AT the end of "Fundamentals of Atomic Force Microscopy," a short online course offered by Purdue University, students who score at least 60 percent on the final exam will receive an e-mail with a file attached. It will contain a picture of a blue-and-white circle, roughly one inch in diameter, embossed with the stylized image of an atomic force microscope bouncing a laser beam off a cantilever into a photodiode, which is how scientists take photographs and measure the size of very small (nanoscale) things.
The picture is a digital badge, a new type of credential being developed by some of the most prominent businesses and learning organizations in the world, including Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California, the Smithsonian, Intel and Disney-Pixar. The badge movement is being spearheaded by the Mozilla Foundation, best known for inventing the free Firefox Web browser, the choice of nearly one-quarter of all Internet users worldwide.
While they may appear to be just images, digital badges are actually portals that lead to large amounts of information about what their bearers know and can do. They are also being used to improve education itself, by borrowing techniques from video games that keep users playing, until they advance to the next level.
Badges are gaining currency at the same time that a growing number of elite universities have begun offering free or low-cost, noncredit courses to anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to learn. Millions of students have already signed up for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. By developing information-age credentials backed by a wide array of organizations outside the education system, creators of badge programs may be mounting the first serious competition to traditional degrees since college-going became the norm.
One of the most important functions of college degrees is signaling knowledge and skill to potential employers. Yet degrees and certificates often do a poor job of communicating detailed information about graduates. Grade inflation has steadily obscured the meaning of G.P.A.'s, and there's no easy way to know what someone who got, for example, an A-minus in Econ 206 actually learned. A badge, on the other hand, is supposed to indicate specific knowledge and skills.
Stack Overflow, an Internet forum with 1.4 million registered users, awards members "reputation" points and a variety of badges based on answers to questions posed by fellow computer programmers. Some members devote hundreds of hours to writing and editing posts that are judged by the Stack Overflow community to display high levels of expertise. Tomasz Nurkiewicz, an Oslo software engineer and one of only 88 users to earn a "Legendary" Stack Overflow badge, writes, "I received numerous job offers from people who either saw my profile with reputation and all the badges, or were particularly impressed by one of my answers."
Carnegie Mellon has developed online courses in robotics and computer science in which students are awarded badges as they reach learning milestones -- one for teaching robots to move and another for manipulating robot motion sensors -- ultimately leading to a final badge certifying their overall robot programming skills. It's similar to the process used in video games. Players accumulate enough points to achieve higher levels and thus the opportunity to undertake new, more challenging quests.
Anyone who has ever seen a teenager glued to a screen for hours playing World of Warcraft can attest to the powerful lure of digital rewards. The buzzword is "gamification" -- the use of gaming elements like points, levels and badges to engage with a product or service. Carnegie Mellon researchers are finding that integrating badges into courses motivates students to keep learning. Gamification is even spreading to bricks-and-mortar classes. Some Purdue professors are awarding badges for reaching benchmarks in regular credit-bearing courses, including one in health care communications and another in curriculum and instruction.
Long before gamers began displaying their badges online to demonstrate prowess, Girl Scouts were sewing theirs on sashes for everyone to see. So it's not surprising that they are among winners of a competition last year held by Mozilla, with $2 million from the MacArthur Foundation, to recognize the best digital badge systems. In their program, Girl Scouts who learn to build apps for the Android operating system earn badges they can display and share on their mobile phones.
All of this points toward a world where nontraditional credentials become more valuable. Instead of taking Advanced Placement tests, high school students can jump directly into online courses like those offered at Purdue and Carnegie Mellon and present their badges on college applications. The National Association of Manufacturers is developing a system of digital badges in the fields of industrial motor control, robotics and welding -- the kinds of jobs that, even in a time of high unemployment, can be hard to fill. Over the next year, Mozilla will be working with the National Human Resources Association and other organizations to help employers better understand how to use badges.
Over the next year, Mozilla will be working with the National Human Resources Association and other organizations to help employers better understand how to use badges.
Of course, the more valuable something becomes, the more vulnerable it is to fraud. The badge system is designed to be "open." Anyone can create a badge. How will employers know which to trust?
Colleges and universities have a great deal of built-in credibility and are regulated by accrediting organizations. Heavyweight badge creators like the Smithsonian and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will bring their own credibility to the table. Everyone else (Mozilla contest winners include 4H, local youth mentoring groups, and the Minnesota Historical Society) will rely on one of the principal design features of digital badges: metadata, or information about information.
Just as photographs taken by GPS-enabled smartphones have latitude and longitude coordinates embedded within them, digital badges contain information about where they came from. The metadata within Carnegie Mellon's "Cortex Principles of Advanced Programming, Level 2" badge, for example, provides the date the badge was issued, the name, title and organizational affiliation of the teacher who verified the badge, the score the student received on the final exam, and a link to exam questions.
Anyone can click on Tomasz Nurkiewicz's Stack Overflow badge to examine the answers he wrote to earn it. With metadata, badges are instantly accessible portals to evidence of a person's accomplishments, like internship experiences and portfolios of work. Imagine organizing your credentials into "groups" representing a larger body of skill, much as a sequence of college courses adds up to a major. Except these come from many different sources, not just from formal institutions. (Mozilla has created a site where badges earned in different places can be organized and stored.) In this way, badges may be not just an alternative to traditional résumés and transcripts but an improvement on them.
It's no coincidence that Mozilla is leading the badge movement. The organization was born from the wreckage of Netscape, whose multibillion-dollar I.P.O. touched off the 1990s dot-com boom before the company ultimately lost the "browser wars" to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. A group of Netscape programmers didn't like the idea of Web access being dominated by a browser owned by a gigantic profit-seeking company. So they spun off the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which built a lighter, faster browser -- Firefox -- and gave it away. Explorer's market position has since badly eroded.
Mozilla sees the digital badge effort in similar terms. Erin Knight, its senior director of learning, says that "the browser was the first example where there was a monopoly and we decided to provide an open-source alternative." A system whereby only accredited colleges can offer valuable degrees, she says, is a "shared monopoly across education, where you have to go down a very prescribed path to get learning that quote-unquote counts. We want to open that up."
If digital badges infiltrate the credential market, they could shake the economic foundations of a higher education industry that over the last 30 years has consistently increased prices much higher than inflation and family income, resulting in over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. Colleges have gotten away with this in large part because the gap in earnings between people with and without degrees significantly widened during that time. Degree holders were less likely to lose their jobs during the recent recession, and the number of jobs requiring degrees grew faster during the recovery. Degrees are valuable, and only colleges can sell them. So students and parents pay and, increasingly, borrow, because they feel they have no choice.
Alternative credentials with value in the labor market could change that equation. Purdue charges in-state students about $1,050 for a three-credit course. A digital badge earned through its nanoHUB-U subsidiary, which offers the microscopy and other nanotech courses, costs $30.
Mozilla is talking to providers of MOOCs, some of which offer certificates with metadata, about adopting its badge design. For now, the credentials are worth less than traditional credits, at least while employers learn how to use them. But at 100th the price -- or nothing at all -- badges are still a fantastic bargain. Elite research universities can provide low-cost courses and badges without threatening their own business models, which rely heavily on research financing and a selective, intensive residential experience for undergraduates. Other colleges may struggle to justify ever-rising tuition.
A flourishing of digital badges could change the way people think about how much credentials should cost, and what they can be.
Kevin Carey is director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation.education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.