Supporting Student Engagement and Recognizing Learning With Digital Badges
As higher education evolves to accommodate new forms of learning and new workforce needs, skills are being assessed across an ever-widening range of activities within the learning landscape. Campus-based and online degree programs; professional certificates; competency-based education; open online courses; professional development initiatives; cocurricular and extracurricular activities; and programs in service learning, information literacy, and entrepreneurship are just some of the higher education settings in which competencies worth recognizing are demonstrated or observed. Digital badges unify the learning that happens in these diverse contexts—often at a relatively granular level—with a common and portable representation of achievement.
The use of badges can also help connect a series or progression of learning experiences, illuminate pathways to learners, and more clearly demonstrate achievements to an external audience. The digital nature of these credentials provides significant affordances and can offer greater ongoing value than more traditional options for recognizing or recording learning, such as a degree, an academic course-level transcript, or a paper-based certificate of completion. Digital badges:
- include a consistent set of metadata or information about the nature of the assessment, experience, or criteria that led to the skills or competency-based outcomes represented;
- incorporate authentic evidence of the outcome being certified;
- can be shared, displayed, or pulled into different kinds of platforms and environments in both human-readable and machine-readable formats;
- can be distributed in a simple, consistent format, fostering relationship building, networking, and just-in-time career development opportunities;
- are searchable and discoverable in a range of settings; and
- offer data and insights about how and where they are used, valued, and consumed.
A diverse and rapidly growing set of examples in higher education illustrate the marriage between the unique benefits of digital badges and learning programs that emphasize discrete competencies, skill mastery, or credentials as certified outcomes. The following cases highlight the use of digital badges in supporting faculty development, cross-disciplinary literacies, extracurricular learning, and competency mastery within degree programs:
- Texas Wesleyan University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (n.d.) awards badges for participation in faculty development programs to recognize soft and technical skill development.
- The University of Central Florida’s Information Literacy Program (n.d.) awards digital badges for successful completion of each of UCF’s Information Literacy Modules, which are grouped into three functional categories: gather, evaluate, and use.
- The University of Notre Dame (n.d.) integrates digital badges into e-portfolios to recognize the authentic evidence and important skills demonstrated by students through extracurricular and cocurricular activities.
- Brandman University (n.d.) offers badges to enable learners to attain, manage, and share portable digital credentials earned through their online competency-based degree programs.
- UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute has a badge system that functions as a competency-based (rather than credit-hour based) model of learning. The program has developed a set of competencies for the major—systems thinking, experimentation and inquiry, strategic management, civic engagement, personal development—and each competency correlates to a badge that students work toward by collecting experiences (Stewart, 2013).
More than anything else, developing a plan to thoughtfully integrate digital badges into higher education initiatives involves an investment of time by multiple stakeholders to ensure a meaningful mapping of outcomes and credentials.
The Value of Digital Badges
As a marker of achievement, a digital badge looks both backward and forward at the same time: backward to the experience or assessment that was completed to qualify for it, and forward to the benefits, rewards, or new opportunities available to those who have earned it. As nothing more than a vessel for communicating and transporting information about an achievement, digital badges can serve very different functions and convey different kinds of value depending on how and where they are employed.
An earned badge communicates a great deal about the earner, the organization that issued it, the relationship between the two, and those that seek, accept, or endorse the badge as a valued credential or certification. A thoughtfully designed badge or system of badges should consider all of these constituents.
As you begin developing a badge initiative that will have maximum meaning, value, and currency, think deliberately about what specific challenges or opportunities your badges are designed to address. Some of the possibilities you might consider include:
- Serving as an alternate qualification for lifelong learning. Degrees and licenses certify summative achievements often following formal education programs or courses of study; do your digital badges provide official certification recognizing learning that is more granular, formative, or incremental?
- Surfacing, verifying, or sharing evidence of achievement. How can we surface discrete evidence that certifies a skill or accomplishment, and by doing so arm learners with official recognition they can use toward new opportunities? Does validating and making a specific success or outcome more visible, portable, and sharable help a learner move successfully from one learning experience to the next?
- Democratizing the process of issuing credit. How can we empower anyone who can observe or assess meaningful achievements to issue digital recognition of those accomplishments, even if that means that credential issuing becomes less centralized?
- Exposing pathways and providing scaffolding. How can we better suggest or illuminate a path forward for learners while also enabling that pathway and progress to be shared with an external audience of peers or potential employers?
- Supporting ongoing engagement. How can digital badges support learners incrementally as they progress through a learning experience? Can we enhance motivation before and after the experience?
