Out With the Degree, In With the Badge: How Badges Motivate Learning And 7 Tips To Use Them Right

August 13th, 2013 No Comments Features

gamification badges

Catherine Lacey, a student at the University of Western Australia, is a Level 40 Hero in biology.

That’s her ranking on OpenStudy, where she spends up to 30 hours per week answering homework questions posed by students around the world.

Hero is the hardest badge to attain on the site, indicating considerable time spent helping other students. And Lacey doesn’t just help beginners—one of the many merit badges she’s earned from OpenStudy is for tutoring students in MIT open biology courses.

Only 20 years old, Lacey says she hasn’t yet added the Hero badge to her resume, but plans to include it if she finds herself applying for a teaching job post-graduation.

“It’s a measure of how much time and effort I’ve put into this and what other people think of me,” she says, emphasizing that, unlike a traditional bachelor’s degree, a digital badge can communicate granular achievement.

OpenStudy is just one of hundreds of organizations around the world adopting the digital badges system, including big names like NASA, NOAA, Carnegie Mellon, Intel, and Khan Academy.

But the scale of this effort is much larger than it may seem at first: Some advocates are working to replace the traditional college degree entirely, creating a new system of badges that recognize educational achievement both inside and outside the classroom.

“We have to question the tyranny of the degree,” says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.

Mr. Wiley is an outspoken proponent of “open education,” and imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus.

What will it take to get us to this point?

“As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely,” Wiley told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The idea is already well established in some computer-programming jobs, with Microsoft and other companies developing certification programs to let employees show they have mastered certain computer systems.

“The biggest hurdle is the one I had, which is prejudice,” says Cathy Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. She says she initially viewed educational badges as frivolous, but is now a leading proponent and co-founder of Hastac, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.

“People seem to think they know what school is and they know what work is,” she says. “We live in a world where anyone can learn anything, anytime, anywhere, but we haven’t remotely reorganized our workplace or school for this age.”

So what are digital badges, exactly, and are they worth all the hype?

Background on Badges

Traditional physical badges have been used for hundreds of years by various organizations such as the United States Armyand the Boy Scouts of Americato give members a physical emblem to display the accomplishment of various achievements. The idea of digital badges, though, is a relatively recent development drawn from research into gamification.

As game elements, badges have been used by organizations such as Foursquare and Huffington Post to reward users for accomplishing certain tasks.In 2005, Microsoft introduced the Xbox’ 360 Gamerscore system, which is considered to be the original implementation of an achievement system.

The use of digital badges as education credentials began in 2011, following the release of “An Open Badge System Framework,” a white paper authored by Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation.

In the paper, badges are explained as “a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest.” The report asserts that badges “have been successfully used to set goals, motivate behaviors, represent achievements and communicate success in many contexts” and proposes that when learning happens across various contexts and experiences, “badges can have a significant impact, and can be used to motivate learning, signify community and signal achievement.”

The report also makes clear that the value of badges comes less from its visual representation than from the context around how and why it was conferred. The stronger the connection between the two, the more effective the badging system will be. “Badges are conversation starters,” the report explains, “and the information linked to or ‘behind’ each badge serves as justification and even validation of the badge.” For example (via kendall at dh fashion), a badge should include information about how it was earned, who issued it, the date of issue, and, ideally, a link back to some form of artifact relating to the work behind the badge.

Later in 2011, the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization built around the ethos of the open Internet, announced their intention to develop the Mozilla Open Badges so as to provide a common system for the issuance, collection, and display of digital badges across a wide variety of instructional sites.The effort marked a strong shift from viewing badges as game-like elements to creating badges to certify learning. Many instructional sites such as P2PU and Khan Academy make use of a digital badging system.

Along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla sponsored its first competition for the development of digital “open badges” this year. The first winners were announced last month, and one of them was the sustainable-agriculture program at the University of California-Davis.

A leading research institution on plant genetics, water conservation, and pest control, UC-Davis conducted a detailed survey of practitioners, scholars, and students to identify the knowledge, skills, and experiences that undergraduates most needed to learn. The survey produced answers like “systems thinking,” “strategic management,” and “interpersonal communication.”

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—“systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

In fact, the majority of Mozilla’s badge competition winners don’t come from traditional colleges or universities. They include Disney-Pixar, NASA, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Peer 2 Peer University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The badges movement is based on the idea that people should be able to gather useful, verifiable evidence of everything they learn, not just everything they learn while attending an accredited post-secondary institution.

Many of the new digital badges are easy to attain—intentionally so—to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom.

