DML Research Competition on Badging proposal: "Opening" Open Education

The skinny

Digital Media and Learning Research Competition on Badging and Badge Systems

Now for some background

The Digital Media and Learning initiative was launched in 2006 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to help understand how digital media and technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. This initiative has spawned a large number of research and learning projects, including the Open Badges work I’ve participated in over the last couple of years.

Over the last 4 years, the DML group has been running various competitions to encourage research and collaborative projects in this area, and last fall I decided to take a stab at one. Through some round-about networking at P2PU, I got linked up with Luka Carfagna, a sociology PhD student at Boston College, to submit a proposal to the DML research competition on badging.

A seemingly unlikely match, Luka brought her chops in the Bourdieusian framework for social inequality in education and I had been deeply interested in identity formation through learning (scroll to: sunflower experiment). Our shared love/hate relationship with open learning systems was the catalyzer for the whole project and while our initial proposal made it to the finalists stage of the competition, it went no further.

So, with that said, we’d like to share the proposal with the open community, because we’re interested in continuing our conversation about learners’ cultural capital (education, intellect, style of speech, dress)[1] and how it impacts the way they curate their own open learning experiences. We feel this is an underdeveloped area of inquiry, and would like to hear some other people’s thoughts on it.


The proposal

“Opening” Open Education: Understanding the Effect of Cultural Capital on Open Learning Trajectories

Luka B. Carfagna, Boston College

Pieter Kleymeer, University of Michigan

Executive Summary and Research Questions

From DIY U (Kamenetz, 2010) to eduX, the education world is abuzz with innovative experiments to address class inequalities in post-secondary education. Proponents of open education cite its potential to “open up” education by providing learning experiences that are typically free or low cost, peer generated or maintained, and shared worldwide through Creative Commons licensing. With so much energy, creativity, and so many education evangelists behind the movement towards open education there seems to be very little room to ask the critical but necessary question “Is open education open to everyone?”

There are obvious barriers to “opening up” open education, like access to the internet and language. However, an underdeveloped area of inquiry in this field is how user capital, specifically cultural capital, serves as a barrier to learning in the open education space. Bourdieu (1986) argues that cultural capital consists of non-financial assets that contribute to a person’s status and social mobility in society. From studies like Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods (2003), we know that low cultural capital (LCC) students experience a sense of constraint in the classroom while high cultural capital (HCC) students experience a sense of entitlement. In exploratory research, we have noted that cultural capital is affecting how learners choose their learning opportunities, how they curate their experiences, and how they make connections between their learning and economic lives. These curated learning opportunities and experiences are examples of learner trajectories – learning paths of individuals or groups of people. Open education systems have the potential to tailor learning trajectories to individual dispositions (Thomas and Brown, 2011), but if these trajectories are reproducing inequality through cultural capital then they may be no better than traditional education. Therefore, we first propose to ask: How does cultural capital influence learner trajectories in open education?

Digital badging has emerged as a method for expressing these trajectories on platforms such as Khan Academy and Codeacademy. Currently, many implementations of badges have focused on demarcating milestones or expected achievements in a prescriptive learning path. How prescriptive these achievements (and represented competencies) are is dependent on the community standards of whatever group or organization is issuing or awarding the badges. Other badge implementations, such as P2PU’s badge pilot project, have swung the opposite direction, letting individuals identify and describe their identity through badges. This type of learner trajectory focuses more on growth process than goal attainment. Because it is not tied to a preconceived path, it allows for more flexibility in how it is defined and how communities might value that growth. There is great potential for this type of badging to sidestep traditionally replicated inequalities and raises our second research question: How can learning platforms use badges that are sensitive to variance in capital to reconceptualize learner trajectories?

Background and Significance

In addition to cultural capital theory, we incorporate work on the new economy and identity theory into our framework for learners. New Economy scholars have criticized the American economic model as unsustainable and argue that to build a new economy, we must also build the education system that complements it. The 2008 financial downturn left countless Americans jobless and youth have suffered some of the highest unemployment levels since the downturn, despite having high levels of education, and subsequently high levels of student loan debt (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010; US Department of Education, 2011). Open and connected learning have been heralded as ideal models for teaching and learning 21st century skills in a volatile economy. However, unless open education is truly “open”, it will do no more than replicate existing inequality. Sociologists have long described ways that cultural capital in education can reproduce inequality (ex: Bourdieu, 1984; Lareau, 2003; DiMaggio, 1982; Dumais, 2002). Yet, new economists like Schor et al (forthcoming) and Johnston and Baumann (2009) argue that cultural capital has changed since theorists like Bourdieu first articulated the concept. As cultural capital shifts in the new economy, pathways to distinction could either adapt to preserve existing inequality or open up and democratize. In education, badging is akin to the abstract process of distinction Bourdieu describes. Badging operates as a marker of growth for individuals on open learning platforms and has the potential to provide a democratic pathway to identity distinction for open learners. Identity theory suggests that individuals are constantly sensing their environments, interpreting feedback on how their identity is perceived, and then comparing that perception to social and cultural standards the individual has adopted (Burke and Stets, 2009). While identity theory does not draw explicit connections to inequality, as part of the learning and self-identification process, we can see a point at which badging can be used to embrace and reflect variations and shifts in cultural capital (in both the user and the environment).

P2PU is using badging to promote 21st century skills like collaboration and project-based problem solving as well as content-specific competencies like Java programming. P2PU also offers the learner the unique opportunity to create her own learning and identity trajectory from passive observer to participant to mentor and teacher. With its large user base, collaborative organizational environment, and pilot badge program, P2PU is an ideal open education community in which to explore how cultural capital is influencing learner trajectory and how badging that is sensitive to capital can be used to reconceptualize learner trajectory. Through creative and rigorous social scientific research we have the opportunity to better understand learner trajectory as a feedback loop between self and environment. Open and connected learning is just as susceptible to the mechanisms of inequity as any other learning model, if such mechanisms are left taken-for-granted and uninterrupted. Our proposal aims to interrupt one potential corruptor of open education: cultural capital insensitivity. This research could provide groundbreaking steps towards designing a 21st century learning model that not only fits our vision for a new economy, but does so with intentional awareness and intolerance for 20th century inequality.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. The President and Fellows of Harvard College and Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “Forms of Captial.” From Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed: J.G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010. College Enrollment and Work Activity of High School Graduates 2009. Retrieved (

Burke, Peter J. and Jan E. Stets. 2009. Identity Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

DiMaggio, Paul. 1982. “Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades of U.S. High School Students.” American Sociological Review 47:189-201.

Dumais, Susan. 2002. “Cultural Capital, Gender, and School Success: The Role of Habitus.” Sociology of Education. 75.1: 44-68.

Johnston, Josee and Shyon Baumann. 2009. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Kamenetz, Anya. 2010. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Chelsea Green Publishing

Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Schor, Juliet et al. forthcoming. “An Emergeing Eco-habitus: The Reconfiguration of Cultural Capital Practices among Ethical Consumers.” Journal of Consumer Culture.

Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. 2011. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Createspace.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. 2008–09 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B:08/09): A First Look at Recent College Graduates (NCES 2011-236).


© 2012 Carfagna and Regents of the University of Michigan


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