The process for developing an effective badge system can be broken into steps:
- Create a badge constellation. A constellation is a master plan or blueprint that shows all of the badges you intend to offer and how they relate to core themes or to each other.
- Map meaning to each badge and to the overall badge system. Ensure that each part of your constellation has a value to the earner, to your organization, and to those who would reward or offer opportunities to bearers of each badge.
- Identify or develop an assessment strategy. How will you know when an earner is ready to receive a badge? Are existing assessments, observation opportunities, or measures already in place, or does your system require new ways to determine when an individual has qualified for a digital badge or credential? What activities or work will be assessed, and what evidence can accompany each issued badge?
- Determine relationships within the system and how learners progress. Is your plan one that shows progress, where components build on one another? How does one badge relate to another or stack to support ongoing personal or professional development?
- Incorporate benefits, opportunities, and rewards into the system. Work backwards from the benefits that will be available to those who earn badges in your system. Does each badge serve a greater purpose than itself? What doors does it unlock for earners? How will you communicate and promote the value of your badges to all constituents?
- Address technology considerations. How will you create and issue badges? Where and how will the badges be displayed or consumed by other systems and platforms in which they realize their potential value?
- Develop an appropriate graphic design. While the visual design is but one element of a badge rich with data, how an achievement is visually represented communicates a great deal of additional information. Digital badges offer a unique and powerful opportunity to market the skills and capabilities of those who complete your programs, and badges promote your initiatives as well as your organization and what it values.
The above set of considerations can serve as a high-level checklist to ensure your badge system takes into account all of the most critical components. Below are highlights of the badge system development process in more detail.
Developing a Badge Constellation
A badge constellation is essentially a map of your overall system. Sometimes represented graphically, the constellation shows the overall scope and scale of the skills and achievements your system acknowledges, as well as how the elements relate to one another. It gives learners a holistic visualization to appreciate what progress and incremental milestones might be expected along the way to their ultimate goal, which could be as granular as a single learning objective within a course or as broad as a complete degree program.
The first step in constellation design is to consider what kind of achievements a badge might represent. These classifications can help to further organize your constellation:
- Individual skill or knowledge development
- Summative achievement
- Progressive or milestone accomplishments
- Membership or involvement in a community or activity
These are not mutually exclusive. For instance, one badge might recognize the completion of an individual unit of learning (such as an individual skill or knowledge development), while another may recognize completion of all the badges (a summative achievement) in the learning experience.
Individual Badges and the Overall Badge System
While a constellation will show the overall system, it is important to articulate what each component represents. A component is a part of that larger system and could be a badge or an activity that leads to a badge. You’ll find some of the badge development steps are very similar to instructional design steps. In his blog post, Digital Badges as Curricular Building Blocks, Bernard Bull (2014a) encourages us to think of discrete competencies as the building blocks of curriculum design. In this model, the smallest building block is not a course but a competency, and each is attached to a learning experience recognized by a digital badge. That competency is equivalent to an instructional objective. Employing this approach would lead to a competency-based badge design and could be easily applied to a short learning experience, such as UCF’s Information Literacy program (University of Central Florida, n.d.), or a full degree program, such as Concordia University Wisconsin’s online master’s degree in educational technology (Bull, 2014b).
Digital Badging and Assessment
It is important to note that badges in and of themselves are not assessments; they are what is issued to acknowledge that an assessment has been successfully completed. That said, due to their unique nature and use across a broad spectrum of contexts, digital badges lend themselves to being associated with many forms of authentic and embedded assessments. Some to consider include:
- Review of a submission of evidence or an authentic artifact, such as a reflection piece, video, or other media created during a learning experience or activity
- Test, quiz, or other formal assessment
- Peer review of work
- Verified participation at an event or in a learning program
Although badges can be organized in many ways and can recognize many levels of accomplishment, it can be useful to differentiate between badges that represent gold star types of achievements versus those that might rise to the level of a gold seal. By gold star, we mean badges that are generally used to help visualize progress or motivate an individual to move along a path toward something more substantial and significant. Gold seal badges recognize more significant learning or an accumulation of work, such as completing an overall certification, degree, or other credential. Sometimes multiple lower-level gold star badges can accrue or lead to a more highly regarded gold seal badge, and other times they might constitute a completely separate currency—it all depends on the constellation design.
