Badges – ringeth the eportfolio death knell?

Last night, Steve Wheeler pondered “Do open badges signal the death of the e-portfolio? #learningpoollive“. The sentiment of that conversation is that, yes, Steve and others believe they do.

I disagree.

The key reason I don’t believe that badges signal the death of the eportfolio is the purpose for their respective initial creation, ongoing development and real-life application.

Mozilla Foundation, leaders of the Open Badges project, have clearly identified the initial purpose of badges to be an “online standard to recognize [sic] and verify learning“. They provide a mechanism of awarding confirmation to a third-party to the instructor-learner model that learning has taken place. The ongoing development has seen focus on enabling easy issuing of badges. The work to integrate issuing functionality into popular Learning Management Systems (LMSs) has seen the awareness and interest in them spike, especially following an LMS or eLearning conference.

The application of badge issuing in an LMS, e.g. Moodle, sees the requirement of criteria and an issuing authority be included in the badge information and metadata. This information is set by an instructor, whether in a formal learning environment such as a university’s LMS or an informal environment. Therefore, to receive a badge, a learner must complete (and by inference be seen as competent by the instructor) instructor-set criteria. Badges do not necessarily require the collection and archival of evidence of that learning or competency, but rather an issuing authority that can verify criteria were met once upon a time it if required.

By contrast, an eportfolio is designed to collate evidence and reflection as a “living” personalised artefact maintained by the learner, a record of learning and achievements over time. There might be activities set by an instructor or requirements for assessment, but the eportfolio is learner-driven.

I see no reason why eportfolios and badges cannot coexist happily and complimentarily. That Mahara is a badge displayer is entirely appropriate – the externally-facing accreditation of learning being complete (badge) sitting alongside the evidence of learning and learner’s journey towards competency (eportfolio).

I agree with Steve’s comment that how an end-user actually engages with a tool is important. This is particularly relevant with open-source software, where community of users can directly influence the development – the application of the tool in reality feeds the ongoing development rather than initial driver for its creation.

For all the talk in my PLN and extended circles about learner-centric education, however, I still see comparatively low uptake of eportfolios to typically instructor-driven tools like an LMS (39k Mahara community members since 2006 v 1.3m Moodle community members since 2002). My personal opinion is that learner-centric is too hard to measure consistently at scale – and education hype right now is all about metrics and data and analytics. The presentation by Steve Collis on the learner-enabling and instructor-support style of education at Northern Beaches Christian School at the School MoodleMoot 2013 was met with inspiration and amazement at such innovation – but they’ve been focusing on innovative learning since 2005. Other fads have come and gone, and learner-centric teaching seems even further away with regulatory reporting in VET and standardised testing in K12.

The impression I get is that learner-centric seems too hard. It’s easier to set basic criteria that exactly match curriculum and have the system automatically hand them a badge. In that scenario, perhaps badges do signal the death of eportfolio – not because they serve the same purpose, but badges are easier to issue and analyse in a more formal learning environment. It’s easier to report on learning and achievement when a skill is compartmentalised and the sum of boxes ticked means your learner is now done with that level – Tick, NEXT!

If that’s the style of learning environment Instructor A is providing, they were probably never going to use an eportfolio in the first place, because why would you? So why would a tool that serves that style of instruction pose a threat to a tool with a different purpose?

I wonder if we’ll see any change in the way eportfolios are used as a result of badges. How will we see instructors using eportfolios – combining badges, “narrative and reflection” and artefacts as “personal portfolios” (thanks @iangarnderb)?

One thought on “Badges – ringeth the eportfolio death knell?

  1. Badges are like decorations and portfolio is the suit that carries those medals. Unfortunately portfolios are often so linear and clumsy (one might eve say ‘ugly’) that they don’t carry decorations well. I come from audiovisual design background and the moment we can really tell the story of our learning by using portfolios they will fly and we can see how the badges shimmer in the sun of learning :-) Imagine a surrealistic suit flying and you get an idea what is a good portfolio. Imagine a magpie and you have an idea what might be an attractive badge. Both can fly – and as you said: they can coexist happily.

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