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.


  1. Known as 332 says:

    To the 3rd point, employers looking for high bandwidth employees use “brand name” degrees as a proxy for the IQ tests that they cannot administer as a qualifier for employment. So the university gets an SAT (strong correlation with IQ), admits on that basis, and so long as the individual graduates with reasonable grades, you have a (legal) IQ certificate. College is quite an inefficient way to communicate IQ, but that’s been a structural element in the education market for a few years at least.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    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.


    If you look at the undergraduate degrees conferred by popularity (in the US), I think you will find that a “liberal arts education” is only desired by a small fraction of kids attending college. In 2009-2010, the most popular undergraduate degrees were these:


    Business: 358K (22%)
    Social sciences and history: 173K (10%)
    Health professions and related programs: 130K
    Education: 101K
    Psychology: 97K


    “Social sciences and history” is the only category above that has any real possibility of conferring a humanities-type education. The others are either vocational (business, health, education) or “I need a 4-year-degree to get a job.” The colleges *HAVE* to be aware that for most kids the point to the 4-years is a job, not a broadening of their own inner potential as human beings. And that *IS* what the colleges are selling because the colleges are the ones scheduling the classes.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      A huge number of colleges require their business, psychology, and education majors to get a certain degree of exposure.

      There’s a reason that it’s called a “B.A.” in Psychology, Education, or Business in most schools.

      There are, of course, other degrees one can pursue that may or may not include broader academic content: B.S. degrees, B.E. degrees, BBA’s, BAcc’s, BCA’s, etc. Some of them are just stylistic variations on the standard BA or BS. Some (I think BAcc’s fit this description) are entirely different courses of study.

      But I wouldn’t be so quick to think that just because it’s not called “liberal arts” it’s not a liberal arts degree.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        The kids are getting *exposure* to some liberal arts classes, but that isn’t WHY they are in college. The liberal arts classes are a hurdle that they must endure and jump over, NOT the thing(*) that they are buying.


        The cynic in me actually thinks that most of them aren’t there for even vocational knowledge, either. The thing that most students are buying, I believe, is the piece of paper that says that they graduated. A thought experiment for you: If most kids taking non-technical degrees had to choose between (a) the *knowledge* from a 4-year degree, but no actual degree or (b) no knowledge, but the piece of paper, which do you think they would choose? I know how I would bet …

  3. To your point about diplomas as “labor force certifications” – well, employers want intelligent workers who can solve problems.

    Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided that employers couldn’t use IQ tests (which employers would probably use in preference to diplomas) to select workers.

    So, we end up in this rather awkward situation where high-school diplomas are awarded to anyone with a pulse, making the HS diploma useless as a signalling device, and now the college diploma is rapidly heading the same way.

    Employers still need the signal, and are looking at alternate methods to find it.

  4. You claim, in effect, that a diploma is more than the sum of its parts. But a diploma comes with a transcript which is just a list of parts. A diploma might still be something special if we believe that the required parts were determined in a very special way. But we know that — especially in “liberal arts” — the required parts keep changing and no longer represent much of anything any more.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Well, that’s a separate and important issue. One can ask whether the reputation of various institutions is no longer sufficient to sustain their certification operations.

      That may be the case.

  5. Kirk Parker says:

    “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…”

    I sure hope you put in that disclaimer because you think that subject is tangential to your post, rather than because it really is a mystery to you. With the vast inflation of college costs, does it make the slightest sense to join this year’s “leading” grievance studies program?

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I’ve got some strong suspicions about why it is that people are inclined to think of college as a labor-force certification.

      But it would be a lie to say that I *entirely* understand them.

      My best guess is that it’s a mish-mash of class envy, cargo-cult mentality, economic opportunism, and the inadvertent side effects of government subsidies.

      But waving my hands at those issues generally is about all I can do at this point.

      • The ed world, both at the k-12 level and at the college level, and the government, have been pushing this view; endlessly citing the increased earnings of those with college degrees. Unfortunately, lots of people (probably most) in the college-degree group earned their degrees in the era when only those ready for college-level work were admitted (and colleges had no remedial courses) and when colleges had freshman weeder courses that were designed to remove those kids unable or unwilling to do the work (often 1/3 of the class). Now there are many more uncompetitive colleges, the competitive colleges practice AA and remedial and academically unsound classes (many of them aggrieved victim agitprop and bull sessions) proliferate. The number of recent grads with no jobs, or jobs not requiring college-grad knowledge and skills, is the result of pushing too many unprepared and/or unmotivated kids into weak college programs that do nothing for their employment prospects. Worse yet, many college drop-outs have big debt – thanks to government meddling in the college loan markets. Private institutions allowed/required to do due diligence would not lend to students whose SAT/ACT scores don’t show college readiness and/or to those who wish to major in religious studies, anthropology or aggrieved-victim studies.

      • I teach at a large public university. Overwhelmingly, students are there because employers want them to have a 4-year degree. In part, it’s a filter for IQ. But it also filters for hard work and the ability to get along with others. And for some disciples (e.g. accounting) the knowledge is actually important!

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          That sounds an awful lot like Bryan Caplan’s trinity of “intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.” He says they are the what employers are really looking for when they say, “college degree required.”

  6. I have degrees (associate’s/bachelor’s), and many industry certifications (what is being referred to as digital badges), but industry certs usually indicate a level of knowledge that an employer or potential client can say ‘this person actually knows the stuff in question’.

    Information Technology has plenty of options if you want to go the cert route, but exams aren’t like they were a decade ago, where you could simply book study and pass exams. Unless you actually know how to do X/Y/Z, you won’t pass most certification exams on the market today (at least the ones employers are interested in).

    My Two Cents Worth