‘Digital Badges’ Would Represent Students’ Skill Acquisition

By Katie Ash — June 13, 2012 12 min read
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For many adults, the thought of earning badges evokes childhood memories of sewing Boy Scout or Girl Scout patches onto sashes and vests.

But some educators are hoping that the current generation of children will associate the word with something new: digital badges.

In this vision, electronic images could be earned for a wide variety of reasons in multiple learning spaces, including after-school programs, summer workshops, K-12 classrooms, and universities. And once earned, the badges could follow students throughout their lifetimes, being displayed on websites or blogs and included in college applications and résumés.

The concept originated at the end of 2010 at a conference held by the Mozilla Foundation in Barcelona, Spain. The idea is getting a toehold in higher education and is being tried with some youths at the precollegiate level.

Advocates of this vision for K-12 contend that such badges could help bridge educational experiences that happen in and out of school, as well as provide a way to recognize “soft skills” such as leadership and collaboration. Badges could paint a more granular and meaningful picture of what a student actually knows than a standardized-test score or a letter grade, they say.

But not all educators are convinced of the merits of the idea. Because badges are still being developed and have not yet been introduced into classrooms, how they would fit into the structure of K-12 education and whether they could actually fulfill the goals that proponents have described are still up for debate.

Other skeptics argue that introducing digital badges into informal education settings—where most agree they would have the greatest impact initially—could bring too much structure and hierarchy to the very places students go to seek refuge from formal achievement tracking. And many point to research that suggests rewarding students, with a badge for instance, for activities they would have otherwise completed out of personal interest or intellectual curiosity actually decreases their motivation to do those tasks.

Advocates see it differently.

Among the strongest proponents of the idea is the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has spearheaded the digital-badges movement for lifelong learning by launching a competition for badge proposals in partnership with Mozilla, a nonprofit Web organization best known for its open-source browser Firefox, and HASTAC, or Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, a network of individuals promoting new technologies for learning.

“Kids are learning in their peer group. They’re learning online. They’re learning in interest groups and after-school programs,” says Constance M. Yowell, the director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there’s nobody that’s helping the learning that’s happening across those connections.”

Helping to string together learning achievements across informal and formal education, as well as at transitional education points, such as from precollegiate to higher education and from formal education into the workplace, is one of the main goals of badge advocates.

For example, K-12 students could earn badges for mastering certain content, such as physics or trigonometry, or for soft skills acquired in afterschool settings, such as leadership or environmental stewardship, that could paint a clearer picture of themselves for college admissions officers.

“How do you make visible what kids are learning, and how do you help them get credit for it?” says Yowell. “How do you build bridges across the multiple places that kids are learning so they can see the connections between what they’re learning inside of school and outside of school?”


Another advantage of digital badges, their boosters say, is the ability to create learning pathways where none previously existed. For example, students who have earned an introduction to HTML badge, which refers to a type of computer programming language, could then be encouraged to pursue an intermediate level HTML badge to continue building their skills, a website creation badge where they could apply that skill, or a badge for a new programming language, such as Java or CSS.

“With badges, you can actually scaffold out a pathway of what is next,” Yowell says. “We want as much as possible to create multiple entry points for learning and multiple pathways for career and academic success.”

Yowell envisions a recommendation tool that could point students to a variety of opportunities based on the competencies they’ve demonstrated through earning their badges.

“It becomes an integrated process as opposed to one where the assessments are separate,” Yowell says.

This was one of the reasons why MOUSE, a New York City-based youth-development program that teaches students to provide technical support and leadership in their schools, began using badges. One of the main programs MOUSE offers is MOUSE Corps, a career-readiness program for high schoolers that gives those students experience providing information technology support for their schools, as well as professional internships, mentoring, and skills-building workshops.

“What it’s really about is giving [students] that authentic role in their schools, and giving them all kinds of venues to apply their skills in real ways,” says Marc Lesser, the education director of MOUSE. “The major outcome of [MOUSE Corps] is all about applying skills, but we also want to help them to envision a pathway that goes beyond 12th grade.”

MOUSE, which operates in 400 sites across the nation, has been experimenting with awarding digital badges for the past two years, says Lesser. So far, the organization has awarded more than 19,000 digital badges for a range of activities, including interacting with other students in MOUSE on its social-networking website; taking care of schools’ IT tickets, or requests for technical help; completing workshops; and mastering technical skills such as networking or programming languages like HTML.

The group’s move to digital badges was partly spurred by a desire to encourage students to think about the program as more than just a semester-long commitment, Lesser says.

“We needed to start helping young people see a trajectory for themselves [in the program]. There’s far more impact when young people stay with us for longer periods of time,” he says. “Badges may help learners see steppingstones that don’t lay out in a linear way.”

For example, once one badge is earned, a host of other badge-earning opportunities open up to students.

MOUSE also had to devise a way to track where students were in the program and provide them feedback about their progress.

“We needed a way to be able to give credit where credit was due in all different scenarios—when learners were experiencing or building skills in all kinds of different ways and around all different kinds of skills,” Lesser says.

‘Gamification’ of Education

But skeptics point to research that shows that giving out rewards (extrinsic motivation) for tasks that students are already doing for their own personal enjoyment (intrinsic motivation) actually reduces the overall motivation students feel for those tasks and undermines student engagement.

Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, says badges run the risk of contributing to the “gamification” of education.

"[Gamification] is a system which does not trust the power of intrinsic motivation and feels the need to add a layer of extrinsic motivation,” says Jenkins, who was interviewed by email. “Some forms of gamification rely so heavily on points schemes that there is far less effort to make the activities meaningful in and of themselves.”

