Digital Badges for Learning

With the Mozilla Open Badge project and any number of recent initiatives, the idea of using badges for documenting learning continues to gain interest and traction in the field of education.  What is a digital badge?  Think of a digital equivalent of boy scout badges. A badge is granted when a scout demonstrates a given skill. Criteria are set for each badge and a person must give evidence of meeting those criteria to earn the badge.

As I continue to think about the affordances and limitations of digital badges, here are the benefits and limitations that I see so far.  Please consider adding more in the comment area.

Affordances of Digital Badges

I will use the acronym BADGES to represent six affordances that people associate with digital badges.

B – Break Down – Digital badges encourage us to break down evidence of learning into discrete bits of knowledge or skill.  Instead of simply earning an “A” or a “Pass”, one’s mastery is described at a much more granular level. Using digital badges, a course might be broken into a series of 5-10 individual badges that each seek to verify evidence of learning in each 5-10 different areas.  That has the potential to offer a much more accurate picture of what an individual knows or can do than a quiz, test, or overall course assessment.

A – Aggregation – What if I want to learn from multiple organizations and then showcase evidence of my learning in a single place online?  Digital badges make that possible. That is part of the power behind something like the Mozilla Open Badge project. This concept of aggregation is also built into services like and as well. This opens up the possibility for the unbundling of learning experiences and documentation of that learning across many organizations and contexts.

D – Demonstration – Badges typically require a person to prove what they do and do not know, what they can or can’t do.  This is much more focused upon real student learning than measures like seat time and time on task. It helps us to move toward a competency-based and evidence-based approach to learning. The other part of this is that the demonstration need not be limited to a formal learning context.  One might show knowledge and skill outside of a formal classroom as evidence of meeting a formal learning goal within a classroom.  The way in which I learned something becomes less important than the evidence of what I know or can do now.

G – Gamification – Gamification is simply the use of game principles in non-game environments.  While badges alone do not make for a game, this small element of games (the use of badges and similar forms of recognition) can serve as a motivator, especially for the achievers in the group. Not all are motivated by visible signs of achievement, but (even as I caution against too much emphasis on carrots) it does help some learners.

E – Expiration – While it is not mandatory, badging systems allow one to set an expiration date for certain badges, requiring the badge bearer to return for more training or to provide more current evidence to keep the badge.  This allows us to address the need to have evidence of current knowledge, not just that a person once had the knowledge and skill.

S – Speed – Some argue that badges are helping to speed the education move toward assessment and competency-based learning, and away from more vague evidence of learning in typical grading systems.

What about the critiques of badges?  

I’ve come across many and I share some of the concerns, but here are four especially common ones.

1) Badges are Extrinsic Motivators – This is the same critique that comes with letter grades, but it is one that warrants our time and consideration. They risk making school about earning instead of learning.  Ultimately, we want to promote learning environments and experiences where learners tap into intrinsic motivations, a desire to answer a compelling question, out of intellectual curiosity or imagination, or from a desire to achieve some goal. While some praise the benefits of badges, what are the risks of turning life and learning into a game?

This is no small critique.  As noted by Alfie Kohn, there is a significant difference between focusing upon achievement (or earning the grade or badge) and not on what they are actually doing and learning.  Kohn convincingly argues that this risks turning schools into anti-intellectual environments.

2) Not Trusted Credentials – As it stands, badges do not yet have the widespread acceptance among most people for them to serve as trusted credentials.  It is always hard to be the first to adopt something when there is such a low-level of awareness and comfort with this newer form of educational currency.

3) They Miss the Big Pictures – By focusing upon such discrete areas of knowledge and skill, do we miss some broad and more difficult to measure aspects of learning? Or, is it possible to use badges in conjunction with narrative assessment and other ways of providing a big picture and qualitative assessment of learning?

4) Meaningless Badges – This is the Wild West of digital badges, so the quality is all over the place. You may earn one badge for clicking on a link, while another requires weeks of work.  This adds to the challenge of the “non-trusted credential” critique.

What gives a badge value?

That fourth critique leads me to think further about what adds value to a badge.  Here are three possibilities.

1) Strong Evidence – What sort of evidence does one need to provide to earn a badge?  It is sometimes possible for a digital badge to also include a link to the evidence that one had to provide to earn the badge.  That allows anyone to look directly at the evidence to get a more accurate sense of what went into earning the badge and the quality of work provided to earn it.

2) Credibility of the Badge Issuer – If the person or organization distributing the badge has credibility in a given community, then that is likely to add to the value and prestige of the badge itself.

3) Rigor of the Review Process – Earning a badge requires meeting established criteria, and that criteria can be attached to the badge.  As one looks at a badge that a person earned, reviewing the criteria used to evaluate that person gives one a sense of the worth of the badge.  For example, if I see that someone has an “Endurance Runner” badge and I read that the criterion for earning the badge is running 5 ultra-marathons, then I know that badge has significant value because it represents a monumental achievement.  If the criterion were something like walking a mile for three consecutive days, that may be admirable, but it clearly puts the badge into a different class than the first, even if they have the same name.

Digital badges are still new and we continue to figure out the affordances and limitations of them, but I have little doubt that they will gain increased attention in the upcoming years.

Posted in badges, blog, digital badges, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture.

One thought on “Digital Badges for Learning

  1. marcela

    All this fuss about badges remind me of stars and black marks (school in the 60s). 50 years later, and it seems conductivism is back –without the black marks, of course.

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