Providing digital badges for achievements that can be verified and linked to evidence started with Mozilla’s open badge infrastructure (https://openbadges.org/) in 2011, with IMS taking over the badges standard in 2017 (IMS, 2017). An open standard is crucial for badges because it means that anyone can create them, thus they can be used by formal accrediting agencies, such as schools and universities, but also informal ones, such as online communities or employers. Gibson, Ostashewski, Flintoff, Grant, and Knight (2015) defined them as “a representation of an accomplishment, interest or affiliation that is visual, available online, and contains metadata including links that help explain the context, meaning, process and result of an activity” (p. 404).
Digital badges are a good example of how ed tech evolves when several other technologies, such as those that we have seen in this book, make the environment favourable for their implementation. The process of plant succession provides a useful analogy (Weller, 2007b).
When there is a new environment, for example barren rock, a few pioneer species like lichens begin to grow. The acid from lichens decomposes some rock particles, and their own death creates a coarse soil. This soil is suitable for mosses that require little soil, and they, in turn, decompose to enrich and deepen the soil until it is suitable for some grasses to grow. The process ends with the establishment of a stable, climax community. (p. 43)
In the same manner, the presence of some technologies changes the environment sufficiently that it makes it favourable for other technologies. The success of that technology is not inevitable, but it does make the context more suitable. For digital badges, several technologies coalesced to provide this favourable environment. From social media and Web 2.0, a familiarity with sharing and developing online identity was acquired. Blogs and e-portfolios provided a platform for showcasing digital outputs. Gaming provided the concept of rewards, tokens, and status while online review systems, such as Amazon, raised the reputational profile. OER and MOOC created a large informal learning population who wished to have their achievements recognized. Open source and other online communities demonstrated how kudos could be given to users who had assumed specific roles within the group. All of these elements then combined to create an environment in which digital badges could be seen as a response to a range of needs, and the concept had sufficient links into everyday practice, such as sharing on social networks, to have a chance of success.
Badges allow for a more fine-grained representation of skills and experience gained in formal education than a degree classification. In this, they are an extension of the desire of e-portfolios to surface skills and competencies that are useful to employers. Examples of badges, taken from the IMS specification (IMS, 2017), include e-publishing, success in challenge-based learning, knowledge of data science foundations, pipetting skills, and so on.
Badges can also provide motivation, in line with gamification: the theory is that small rewards at regular intervals incentivize desirable behaviour. The use of badges can reportedly lead to increased participation and changes in behaviour on a site (Anderson, Huttenlocher, Kleinberg, & Leskovec, 2013), although Ambrose, Anthony, and Clark (2016) reported no difference in completion rates between students who were offered badges on a MOOC and those who were not. In contrast, Law (2015) reported that badged open courses have shown a higher completion rate. It is, however, not a straightforward matter that badges increase motivation. In seeking to answer the question, “Are badges useful in education?” Abramovich, Schunn, and Higashi (2013) found different responses for low- and high-performing students, and for different types of badges. For example, they found that “only for the low-performing students in [their] study did a higher desire to outperform other students, the performance approach goal, correlate with earning more badges” (p. 229).
Like many other ed tech developments, digital badges had an initial flurry of interest from devotees but then settled into a pattern of more labourious long-term acceptance. They represent a combination of key challenges for educational technology: realizing easy-to-use, scalable technology; developing social awareness that gives them currency; and providing the policy and support structures that make them valuable.
Of these challenges, only the first relates directly to technology, the more substantial ones relate to awareness and legitimacy. For example, if employers or institutions come to widely accept and value digital badges, then they will gain credence with learners who will seek them out, creating a virtuous circle. There is some movement in this area. IBM, for example, uses badges in its staff development system (Jackson, 2017). Raish and Rimland (2016) reported that only 5% of surveyed employers said they weren’t interested in digital badges, and there was particular interest in them as a means to make certain skills explicit that they felt graduates lacked,
the three areas where employers least expect students to have competency are the ability to find patterns and make connections (18%), the ability to apply knowledge to real-world contexts (29%), and the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds (29%). (p. 99)
But as with e-portfolios, employers may say they want digital badges, but this does not mean they will necessarily change practice to utilize them. Badges do not usually have the same level of assessment effort attached to them as graded work, and so there is a possibility that they may not differentiate sufficiently; for example, everyone who graduates acquires the information literacy badge. This would then require potential employers to have to examine the supporting evidence and make assessments on its quality, and this represents an additional burden in the recruitment process that they are unlikely to adopt.
The credibility issue is also one of the main concerns for those gaining badges, as Davis and Singh (2015) reported, “while participants recognized the value in being able to document students’ afterschool learning and share it with a wide audience, they noted the difficulty of having this new form of credential recognized widely as legitimate, trustworthy evidence of students’ skills and achievements” (p. 80). The technical infrastructure goes some way to assuring this credibility. This is achieved by means of our friend from chapter 8, metadata. The digital badge contains metadata about the learner, the issuer of the badge, a link to the evidence, criteria for acquiring the badge, etc. This means anyone viewing the badge can verify its authenticity.
Perhaps more interesting is what happens when educators design for badges, breaking courses down into smaller chunks with associated recognition. For example, Brandman University (2015) partnered with badge provider Credly to offer badges to complement a competency-based approach. Coughlan, Pitt, and McAndrew (2013) reported how they converted an existing foundation-level maths course into OER, and they associated tasks along the way with badges. As with many ed tech approaches, such as the use of OER, it may be that one of the benefits of badges is that they cause educators to reflect on their own practice. Badge-based approaches can help to structure courses into manageable chunks, with convenient rewards along the way.
Another growing use of badges is as a means of recognizing much of the hidden work in academia. For example, the Association for Learning Technology Conference offers badges to speakers, reviewers, session chairs, members of the organizing committee, and blog contributors.
The adoption of digital badges is a familiar theme in ed tech, and they have realized considerable success, if not quite the mainstream adoption once envisaged. The reaction to them from learners is predictably mixed — some are keen to collect as many badges as possible, while others view them as trivial and irrelevant. Like so many approaches in ed tech, it may be that they don’t need to be for everyone, but for a certain group of learners, they provide motivation, reward, and structure to learning that they value.