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Civic learning, digital badges, and alternative assessment

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

BSA Merit BadgesThe folks over at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) have just released a new working paper on civic education: “New and Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges, and Civics: An Overview of Emerging Themes and Promising Directions.” Building on their previous research looking at the way states test (or don’t test) their students on social studies or civics, this study takes a look at alternative assessment mechanisms that can test students’ knowledge and civic skills. Instead of just using multiple-choice tests, for example, schools might look at introducing digital badges that students can earn when they have demonstrated some civic skill.

Felicia M. Sullivan, the author of the report, explains more:

Digital badges have emerged in part as a response to shifting workplace demands that seek accelerated, ever-evolving, and tailored training. Formal degrees from institutions of higher education are perceived as slower to adapt to market needs and as requiring significant investments of time and ever-increasing financial resources on the part of the learner. Proponents of digital badges see them as part of an expanding, globalized, and decentralized communication environment, where access to knowledge and information is fueled by “well-connected communities of learners” that are increasingly situated outside of formal credentialing bodies.

This growing “open education” movement, which includes “massive open online courseware” (e.g. MITx, Coursera), is also fueling the demand for alternative certifications, like digital badges, suitable for new learning realities. As Jeffery Young noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “the biggest push for badges is coming from industry and education reformers, rather than from traditional educational institutions.”Because these are new developments, often being advanced from outside the academy by people immersed in technology, little of the conversations around these issues has yet entered journals and mainstream academic writing. . . .

One key feature of digital badges is that they make learning achievements visible in newly-emerging, fragmented, and decentralized “networked learning ecosystems.” In such systems, where individual learners are highly mobile, digital badges can potentially make visible a comprehensive set of accomplishments obtained in a number of environments. For instance, a compilation of digital badges in civics could recognize the “public speaking” done as part of the extra-curricular high school debate club, “community organizing” that was part of a summer internship during college, “group facilitation” skills developed in a current paid position, and a “good citizen” badge for long-term community service work. In this way, digital badges could be thought of as graphics to add to a résumé or as skill and knowledge “brands.” But, as with any iconic emblem, the shared understanding and context of the image are critically important, and may take time to gain wide recognition and adoption. . . .

Digital badges are one piece of a much larger set of possibilities presented by open education perspectives and technologies. While at times digital badges are conflated with technology-enabled learning, they can easily be used to recognize learning in a variety of environments—formal and informal, virtual and real. This fluidity may be well suited to the assessment of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions which are often gained across multiple locations, learning experiences, and time periods. What the digital badge and alternative assessments bring to the foreground is the idea that learning, assessment, and credentialing are more than single tests or markers of success. Rather, they are part of an increasingly rich and deep set of practices and options available to those invested in education and learning.

Learn more about alternative civics assessments and digital badging at CIRCLE.

AEI