Mozilla is designing a framework to let anyone with a Web page—colleges, companies, or even individuals—issue education badges designed to prevent forgeries and give potential employers details about the distinctions at the click of a mouse.

Hundreds of educational institutions, traditional and nontraditional, have flocked to a $2-million grant program run in coordination with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, seeking financial support to experiment with the educational-badge platform.

And this is just the beginning.

What Do Badges Have on Traditional Degrees?

For most employers, undergraduate degrees are a check box that communicates very little about the skills a particular candidate possesses. Their value comes mostly from the presumed general authority of the granting institution—and the fact that traditional colleges have a legally enforced near-monopoly over the production of credentials that are widely accepted for the purposes of getting a job or pursuing advanced education. Social or 21st-century skills, which are invaluable to employers and correlated with job success, rarely show up on a transcript. Resumes are ‘flat’ and difficult, if not impossible, to verify.

Below are a few ways digital badges can transform the existing system:

  1. Student-Designed Learning: A digital badge isn’t just a transcript, CV, and work portfolio rolled into one. It’s also a way to structure the process of education itself. Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning.
  2. Skills-Based Learning: In a world where knowledge is at our fingertips, skills have become increasingly desirable to both universities and employers. One badge-based system, Smarterer, tests users on a specific skill via multiple choice questions and award a badge displaying how much they know. The more than 500 subjects available include topics like Photoshop, Powerpoint, Java, corporate finance and accounting, and after you’ve completed a test, the site lets you know what you still need to learn so you can improve.
  3. Matching Candidates with Employers: Say you’re an employer considering a graduate of the UC-Davis program for hire. Under “systems thinking,” the graduate’s badge portfolio would include some of the UC-Davis courses he’s passed, along with grades. But it would also include evidence of the applicant’s specific skills, like “integrated pest management,” which he might have learned working on a farm. Other badges would describe workshops attended, awards won, and specific projects completed. Each badge would allow the employer to click through to more detailed levels of evidence and explanation—documents, assessment results, hyperlinks, video, and more. This way, the employer will have more material to go on when he has to make a final decision.
  4. Outside Learning: As records of achievement, badges not only recognize the completion of projects within a traditional college program, but also acknowledge experience gained through community e­fforts, online learning venues, and work-related projects.
  5. Anti-Monopoly. The top-flight educators at UC-Davis may develop the first widely used badge system for sustainable agriculture, but they won’t, in the long run, control it. Over time, farmers, students, civic groups, companies, professional organizations, and individual scholars will all contribute to a continuing process of helping people organize critical information about their lives. It is an open movement.
  6. Not-for-Profit. For-profit academic publishers are no longer maintaining their grip on prestigious scholarly journals; the physical textbook market has met its demise; MOOCs are threatening traditional academic institutions. Why shouldn’t the traditional college degree be next? Digital badges won’t be controlled by incumbent institutions with a vested financial interest in limiting the supply of valuable credentials. Open systems make the world more egalitarian and less expensive.
  7. Designed by education reformers. Digital badges are designed by the people who have a genuine interest in improving education for all, and are not influenced by monetary profit.
  8. Fluidity: Digital badges can adapt to a changing job landscape more quickly than school curricula, which take time to create, change, and evolve.
  9. Motivation and Recognition: All badges function to recognize learning; as such, most badging practices also function to assess learning. Recognizing and assessing learning serves to motivate learning. 
  10. Transformative Assessment: In addition to summative assessments of prior learning, badges can also be associated with formative assessment practices that provide guidance and feedback. Badges can also function as transformative assessments that shape existing learning systems or allow new ones to be created. 
  11. New Ways of Attracting Students: Students will naturally want to share their badges and the information they contain with their friends and colleagues via social networks, Twitter, or even email. This sharing should help programs and schools connect with previously untapped prospective students. In particular, the sharing of digital badges can help specialized programs gain recognition within whatever networks are associated with that specialization.
  12. More Adult Learners. When done right, the sharing of digital badges should help busy adults who are not actively considering further education to see the value of a particular program.
  13. Professional Collaboration: Badges quantify the soft skills of teamwork that are pivotal to success in many professions today. In the word of Mozilla, they “enhance identity and reputation, raising profiles within learning communities and among peers by aggregating identities across other communities… [and] build community and social capital by helping learners find peers and mentors with similar interests. Community badges help formalize camaraderie, team synthesis, and communities of practice.”
  14. Comparing skills, not students. “Typically in courses, we have a number of very broad learning goals, and grades are given out on student assignments tied to these broad goals,” Watson says. “But really, it is more a comparison of students rather than a focus on student learning and attainment of desired learning outcomes. “Badges help instructors encourage students to demonstrate how they have met very specific learning objectives through actual performance.”
  15. Clearly Articulated Learning Practices. Deciding what to recognize with badges pushes programs to articulate their learning outcomes. Articulating learning outcomes pushes programs to consider their evidence of these outcomes and associated assessment practices. By pushing the conversation from teaching to learning, badges force programs to surface tacit theories of learning.

