
But I’d like to take it a step further. Why should we not create badges that a student can earn by demonstrating certain skills and knowledge in that portfolio. Don’t simply say, “You’ve successfully produced a portfolio; now you can get your degree/badge.” Rather, make the portfolio a chance for students to earn additional badges. If they can demonstrate extensive critical thinking skills, give them that badge. If they can prove that they can adapt to new situations well, another badge. Not every student will graduate with the same badges – thus making badges themselves more meaningful (for the reverse, think of the insignificance of a B.S. in Business Management).
Yes, there are a slew of challenges with this system. How can you demonstrate in a portfolio that you have critical thinking skills? I’ll pass the buck and tell the student that task alone is proof of critical thinking skills. But seriously, it can be hard to judge these abilities. I’d challenge that it can be done. Proof of adaptability is not insurmountable. Proof of self-reflection can be done in an extended essay. The point: there are ways to demonstrate these skills.
As for the administrative side of enacting such a system, I’ll leave that to my peers who are greater experts in evaluation.