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Badges: The Way the New Learner Learns
by Tonia Lovejoy

We all do it to some degree or another, that’s why you are reading this article. Some call it professional development, others call it work. I call it my passion. Whatever you call it, more than likely you are using a free social network to help hone your professional skills on a semi-regular basis. More frequently than ever, people are continuing their education outside of the traditional classroom. Whether too busy or too broke, or both, young professionals are skipping school to attend webinars, workshops, and other types of online learning groups to upgrade their skills for a specific job.

For the globally competent professional, organizations like P2PU, for example, provide individuals with a platform for forming virtual study groups, all sans university. Khan Academy, and others, offer similar opportunities for even younger learners to take control of their education.

This trend of self-directed, laissez faire learning is particularly popular in the technology industry, where skills can become outdated quickly and specialization is necessary. Now, employers are looking for new ways to recognize the valuable ad hoc skill set that a potential new hire may have in their repertoire. Enter Mozilla and the Badge Project. Adopted by Microsoft and now endorsed by the MacArthur Foundation, as their website explains, “Mozilla's Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web -- through a shared infrastructure that's free and open to all. The result: helping learners everywhere display 21st century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, and level up in their life and work.”

As a return Peace Corps volunteer, sailboat captain and non-profit manager, I am interested in the Badge Project. While many of my counterparts have been toiling away in graduate school, racking up bills and waxing on the philosophies behind why we operate the way we do, I have been working. Yet, this should not suggest that I have stopped learning. On the contrary, I have a list of professional development workshops a mile long, administered by organizers who were highly competent and informative, which were absolutely necessary for my career.

To me, the Badge Project is a simple solution to an endemic problem in the university system, but the MacArthur Foundation sees a different potential outcome and one that does not just challenge universities alone. As written in Forbes magazine, “What people are learning in school is often not connected to the world of work,” said Dr. Connie M. Yowell, director of education grant-making at the MacArthur Foundation, in the Times interview. “Badges can fill that gap. They can be a kind of glue to connect informal and formal learning in and out of school.”

With the announcement of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition’s “Badges for Lifelong Learning” on March 1st we should see a radical vision for what education could look like in the near future. Provided we conitnue to narrow the technology gap, this may very well be the first real step towards integrating student-led learning into the Common Core curriculum. As a global education non-profit fueled by highly trained volunteers, this is an exciting prospect. What a dream it would be if the teachers who volunteered to participate in our program were recognized for their efforts in teaching 21st century skills! We could use our outcomes to benchmark the skills that we teach our student participants as well. Indeed, for an independent education organization operating outside of the public school system, badges would allow us to gain recognition as a valuable professional development resource for today's new learners.

Whether you see badges as a band aid solution for an endemic problem, or an innovative approach to an evidential shift in the workforce, nevertheless, the concept of badges resonates among students and young professionals and that, in the end, is what will make a badge a coveted award.

About Tonia

Tonia Lovejoy is a returned Peace Corps Nepal volunteer, managing Reach the World from Brooklyn, New York since 2009. You can reach Tonia at