Open Badges: The Future of Education

The development of Mozilla’s Open Badges program reflects a changing attitude toward education. If you haven’t heard of it already, this new Open Badge infrastructure is a really cool, innovative way to obtain and display knowledge and skills acquired outside a classroom setting. Usually, you have an outside educational program (such as aquaponics) and a separate school curriculum. But curious students and dedicated lifelong learners are frequently engaged in educational programs outside the classroom - plus, this form of learning often goes unrecognized.

The Frontier of Education

The future of the Open Badge infrastructure would result in the development of an aquaponics badge, for example, which is earned by completing a specific set of requirements and learning a specific set of skills. This certification would tie this alternate learning right into the academic curriculum, also aligning it with national academic outcomes and standards, such as STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) disciplines. So the Open Badge structure is a hands-on way to get individuals engaged and excited about learning, revitalizing our educational system.

Open Badges for Professional Standards

The idea behind this new Open Badge educational culture is that learning can happen anytime and anywhere – and at any age. So we’re not only looking at a new educational culture, but huge potential for innovative professional certifications. So, as an adult, obtaining an Open Badge by meeting Sweet Water’s qualifications for proficiency in aquaponics has a lot more meaning to a potential employer than, well, I know a lot about water, fish and plants.

This badge-based learning idea is an evolving ecosystem within the global educational sphere. But once implemented and more widely acknowledged and accepted, an Open Badge ecosystem will absolutely have immense value for a prospective employee or employer.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t other certification-type programs available. You can become a CPA (Certified Public Accountant), or a PMP (Project Management Professional), or even an FNSS (Fellow of the National Speleological Society).

The Open Badge program is unique in its granularity: there is an opportunity to show a greater quantity of specific skills inside a potentially more diversified skill set.

Open Badges for Community (Re)Integration

The success of our communities’ career readiness programs is a huge determinant to the ultimate success of our communities. SmartWave works with a variety of local organizations focused on these career readiness programs, composed of two major training components: life skills and work skills. These organizations work with both youth and adult populations who either need a job and/or want to go back to school, and/or are at risk of heading down an unhealthy behavioral path. Many of these individuals are ex-offenders trying to get back on their feet and successfully reintegrate into the community.

Many of the skills taught in these programs are what many might consider basic life skills (such as working with others in a team environment or personal money management), but there are typically significant reasons why these men and women (and youth) are not proficient in these basic work and life skills. Perhaps they’re reintegrating back into the community after being in prison for ten years, or perhaps they were simply never taught these life lessons due to a difficult upbringing.

For at-risk individuals looking to enter college or a tech school, the Open Badge program could help establish new credibility, allowing them to overcome a difficult past and take pride in their desire to succeed long-term. This accumulation of skills and corresponding badges shows admissions departments that this student is ready to enroll and has the ambition to thrive.

Many at-risk individuals are simply looking for a job. Over a six to eight week simultaneous work/life skills program, they can accumulate badges as they meet a specific set of requirements – and the same ideas apply. On the flip side, we have a variety of employers looking for employees to hold (and maintain) entry-level positions in fields such as manufacturing, retail, food service, construction, and more. If these individuals are able to meet a certain set of criteria as defined by the company and they have the badges to prove it, then earning badges might mean the difference between getting the job, or missing out.

So put simply, there is a demand here for this type of education, via a work/life skills open badge infrastructure, both on the part of the applicant, and on the part of the employer (or school administration). Employers and admission officers want to know exactly what they’re getting, and individuals want to understand how they can work toward the necessary requirements to obtain that job and/or admission into a school. Open Badges really open a world of opportunities to all parties involved.

Open Badges for All

When I approached the Open Badge creators with this idea, they did inform me of the National Career Readiness Certificate, which is a similar program. Now, don’t get me wrong, this does seem like a good program. But when I suggested it to our clients, many did not feel it was a great fit for ex-offenders or for at-risk populations, a uniquely challenging population to work with.

Plus, the Open Badge infrastructure is OPEN, meaning any organization can design a badge and the success of those badge earners reflects back on the rigidity of the badge requirements, so there’s some built-in accountability. Badge earners also have the ability to display their badges at any time, across a variety of platforms (such as social media sites, or on their own personal website – now and in the future). And likewise, the organization offering the badge would be able to list that individual’s specific qualifications and even reference the portfolio they produced – because it's all tied together in this virtual badge.

I believe a future with an Open Badge infrastructure looks incredibly enriching. Badges could be used to not only further learning for youth academic (K thru 12) organizations, but it’s also a neat way to look at ANY learning program, whether it’s career readiness, math programs, reading programs, language programs, and so much more.

Instead of going through the motions just to get a good grade, the Open Badge program inspires and encourages learners to demonstrate proficiency in a skill set, and to take pride in that accomplishment. And, really, who doesn’t take pride in visible gratification?