Grades Out, Badges in
Grades are broken. Students grub for them, pick classes where good ones come easily, and otherwise hustle to win the highest scores for the least learning. As a result, college grades are inflated to the point of meaninglessness—especially to employers who want to know which diploma-holder is best qualified for their jobs.
That’s a viewpoint driving experiments in education badges. Offered mostly by online start-ups, the badges are modeled on the brightly colored patches on Boy Scout uniforms but are inspired primarily by video games: Just as most video games offer ways for players to “level up” frequently, to keep them excited, most education-badge projects involve rewarding achievements more fine-tuned than passing (or acing) a course. In a remedial math course, for instance, a badge might be awarded for mastering a concept, whether “surface area” or “median and mode.” Or badges might certify soft skills not usually measured at all in college courses, like teamwork or asking good questions.
So what if colleges replaced grades with badges?
Erin Knight, leader of an education-badge project run by the Mozilla Foundation that provides a platform for students to display such badges on their Web sites, argues that grades shift students’ goals from learning to earning, because the stakes are so high when the result of an entire course is reduced to a single letter.