Recognizing Democratic Merit in the Age of Reputation

By Sheryl Grant

We are shifting away from the relatively static infrastructure of 20th century education toward one that is defined more by fluid 21st century digital systems, in what researcher and innovator John Seely Brown refers to as a new culture of learning in his book of the same name (Thomas & Brown, 2011). In part, this new culture of learning is made possible by the highly social and interactive digital systems that also present us with a new culture of reputation, influencing how we build identities online that others find credible and meaningful.

The fusion of these two cultures – learning and reputation – is not strictly a digital phenomenon, although technology has created novel ways of merging the two. An unprecedented potential to connect to anyone, anywhere, at any time, on any device, and the ensuing flood of information has raised a fundamental human question: How can we determine what is good?

In response to this question, one of the most novel innovations to emerge in the last five years is open digital badges, which are credentials or tokens of trust used to vouch that people are who they say they are, and have the qualities they claim to have, particularly about what they have learned, or what they can do.

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Open badges display as interactive image files instead of lines of text, a deceptively simple difference that obscures deeply held beliefs about how we evaluate the reliability and validity of someone’s reputation – including his or her merit. In theory, these open standards or metadata (data about the data) link to evidence of learning, a type of digital shortcut that makes it possible to verify quality judgments immediately. While linking a credential to its evidence is not a novel idea, it does take new meaning online.

In an open digital badge, if we wish to assess what someone knows, or what they can do, we have the option to investigate this claim directly. The implications of this cannot be overstated. In the new culture of learning and reputation, digital technologies have made it possible for us to learn anywhere, anytime, from anyone, on any device. If a learner wants to show how well she collaborates, how well she led a diverse team, she can use open digital badges to validate that claim. If a student wants to demonstrate how his resilience was recognized by peers in a service-learning project, he can use a badge.

How we learn in the 21st century is shifting from “issues of authoritativeness to issues of credibility” (Davidson & Goldberg, 2009, p. 27). Open digital badges will push us to define in greater detail what this means both in theory and practice. At the moment, badges present us with a design challenge to advance principles of credibility that we have yet to clearly outline. These principles are being embraced (if not exactly defined) in different fields like design and software engineering, where employers put less stock in schooled learning and traditional credentials, and reputation and evidence alone can be keys to advancement.

Perhaps best known for these practices are Stack Overflow, the popular social Q&A site for programmers, and GitHib, a code repository for developers. In these communities, programmers leave traces of evidence that signal their skills, both technical and social. Recruiters looking for talented programmers search for potential job candidates in these spaces, as well as verify communication and collaboration skills that can be hard to gauge from a resumé (Capiluppi, Serebrenik, & Singer, 2013).

What does this mean for equity in education? We may be tempted to embrace badge systems that conform to more established systems because they align with recognizable conventions and currency. However, if the goal is to create more relevant systems of learning and assessment, we need to ask what it means to ground this reputation in verified, quality judgments and build alternate credentialing systems that do more than replicate the status quo of the 20th century.

Currently, student merit is measured by test scores and grades. As Lani Guinier writes in The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, “The higher the test scores and the better the grades, the more entitlements are granted to an individual by teachers, parents, administrators, other students, and even the general public (Guinier, 2015). We already have a credentialing system based on competition, privilege, and high-stakes testing. What we need now are credentials that reflect what Guinier refers to as democratic merit.

“Democratic merit does what our current meritocracy fails to do: it creates an incentive system that emphasizes the development of more and more individuals who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy for both their own good as well as for the collective good. Granting these individuals educational access, regardless of their supposed possession of abstractly measured ‘talent,’ is what will contribute to the creation of higher-level problem solving” (Guinier, 2015, p.29).

For an innovation that is less than five years old, open digital badges have been saddled with steep expectations. We have a tremendous opportunity to use this emerging technology to change the tyranny of the meritocracy, to use open digital badges as a medium of exchange that assesses and recognizes qualities of a student’s democratic merit.



Capiluppi, A., Serebrenik, A., & Singer, L. (2013, January/February). Assessing technical candidates on the Web. IEEE Software. 30(1), pp. 45-51.

Davidson, C. & Goldberg, D. (2009). The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Grant, S. (2014). What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub Publications.

Thomas, D., and Brown, J.S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

Sheryl Grant is Director of Badge Research at HASTAC, located at Duke University, and a Phd candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science where her research focuses on reputation systems, value sensitive design, participatory learning, and digital badges.