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Forget Boy Scouts: Mozilla Wants New Digital Merit Badges For 21st Century Skills

The “Badges for Learning” competition tries to raise awareness for and legitimize education gained outside of school.

Forget Boy Scouts: Mozilla Wants New Digital Merit Badges For 21st Century Skills

When I was a kid, earning merit badges in Webelos seemed like a meaningful, worthwhile way to spend some of my free time. But that “arrow of light” insignia that I earned? Decades later, I couldn’t remember what skills it represents if you paid me to. But what if kids nowadays had a similar way to earn signifiers of the cool stuff they learned how to do online? That’s what the Badges for Learning project is all about, and it’s supported by a software platform called Open Badges by Mozilla. And Mozilla has just wrapped up an open call to designers to help create these badges, which will signify learning achievements in programs hosted by world-class organizations from Pixar to NASA.

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The project’s stated goal is to “supercharge 21st century learning by building a free, open source badge system that helps people around the world use the web to gain new skills and level up in their life and work.” Because if Foursquare has taught us anything, it’s that badges and gamification are not in any way annoying when applied to everything around us. One thing’s for sure: if looking at the “Badges for Learning” website is any indication, this project needs designers working on way more than just the badges. (Mozilla’s open call ended on January 17th.)

But poking fun aside, what kid (or adult, for that matter) wouldn’t be intrigued by the prospect of earning a legitimate, awesome-looking achievement-signifier from NASA (for robotics), Disney-Pixar (for wilderness exploring, like the kid in Up), or the Museum of the Moving Image (for video-game design)?

When the Girl Scouts have a project called “My Girl Scout Sash is an App,” you know the times have changed. Mocking the whole “badges everywhere” fad is easy, but when it’s tied to legitimately educational, inspiring initiatives like these–and from organizations and brands that actually get kids excited–it’s hard to not get excited about what Mozilla’s design competition will turn out. The winners will be announced on March 2, 2012: let’s hope that these pixel-made merit badges will do their designers (and the people who earn them on these projects) proud.

[Read more about Open Badges. Top image: The so-called Robonaut being developed by GM and NASA.]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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