Could Digital Badges Replace Traditional Degrees for DIY Learners?

The Badges for Lifelong Learning competition is seeking ideas for a system to legitimize DIY education.

The DIY learning movement is on the rise, but alternative-minded lifelong learners—unlike traditional students who receive a degree to show for their work—don't have an easy way to show prospective employers that they've gained skills and knowledge. That could all change thanks to "Badges for Lifelong Learning," a new competition seeking to make it easier for people to acquire badges from online learning ventures as evidence of what they've learned.

The competition, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla, and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory at the University of California at Irvine, marks a sure sign that DIY learning is becoming mainstream At the kickoff event, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that digital badges will support "anytime, anywhere" learning and legitimize the knowledge and skills people pick up online and in community settings. The contest also has some heavyweight collaborators: NASA, the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, Energy, and Veterans Affairs, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Microsoft, and Intel have all committed to "exploring the potential of badges for their own work and programs."

The competition invites individuals and organizations to collaboratively "create and test working badge systems" across the web. The submission process has three stages: Through November 14, organizers will accept proposals "focused on learning content, programs, and activities" that could use a badge system. NASA, an after-school program, or open source learning effort like the Khan Academy could potentially submit projects for consideration.

The second stage asks design and tech experts to review the ideas from the first stage, then submit proposals "focused on badge or badge system design and the supporting technology that makes them work." In the third stage, organizers will match stage one and stage two applicants with each other. The resulting teams will then collaborate on the final badge systems and will pitch their final plans to expert judges at a two-day final competition to be held at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco next March.

Along with evaluating the badge's overall technical and design quality, judges will weigh the "likelihood of acceptance and adoption by learners, institutions, employers, and the general public." In order to take the ideas from concept to reality, winning teams will receive up to $200,000 to bring their badges to life.

Will these digital badges end up replacing traditional degrees? The key factor determining whether badges catch on will be whether employers accept them, and that will probably vary depending on the profession. But if advocates successfully create a formal way to recognize the academic knowledge and industry-specific skills acquired online, many more members of the next generation might decide to forgo the more expensive forms of education currently in vogue.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user SuziJane

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