 How to Spearhead Your Own Digital Badge Movement

“The introduction of badges is likely to be rather chaotic, and you will likely be doing some things differently than you initially intended,” says Daniel Hickey, Associate Professor and Program Head of the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University School of Education. “This means that the search for ‘best practices’ for badges may be quixotic; a more productive question is likely to concern whether particular practices are appropriate in particular contexts.”

  1.  Start Local: Urge your school district to partner with local organizations in offering badges to students. A school district in Providence, RI, for example, partnered with the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) to award badges for extended learning to students who completed semester-long courses.
  2. Start Small: Test the badge system by using it to award credit that isn’t necessary for graduation but would look good to colleges or employers on a transcript. If you’re hesitant to substitute badges for grades, start with an extra credit-style badge system.
  3. Start with Service: Winning recognition for underappreciated educational activities drives many of the college officials who are experimenting with badges. The University of Southern California’s service-learning division, for example, is among the first-round winners of the MacArthur grant to try the new badge platform. Called the Joint Educational Project, the USC program works with professors to run community-service projects that grant students extra credit for volunteer work. “The service-learning community has struggled with how to identify and recognize the outcomes that students learn, like civic knowledge and diversity,” explains Susan Harris, an associate director of the project. One of its proposed badges would recognize “Mentorship.” Ms. Harris hopes such a badge would carry more cachet than simply listing volunteer work on a résumé.
  4. Use different badges for different types of assessment. Hickey urges badge developers to consider the various goals for their badges, and the assumptions behind those goals.  “Failing to do so,” he says, “can create ‘wicked’ tensions that are impossible to resolve.  This can be toxic to educational systems because stakeholders ascribe those tensions to other things (politics, laziness, culture, faddism, etc.).”
    • Badge for showcasing achievement or potential = Summative assessment
    • Badge for motivating individuals to learn = Formative assessment
    • Badge for transforming or creating learning systems = Transformative assessment
  5. Create a “pledging” system: On his blog, Digital Literacy, William Ian O’Byrne describes his theory on “pledging” systems, which resulted from a conversation with Open Badges co-founder Doug Belshaw:
    • Require students to “pledge” for a badge as a pathway to a goal or to identify an accomplishment. This might include some kind of formal announcement from a student that they are working toward earning a badge, or that they believe they have conducted work that would earn them a badge.
    • After they have completed the requirements for the badge, a review process would be conducted to see if they earned the badge. This might consist of a self-review, a peer-review, and an assessment by experts. The review by experts could consist of a small panel of people from the university, or the community. In many ways, this would resemble an outside review during a dissertation.
    • Once the badges are awarded, they can be shared publicly, or left private. “My hope is that students would share them on their websites, visual CVs, social networks, etc. These badges could be clicked on and indicate the issuing body, and all of the metadata associated with the badge.”
  6. Use Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI): OBI lets programs create and issue badges that detail the particular accomplishment being highlighted, and link to additional information and evidence. Learners accumulate these badges in a digital “backpack” where they may choose to display them publically or share them over social networks. Mozilla’s Open Badges website answers many questions about how this is done in general.
  7. Create a Purdue University-Style “Passport App”:  Purdue’s Passport app allows instructors to create badges for their students. The creator tool in Passport offers a variety of templates on which instructors or advisers can base their own badges. Among the first uses of badges at Purdue will be for students who have successfully completed courses through nanoHUB-U, a collection of short courses in nanotechnology offered online to an international audience.

Many of the first badge systems will fail due to poor design or inadequate connection to communities of interest.

“But others will take root and thrive,” writes Kevin Carey for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “More users will beget more users. Employers will gain facility in the use of badges and confidence in those who bear them.”

When that happens, he says, it will create hardship for traditional institutions that now use the revenue generated from their undergraduate-credential franchise to subsidize the cost of graduate education, administration, scholarship, and other activities.

“But society as a whole will benefit enormously. The store of human capital will be more broadly and accurately represented by credentials that are useful in a mobile, interconnected world. Separating the credentialing and teaching functions of higher education allows organizations to specialize in one or the other.”

And, I might add, for students to specialize in lifelong learning.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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