Already, many students are caught up in such a conception of education, he says, with high-achieving students focusing more on receiving high grades—or a multitude of badges—than the learning itself.

“I worry that badges can become just another points system … [that] undercuts the motivational structures,” he says.

And when it comes to informal learning, part of what makes such learning unique, he says, is precisely the lack of hierarchical structure and formalization that badges threaten to impose.

“Too quick a move towards badges runs the risk of destroying the complex but fragile ecosystem within which participatory learning thrives,” Jenkins says. Providing adult validation for student achievements through digital badges in places where that validation did not previously play a role could turn some students off, he says.

“There is a value in helping these youths find ways to value what they are doing as intellectual pursuits, and there is a value in seeking to validate these experiences and help them learn how to mobilize that knowledge as they learn to work through the formal structures that exert power over their lives,” says Jenkins. “But making badges too central to the process may alienate them before they have a chance to exert ownership over the knowledge they are acquiring.”

That is part of the reason why digital badges should be viewed as feedback, rather than a reward, says Yowell, of the MacArthur Foundation.

“What we think matters most for learning is, how do you give the learner and the folks supporting that learner ongoing feedback about how they’re doing?” she says. “We’re not having a conversation about replacing standardized tests or grades.”

The badges competition hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla, and HASTAC concluded on March 1 at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco, where 30 winners—chosen from 91 proposals—were awarded grants ranging from $25,000 to $175,000 to develop their ideas. The winners—including heavy hitters such as Intel, NASA, and Disney-Pixar—have one year to develop their digital badges, working with other winners to form a badge “ecosystem” that educators hope will transform the way achievement is acknowledged for learners of all ages.

“Part of our goal for the competition was to build a community of thoughtful collaborators,” says Yowell. “We are welcoming of all those who want to join us in this endeavor and be thoughtful skeptics.”

Two key factors in selecting the grant winners were the transportability and the granularity of the proposed badges, says David Theo Goldberg, the director of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California, Irvine.

Transportability refers to the ability of the badge to follow the badge earner through his or her lifetime and be recognized in a variety of environments. Granularity emphasizes the need for specific data and details about why and how the badge was earned, so that anyone viewing it will have a clear understanding of the competencies of the badge owner.

Some of the winners will clearly target K-12 students. One such proposal, the “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” badges, is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in an effort to target potential dropouts by engaging them in digital educational resources. Another winner, BuzzMath, will focus on helping students set goals to master the Common Core State Standards in mathematics.

Others, such as BadgesWork for Vets and the Design for America: A Badge Community for Innovation, are being developed for different population groups as well as the general public.

Building a ‘Badge Economy’

On its surface, a digital badge is nothing more than an image file encoded with metadata, or information, that includes all the data needed to understand the badge, such as which organization awarded it, what skill or achievement it represents, if and when it expires, and links to evidence for why it was awarded.

With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla has developed an Open Badge Infrastructure, or OBI, designed to become the underlying technical scaffolding for badges.

“The Open Badge Infrastructure creates some standardization around a common language of badges that we can all communicate with,” says Erin Knight, a senior director of learning for the Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla Foundation. “The idea is that each badge carries with it all the information you need to understand the badge.”

The OBI details exactly what should be included in the metadata of the badge; supports the issuance, collection, and display of badges; allows badge earners to tie their badges to their own identities; and provides badge earners with a way to sort and manage their badges.

Part of the infrastructure includes a “digital backpack” in which badges can be stored,managed, and displayed. Keeping the badge earner in control of which badges are seen by whom was a big consideration in the development of the OBI, Knight says.

Sunny Lee is an open-badges product manager and partner manager for the Mozilla Foundation. "[The digital backpack] enables the learner to be able to curate and manage the image that they want to represent to the rest of the world,” she says. “The idea is that we’re kind of laying down the plumbing for this badge economy to flourish. Now, we need some badges circulating around the economy to jumpstart it.”

Some observers wonder how meaningful badges can become if any organization is allowed to give them out for any reason; the fear is of an influx of superficial badges that have little to do with learning. But Knight says that is precisely why the badge earner must be responsible for managing his or her own badges.

“Yes, there will be badges that mean nothing—that will happen—but the key is that the learner is in control, and they can decide what is important and how they share those badges,” she says. “One of the problems we’re trying to solve is that a lot of the way learning is defined right now is incredibly prescribed, and the learning that counts is top-down decided. … We want to open up and legitimize learning that’s happening everywhere.”

While much remains to be seen about how digital badges could affect K-12 learners, many involved in the movement say they appreciate the conversation it has sparked about assessment, the tracking of achievement, and lifelong learning.

“We’re definitely not saying that [digital badges] are a silver bullet, and we’re not even saying that badges are going to end up being one of the pieces of the solution, but there’s clearly a lot of potential here, and at the end of the day, if we decide that badges aren’t the right way to do it, it would be hard for us not to consider that it’s somewhat of a success,” says Knight, of the Mozilla Foundation. “Everybody has elevated these issues and come together to think about it and been willing to turn assumptions on their head.”

Digital badges are a way of forcing educators to recognize that learning is no longer confined to a classroom and is taking place anytime, anywhere, adds Goldberg, of the Irvine, Calif. and Durham, N.C.-based HASTAC.

“What this speaks to, and what the interest in badging as a creative form of motivation assessment and reward for learning is, is a sense that learning is transforming before our very eyes and has been certainly since the advent of the Internet,” he says.

“It’s the case that learning is taking place around the clock,” he says. “It’s taking place interactively and collaboratively in all sorts of ways both inside and especially outside of institutional framing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as Digital Badges


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