Digital badges, techne, episteme, and the purpose of college.

Julie Steiny has many admirable qualities — chief of which is (for my purposes) that she’s always a reliable source for starting a blog post. Most recently, it seems, she’s written something about digital badges. What’s a digital badge? Steiny gives a vivid description:

Well, they’re basically a high-tech version of Boy Scout badges, certifying that the young man sporting one of the iconic patches on his sash actually knows something about knot-tying, canoeing or cooking over a campfire. The Scout manual explains what skills that badge certifies and the criteria for getting one.

Okay, but a “digital” badge?

Ewens takes his diploma, a Masters from Stanford University, opens the leather-like cover and starts swiping and touch-screening it the way you would an iPad. “Stanford gives you accreditation. But what you’ve got is a static piece of paper.” With his fingers failing to get more information out of the diploma’s image, he says, “My daughters wouldn’t understand a static diploma.” They’d be looking for the “About” or “Who we are” buttons to find out what the thing is.

While few would question the value of an M.Ed. from Stanford, in math no less, really, what does it mean? Exactly? Can he manage a classroom? Teach algebra through computer coding? Map lessons to the Common Core Standards? We don’t know. A digital badge might tell us. We take the famous credential on faith, but badges give detailed backup to credentials with less name brand.

This makes me think three things:

First, it’s not at all clear that “less name brand” is a feature instead of a bug. The value of diplomas lives and dies based on the reputation of the grantor. I’ve had a few conversations over the last year or so with people about digital badges, and most of the people with whom I’ve spoken seem to have forgotten that. But it’s not at all clear that digital badges really will have “less name brand.” If you follow the link in Steiny’s article to the FAQ set up by one of Mozilla’s developers, you’ll find the following:

Some Open Badges will be frivolous and playful. Others will be rigorous and pedagogically sound. All of them will be technically valid badges. The value of a badge comes through a mixture of the reputation of the issuer and the rigour of the criteria for obtaining the badge.

This is really just common sense. After all, it matters that I linked to a FAQ written by one of Mozilla’s developers, and not the FAQ written by my 6-year old nephew.

There are some diplomas and certifications out there that I would completely ignore if I were making employment decisions or looking to hire out a job. They are not, in my opinion, worth the paper upon which they are printed. This will almost certainly happen with badges. It’s easy to *say* that you’ve assessed someone’s facility with, say, basic SQL functions. But the “criteria” for obtaining the badge are going to have to be generally described at some level. There will be deceit and “fudging”. It is inevitable that people are going to want to know something about the reputation of the person granting the badge. Some badge grantors will develop stronger reputations. That’s why an MCSE certificate is worth more than a piece of paper from Michael E. Lopez attesting that someone has met the identical criteria. No one has any reason to trust my word when it comes to MCSE-related things.

Steiny holds out hope that digital badges can allow education to “bust out of its rigid 4 walls and 6-hour day as the only source of learning.” But it’s not the badges that do that: there is nothing in a high school diploma that requires seat time. That’s not a structural part of the learning process: that’s a way to keep kids out of people’s hair while adults do work. Ultimately, what badges represent is not the replacement of the traditional diploma, but its fracturing. A diploma is, to use modern computer parlance, a “bundled” product. It signals a LOT of things all at once. Badges pick it apart into smaller, narrower pieces.

That brings me to my second point: not everything is really amenable to “badges”. Badges are well-suited to indicating a mastery of techne — that is, knowledge and craftmanship aimed at fabrication and production. (I’m using these terms in an unbearably superficial, Platonic sense.) Can you build a bridge? There’s a badge for that. Can you perform logical transformations and perform valid deductions? There’s a badge for that. Can you proofread a manuscript for elementary grammar errors? There’s a badge for that. Can you perform a heart transplant? There’s a badge for that. Badges are good at signifying mastery of performance tasks.

But one of the things bundled with the various techne of diplomas is a healthy does of episteme. And that’s harder to quantify with a badge. A doctor doesn’t just have a collection of several thousand badges signifying technical proficiency in various tasks. A doctor has (we hope) episteme – a practiced understanding of the function of the human body from which the doctor can form intuitions about health and sickness.

There’s no badge for that. That’s something that comes organically from pursuing a course of study, from interacting with others who have that understanding, and from reflection. When I am evaluating Philosophy students, I’m not just looking to see if they can recite the major arguments from the Republic and identify major logical flaws. There’s a certain amount of that sort of thing that goes on — especially early in the course. But that’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is, inter alia, to help the students develop the ability to “inhabit” the discourse of Philosophy.

That’s a very nebulous thing for a “badge”. Hell, it’s a nebulous thing for a diploma.

That brings me to my third and final point, which is that a liberal arts diploma (supposedly) signifies a similar, albeit more generalized sort of episteme. That is, I think, the point of a typical college diploma.

To the extent that people are inclined to think of a diploma as a sort of “labor force” certification — and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, that seems to be the growing consensus — it’s understandable that one might think that the diploma can be replaced by badges. Just break down the tasks you want a graduate to be able to perform, and assign a badge to each one, right?

But it’s not clear to me that we can use badges to eliminate diplomas entirely. There’s no way to join the great conversation of the liberal arts without getting out of your own head and joining the conversation. You need to get out (either physically or electronically) and talk to professors and other students.

College (co-legere) is about choosing to come together with others, about joining a community. A college education is about joining a discourse. Steiny is correct that it need not be a four-walled room filled for six hours a day. It can be a digital community. It can be an amphitheatre in the woods.

But I don’t think that a college diploma is going to be replaced with badges. Or if it is in great degree replaced with badges, then what the people who would have been otherwise pursuing college degrees are after is not really what the colleges were selling in the first place. Large chunks of a high school diploma might, someday, be badge-ifiable. But even there, there’s a sort of preparation for a liberal arts education (call it “college prep” if you like) that is not reducible to quantified proficiencies.