Badges are an important kind of symbol, a shortcut that we use to quickly understand more about the people we meet. Consider police officers, service members, and retail workers; their physical badges represent history of informal training, formal education, and official certifications. Without hiring a detective to research each of our new acquaintances, these badges give us confidence at-a-glance in their competencies and achievements.
Digital badges provide a similar shortcut to understanding the competencies and achievements of the people we’re teaching, recruiting, and collaborating with online. Essentially, digital badges are credentials awarded to individuals to publicly certify competencies and achievements. In our dynamic society, the stakes are high for students to demonstrate relevant competencies, and for institutions to demonstrate the competency-based value of their curriculum. Badges can help.
This article is a resource for educators to better understand digital badges, the different classifications of badges, their history and evolution and their pivotal role in revolutionizing assessment in the academic and co-curricular world.
Types of digital badges
Achievement badges are issued upon the completion of one or more validated transactions. Achievement badges are issued following a machine or human-based evaluation process. For example, let’s say an individual can prove that they have attended an event, completed a course, or have been awarded a prize in a competition. The individual’s achievements are certified and “badged” when completion of their transactions - attendance, completion, awards - is confirmed. A badge awarded for an achievement is not a direct measure of the learning outcomes or level of effort demonstrated by said achievement, however, the character of the transactions themselves communicate their own subjective relevance and value.
While achievement badges are transactional in nature, competency badges are qualitative in nature in that they represent direct measures of competence. As such, competency badges are typically issued as the result of a performance assessment. Competency badge issuance is triggered when some machine or human evaluator completes an assessment - often a direct, authentic assessment - of evidence or artifacts that demonstrate learning outcomes or skills. The issuance criteria found within a competency badge is directly linked to an underlying rubric chosen and sometimes (but not necessarily) authored by the badge’s issuer, and used by an evaluator to score competency evidence. An issuer may determine a score threshold at which a badge is to be awarded, and can make that threshold transparent to the public. The rigor behind competency badges make them especially valuable as career currency.
The Purpose of Badging: Transparency and trust
Traditional credentials such as diplomas offer an opaque view of a person’s competence. Diplomas do not certify competencies at the granular level of an employer’s job requirements. As such, job candidates must often supplement their applications with references and must complete pre-employment assessments. Similarly, college applicants must submit essays and standardized test scores to accompany their high school diplomas.
Many applicants, however, do not make it beyond initial screening stages which use basic variables such as the applicant’s educational history (i.e., pedigree) and GPA as strong filters. These filters are important roadblocks to the student success and career advancement of all but the top-ranked graduates from the most elite institutions.
Digital badges are infinitely reusable, and therefore offer a highly scalable system for assessing competencies beneath the surface in order to get a more transparent view into a candidate’s abilities and potential. In other words, a badge may be issued just once – e.g., in connection with a classroom or co-curricular activity - to certify a particular skill-set, but can be considered many times later by myriad employers and/or admissions officers. Badging enables a sharp departure from the traditional model of screening applicants whereas each application in a job or admissions process would burden the screening organization with a unique battery of assessments.
By increasing process scalability and reducing transactional assessment burden, organizations are afforded the opportunity to take a more evidence-based approach to screening for additional variables that predict fit and performance, beneath the surface.
The history and evolution of digital badging
Though rewards programs in businesses can be traced back to the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the late nineties that the system became largely digitized. One of the earliest and most significant adopters of this trend was the local search-and-discovery service app, Foursquare. Featuring a social networking aspect that allo
wed users to share their locations with friends via "check-in"s, Foursquare users could gather rewards, trophies and “achievement badges” in exchange for business loyalty and consistent rate of return. (Source)
Badging and gamification
Though the significance of digital badging in the world of education and professional workforce is clear now, the commercial badging road was originally paved in the world of consumer gaming and retail. In fact, digital badges were originally designed to enhance a growing trend in consumer experience strategy known as gamification, coined by computer programmer Nick Pelling in 2003. (Source)
In a nutshell, gamification is the concept of applying video game challenges and experience to real life processes in an attempt to increase consumer engagement with a product or business. With over 36% of the world’s population using smartphones and the mobile applications they provide, it only made sense to turn the entire world into a massive role-playing game for consumers, with tips, tricks and prizes being rewarded as accomplishments for playing along.
Putting gamification to work
As more companies caught onto the benefits of gamification in the workplace following Foursquare’s early adoption, the demand for interactive user experiences via smartphone boomed into an industry within itself. “Micro-moments” as enhanced by the ubiquity of mobile technology, president and founder of CBSEcoMedia Paul Polizzotto claimed, allowed gamified advertising to “be the perfect way to attract [an] audience and have been shown to increase consumer engagement.”
Though the goals for gamification in the workplace vary across companies, badging have become a popular choice among businesses looking to enhance their employee engagement. As a result, technology companies such as Badgeville began providing gamified user experience services to businesses that were looking to update their marketing tools, specifically achievement badges as incentive programs. Referred to as a “software-as-a-service” product, Badgeville has since championed the strategy for companies such as Callidus Cloud, Deloitte and Engine Yard, among many others.
Now: Badges as Credentials used to certify competencies and skills
In 2011, the world of digital badging transformed again when The Mozilla Foundation announced a plan to create a virtual technical standard for issuing, collecting and displaying qualifications earned online through the form of open badges.
Partnering with over 300 nonprofit organizations, government agencies and others and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, The Mozilla Project sought to utilize these open badges to create "a world where your skills and competencies were captured more granularly across many different contexts, were collected and associated with your online identity and could be displayed to key stakeholders to demonstrate your capacities." (Source)
The importance of evidence-based assessment at the root of badging has become a key initiative promoted by many prominent educators. As outlined by Linda Siefert, Director of Assessment at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, in the 2011 Peer Review article, “Assessing General Education Learning Outcomes”:
“In the twentieth century, assessment relied on tests of explicit knowledge, or what we call content knowledge in education. Since content is now available quickly and inexpensively through electronic sources, simply knowing the correct answer no longer defines expertise...To use the language of information and technology researchers, our focus is changing from assessing codified knowledge to assessing tacit knowledge. This requires more complex assessments that rely on authentic demonstrations and detailed and well-vetted rubrics.”
Open badging within the institution of higher education isn't without it's criticism, however. Some vocal opponents perceive the system as yet another digital threat to the college diploma, encouraging earners to seek a badge-based "certification platform" instead.
On the contrary, though, badging is utilized best when supplementing the college curriculum rather than supplanting it. As illustrated in Pearson VUE's Open Badges for Higher Education ebook, "The threat of disruption is real" only because "the pace of change in higher education is clearly accelerating, forcing institutions to adapt and evolve more rapidly…For higher education institutions interested in keeping pace, establishing a digital ecosystem around badges to recognize college learning, skill development and achievement is less a threat and more of an opportunity."
With digital badges setting the new standard for how we learn, reflect and assess, it's important to embrace digital badges as a piece of the future in our learning ecosystem and not a detriment to it. If anything is clear from the way educational technology is heading, badges are here stay.