With your badges defined and your constellation coming together, you will want to consider how you will create, distribute, and keep track of issued badges, as well as how your earners will securely receive, manage, and share badges and put them to use. A digital credential or open badge management platform helps manage all aspects of the lifecycle of a digital badge. Badge-issuing platforms can also include tools for individuals to manage their earned credentials and choose how and where they’d like to use or display them. A user’s profile, or backpack, can store badges earned from different contexts and issuers. Badges earned through a variety of sources can be curated to tell a story about each individual’s learning path and achievements. The value of a badge can be local to your organization or it can extend beyond to the broader community or ecosystem at large. Either way, that value should be communicated in the badge metadata.
Figure 1 shows an example of the metadata associated with a badge. The metadata includes the title, description, criteria, issue date, expiration, evidence, and issuer details.
Figure 1. Badge Metadata
Developing a graphic design for your digital badges can be an enlightening experience. The exercise often brings together a range of stakeholders, from instructional technologists to marketing departments, and it requires thoughtful consideration about the potential growth of your system so that the graphics can expand as your constellation grows. As you work through the design process, here are some things to contemplate:
- How should one balance the skills or competency represented by the badge with the granting institution’s brand? Badges can help extend the institutional brand, but a badge system can also have its own unique identity and purpose.
- If your badge system has multiple tracks or categories, how should those taxonomies be reflected in the design? The University of Central Florida information literacy badge system (n.d.) offers an example of how relationships and hierarchy can be conveyed through shape, size, and color.
- Will you display a logo on the badges? Does the logo need to integrate with the institutional, unit, or departmental brand?
In developing a badge system, there are many aspects, constituencies, and use cases to consider. Here are some additional, overarching items to keep in mind.
- Scale. Will you begin your badge initiative as a pilot or a full implementation? Will your badge program be for a specific program or department, or will it be institutionwide? A larger, broader deployment may take more time and coordination and will involve more stakeholders as the system is developed.
- Value. Who will value your badges, and how will you communicate this so the badge program maximizes its relevance? Will there need to be external and internal communication or marketing to build awareness of the badges’ value and utility? Will their value be determined by the exclusivity or degree of difficulty to obtain them? What role will the evidence required to obtain the badges have in determining their value? Who will assess or ultimately determine the value of the evidence?
- Marketing. Closely related to the value of a badge is how the entire program is marketed. Internally, will there be any common institutional standards or policies needed, or can that come later? Will badges be sharable and consumed outside the institution? If so, how will they need to be contextualized? Should there be an outward-facing description of credentials and badges that helps the uninitiated appreciate the value of your badges?
- Administration. Depending on the scale of your badge program, you will need to consider how many people need to be involved in administering and issuing badges. If a badge system is implemented at an institutional level, there may be a few special considerations regarding the administration of badges, such as who has the ability to create new badges, who can issue a badge, who verifies achievement if evidence is required and others.
- Learning Management System (LMS) Considerations. A few LMSs allow for the issuance of badges. Likewise, not all LMS badges are externally sharable; some can only be shared in the LMS itself.
Many organizations are looking to provide a means to recognize learning and achievement in a way that moves beyond the traditional transcript or resume and captures a more granular set of accomplishments and skills demonstrated in a broader collection of settings and programs. A digital badge system can help unify how we represent successful outcomes in the many learning opportunities in higher education, from formal activities and assessments to more informal and cocurricular activities. A deliberate, thoughtful system can introduce learners at all levels to new pathways and can act as a catalyst to explore additional experiences.
Brandman University. (n.d.). Introducing MyPath from Brandman University. Retrieved from https://www.brandman.edu/mypath
Bull, B. (2014a, July 18). Digital badges as curricular building blocks [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://etale.org/main/2014/07/08/digital-badges-as-curricular-building-blocks/
Bull, B. (2014b, September 7). You can now earn a master’s degree in #EdTech through competency-based digital badges [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://etale.org/main/2014/09/07/you-can-now-earn-a-masters-degree-in-edtech-through-competency-based-digital-badges/
Stewart, M. (2013, November 27). Digital badges at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://wheel.ucdavis.edu/2013/11/digital-badges-at-the-agricultural-sustainability-institute/
Texas Wesleyan University Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (TWUCETL). (n.d.). Badges 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.txwescetl.com/badges-2-0/
University of Central Florida. (n.d.). Badges. Retrieved from http://infolit.ucf.edu/faculty/badges/
University of Notre Dame. (n.d.). E2B2 badge directory. Retrieved from http://eportfolio.nd.edu/directory/badge-directory/
The author thanks Jonathan Finkelstein and Susan Manning for their contributions to this article.
Veronica Diaz is the Director of Online Programs at EDUCAUSE, and the Associate Director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.