Proposed digital merits no badge of glory

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • February 26, 2015

At issue: Administrators suggest giving digital badges to students.
Our take: Competency should be proven, not rewarded. 

Most kids probably remember getting a badge at some point in their lives. Perhaps it was for Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Or maybe you finally beat Koga and earned your Soul Badge playing Pokemon Red on your Gameboy Color.

And soon, you may be able to relieve that childhood glory by earning badges at the collegiate level. At least, that’s what Robert Sabal, the interim dean of the school of arts, said he wants at a Student Government Association meeting last week.

Over the past few years, digital badges have become a trendy concept for schools desperate to leave a mark in this booming digital era. A “badge”—a virtual illustration meant to look like one you would earn as a scout—is given to students who meet a certain criteria by a specific course. The purpose of the badge is to more colorfully and concisely convey your skill set; they’re supposed to be attached to resumes and used in job interviews.

Purdue University is just one college that has already popularized this method of evaluation, according to The New York Times. For example, a student enrolled at the university can take an online class called Fundamentals of Atomic Force Microscopy. To earn the badge that the class provides—thus, ostensibly, proving their competence in the subject—students need only to earn a 60 or higher on the final exam.

The idea threatens to undermine the idea behind applying for, and enrolling in, accredited colleges. These badges have been suggested as a replacement for paying for Advanced Placement classes. But AP courses not only provide high school students with challenging coursework and beneficial study habits, but can also be used to opt out of certain college courses once admitted, saving students money in the end. In comparison, badges are the equivalent of a “Good Job!” sticker on a graded paper.

The badge system encourages students to complete requirements for the sake of the reward, not the educational journey should leads to it. But a physical signifier of accomplishment means nothing if there isn’t a new skillset demonstrated or area of knowledge obtained. Having an EVVY handed to you for a student film would mean much less if you only dedicated only 60 percent of your energy to the project. The real reward should be in giving something your all, learning from the triumphs and mistakes along the way, and carrying that experience into the next venture. Being able to speak about that creative process with authority is going to impress an employer in a job interview a lot more than a digital badge.

These badges are only the latest iteration of perhaps Emerson’s most consistent unofficial initiative, promoting style over substance. These badges—which surely cost the equivalent of a Dining Hall swipe, or essentially nothing—only achieve the perception of innovation. They are as useless now as they’ll be when a potential employer mistakes one for botched clip art.

Emerson shouldn’t have to resort to a meaningless rewards system just to demonstrate that its students are competent. We should instead demonstrate competency with the words we speak, the organizations we run, and the art and work that we create. People have favorably compared these badge systems to video games, apparently forgetting that badges in videogames hold no value to employers. There’s no reason to believe that Emerson’s badges would hold any greater value. Instead of worrying about arbitrary emblems of success, administrators should first worry about making sure that students can actually do the jobs they’re learning about today.