Digital Badge Systems and why we Need Them

I am getting an increasing number of calls about digital badges. Colleges and universities, K-12, adult education, and community programs all wanting to explore the promise of this new pedagogical tool.

The interest is exciting and I am always happy to discuss the potential of digital badges. I see them as a powerful design tool- allowing us to clarify our missions and visions, supporting our students in leveraging our resources in working toward their highest potential. I must be compelling in my enthusiasm, or maybe the promise of badges speaks for itself, because by the end of the conversation or presentation, the leaders are usually ready to sign-up for a system of their own, wanting to discuss next steps and a quick path to implementation. This is the point that gets a little awkward as I explain that there is no one to sign up with- certainly not me, and no template or program to follow or purchase.

How to begin? I try to explain that the badge or micro-credential part of the system is actually the easiest. There are online platforms that walk you through the creation of badge icons, which are simply interactive digital files. You brand badges with your organization’s name and information, the respective title of the skill or competence, and the specific expectations and evidence associated with the skill. On the administrative side, the platform allows you to issue or award the badge, sending the file to the student once you approve their evidence.

But the rest is up to you/us- what do we hope the students will do with the opportunities provided, how will they translate these into success or readiness, and how will they communicate their skills and competencies to the world and to the audiences that matter most? These clarifications and the associated mapping work will frame the next stage of our collective evolution, and digital badges already provide the necessary design tools.

With a little time the “how” to build and support badging systems will become less mysterious. As organizations begin to play with these platforms, we will begin to see the possibilities. And as employers begin to endorse certain badges, or emphasize specific skills or competencies or types of evidence, the market will begin to shift in response. Soon, apps and start-ups (or perhaps Amazon?)  will market badges directly to students, allowing them to sample from both formal and informal educational programs and experiences, weaving preparation with projects, accomplishments and endorsements into compelling digital narratives and portfolios of evidence.

In this way, education will eventually flip. But in reality, students are already the designers, with a bounty of resources and opportunities at their disposal. As the keepers or deliverers of these resources, we should embrace opportunities to help our students translate our affordances into success and further opportunity. Yes, in activating the potential of digital badges we will, ourselves, have to stretch and grow, building capacity to connect our own resources with changing opportunities and expectations. How ironic that in figuring out how to create digital badge systems for our students, we would benefit from working toward digital badges of our own.

My Excitement for Digital Badges

Through my work at the University at Buffalo, we are embracing digital badges in an exciting and innovative way. We are using them to guide students through mentored projects- helping them prepare, engage, reflect and leverage their experiences in support of their academic and professional goals. (visit site)

As I present on our new Project Portal, both inside and outside the University, audiences seem to get the importance of what we are doing. But as soon as I begin talking about digital badges, the “back end” of our model, I find their attention waning or their cynicism kicking in. Those who have heard of digital badges and micro-credentials immediately dismiss them as the newest trend, or a shallow repackaging of traditional curricula, or even a desperate attempt at sustained relevance. Yet despite these responses, I find my own enthusiasm heightening, and an eagerness to defend their promise, to map out potential designs and demonstrate their latent potential.

What are digital badges? Badging involves isolating specific competencies, dispositions, or skills that are valuable/valued and providing opportunities for students to “earn” them, working toward a threshold of mastery/attainment.  The digital part of the name denotes their online format, and the issuance of a branded digital icon- or badge- once expectations are met. Students can display their badges on social media or their digital resume. And when a viewer clicks on a badge, they can review the evidence indicative of the achievement, usually a project or a tangible representation of that skill.

You can badge just about anything, including many important skills and competencies that remain elusive yet important. Professional development, capacity building, workforce readiness, character development, professionalism, integrity, mindfulness…. I could literally go on forever. Virtually anything that can be named, unpacked, and assessed, can be badged.

Even the process of growth can be badged, if we take the time to define and support it. This is exactly what we are doing with our new Project Portal. In an effort to help students get the most of their mentored projects, we are isolating various steps in the process of project-based collaboration, using our own PEARL framework to serve as a foundation (link to PEARL). In addition to helping the students get and give more to their projects, our digital badge sequence also allows us to assess their progress and share their products along the way. You see, from an assessment standpoint, being able to clarify what you mean and what you expect is critical to effectively assessing it. Without that clarity and definition, assessment is meaningless.

If you can use badges for almost anything, then why are they so exciting? Here are a few of my favorite features that make badging such a valuable design tool:

  1. By badging skills or dispositions, we can bring qualities that have been largely invisible or at least fuzzy into the light. Soft skills, social capital, workforce development, capacity building- these are all critical to growth and equity, but have remained difficult to formalize and access.
  2. Individual badges can be “stacked” or traded up for larger or higher level skills and competencies. Learners can begin with more basic understandings anwork toward more sophisticated applications. By stacking up badges toward “uber badges”, we can create ecosystems that are inherently generative and catalytic.
  3. Because badges are not tethered to credits and are presented through digital formats, we are not limited to traditional curricula or pedagogical design. We can leverage the flexibility and creativity of digital media, and allow students to demonstrate their learning and competencies through personalized platforms and projects.

From a design standpoint, digital badges provide a dynamic canvas for supporting growth, empowerment and innovation. They also allow us to release the restrictive constraints that have defined and limited formalized education. Whether within or outside traditional systems, we can empower learners to steward their own growth and development, earning badges that are inherently meaningful and valuable, while owning and demonstrating the associated evidence and impact. In a way, badges can flip the system, providing students with opportunities and structures to leverage the offerings and affordances that are all around them (us), building their own capacity toward more powerful constructs and competencies.