by MNOHS Executive Director Elissa Raffa

I was active in Girl Scouts for only a couple of years before other priorities took over.  During those two years, I loved earning badges.  I was fond of the badges themselves–their satisfying roundness, quiet green background, whip-stitched darker green edges and multi-colored satin-stitched icons.  I also enjoyed the tangible representation of accomplishment and choice.

To develop my interest in drawing and painting, for example, I could turn to that page of the Junior Scout handbook to see what the national organization had deemed important for me to know and do as an artist.  Some items on the list I could check off immediately.  Others would require a plan or project—or not.  There were no deadlines.  My grandmother, mother, or troop leader signed off on my prior endeavors and on each new step I took toward proficiency.

I knew girls who said that their mom would sign for anything, but that was just bad form.  Why would you wear something you hadn’t really earned?  I also knew girls who intended to earn every single badge honestly, marching their way through the pages of their thick dog-eared handbooks and ticking off the requirements in order.  I didn’t want every badge; in fact that was the beauty of the whole system.  “Backyard Fun” with its icon of a barbecue just didn’t look like fun.  (No my memory is not so good.  I have visited the Vintage Girl Scout Online Museum.)

Today, digital badges are the centerpiece of many education discussions.  Badges can represent concrete skills that grades cannot.  They can be ported from one educational institution or employer to another.  They might give college students who haven’t graduated something to show for the years and dollars they have invested.  Badges are stepping stones away from a seat-time model of education and toward competency-based learning.

At MNOHS we have used badges to create portable credentials within MNOHS.  Students earn badges in ten-hour skills workshops such as “Information Literacy,” “The Art of Argument,” “Speaking and Listening,” and "Graphing Greatness" and carry them back to their academic courses.  Students have some degree of choice over whether and when to complete workshops, but a course instructor can also require or recommend that a student earn a particular badge before launching a new project.  Badges support assessment as learning.  They help students to track what they have already achieved and what they need to work on next.  They save students from repeating work.

In addition to this very successful internal project, MNOHS is discussing a long-term approach to the much more complex Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure.  Deciding how we want to relate to this evidence-based international badge ecosystem, how to define and document competencies for the rest of the world, will take time.  In the meantime, we’re starting with practical, immediate needs and building toward the future.

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