Pinning the Badge

Posted by Nishant Shah at Mar 19, 2012 02:35 AM |
In a world of competition, badging provides a holistic way of grading and learning, where individual talents are realised and the knowledge of the group is used.

The article by Nishant Shah was published in the Indian Express on March 18, 2012.

I write this column fresh out of being a judge at the Digital Media and Learning contest on “Badging for Life-long Learning” in San Francisco. While the contest focused largely on the American education system and its future, the idea of badging that each person brings a set of skills to a study or workplace is useful to think about, in connection with India. We have now spent some time, in India, hearing about how education in the country has been ruined. There is a constant narrative of the university in shambles, where we seem to lack competent teachers, engaged students, and the resources to build efficient infrastructure for learning. This argument also positions employment as the only aim of education, reducing our humanist and social sciences legacies to skill-based information transmission.

Digital technologies emerge as a cure for the problems that contemporary education seems to be facing. The availability of resources at affordable costs for anybody online, has been one of the biggest promises of the internet, and it hopes to build a better learning environment and better learners. The condition of being connected to a much larger network of educators and learners, also offers us the possibilities of producing better and innovative knowledge structures. There is also an inherent ambition that the introduction of new digital competencies and skills will encourage both students and teachers to integrate their learning and pedagogy with their lived reality, producing responsible people and citizens. However, in all these expectations around the role of the digital technology in transforming learning, the idea of grading and evaluation remains unquestioned.

Even in the most radical restructuring of education systems, grades remain an absolute form of quantifying and measuring skills that the student is supposed to demonstrate. Grading might take up different forms — numbers, letters, percentile, etc — or it might take up different methods — continuous grading, take-home exams — but it eventually becomes the only badge that the student takes into the “real world”.

The idea of a badge as an alternative to this particular kind of quantification oriented learning that sees the grade as a final evaluation and in some ways, a termination of the learning process, opens up huge possibilities for how we understand learning. The badge is not imagined as yet another kind of grading, but instead it is recognition of certain skills and competences that we bring to and build in classrooms with our peers. A badge allows the students to recognise their own investment in the learning process, enabling them to realise their particular skills on the way to learning. In any learning environment, students play many roles. Some are good as connectors, some serve as conduits of information, some are good in specific areas and need help with others, some are mentors, some are translators of knowledge, some help in creating new forms of knowledge. Unfortunately, most of our grading patterns refuse to acknowledge and credit these skills which are crucial for surviving the academic world. The ability of the students to badge themselves, and others in their peer groups, acknowledging their contributions to their collective learning, might be the motivation and encouragement that we are looking for.

A peer-2-peer system of badging, which enables learners to be critically aware not only of their own interaction with knowledge, but also recognises the ways in which larger communities of knowledge — including the peers and teachers — opens up an extraordinary way of thinking about education. It disrupts the competitive modes of cut-throat modes of education systems we are building and allows us to re-think the function of education and the role of learners in educational environments. The digital systems of social networking and reputation management, already perform some of these tasks, which is why, a student who might not do well in class might be a YouTube sensation, finding thousands of followers worldwide. Or a student who might not show research aptitude in class might be editing complex Wikipedia entries on subjects that high-level researchers are engaging with. All these digital systems acknowledge the roles that people play in learning and knowledge production, and in that reward of recognition, provide incentives for learners to re-examine their role within knowledge systems.

Such a system of badging, that exceeds the static classroom, allows for students to become stakeholders in their own education, building connected communities of learning. It hints at what the future of education is going to look like. More importantly, it offers a new way of thinking about technology and its role in redesigning education, which is not merely about introducing technologies into classrooms and continuing with the traditional modes of learning through new technology skills. Instead, we have a model for what learning means, how we interact with conditions of knowledge consumption and production, and how, we can form global communities of learning which might find an anchor in the classrooms but also transcend the brick-and-mortar institutions of learning as we understand them.

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.