Friday, October 25, 2013

What Do You Mean by 'Badges?'

I was exchanging some emails with an a esteemed educational researcher and administrator about our Big Open Online Course on Educational Assessment and open courses in general and mentioned badges.  In his reply he asked, "what do you mean by 'badges'?"  After an amazing day of progress working with digital badges yesterday, it was a nice reminder of just how new this concept is. So I figured I would reply with a basic explanation and provide some timely updates on one aspect of our badges work.
Digital badges are web-enabled credentials.  Unlike traditional grades, transcripts, certificates, etc., badges can contain specific claims about accomplishments, along with detailed evidence (and links to more evidence) in support of those claims.

As Carla Casilli and Erin Knight of Mozilla explained it in this great overview at EDUCAUSE:
Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.
Technically speaking, a digital badge is really just eight bits of information about what someone (or actually, the owner of an email address) has learned or accomplished.  What digital badges actually become remains to be seen.  But if the next two years are anything like the last two years, the chances seem good that digital badges will be associated with some profound transformation in both formal and informal education.

Do Badges "Work?"
This question comes up a lot. I was talking about this question yesterday with Sheryl Grant.  Sheryl has played a central role in supporting the 30 projects or schools that were funded by MacArthur/Gates in 2012 to develop content and issue badges using the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) that Mozilla was funded to develop.  Sheryl put up a great new blog post entitled 5 Buckets for Badge System Design: You Are Here.  It is a really helpful categorization that the badging community needs to help the tide of schools, educators, organizations, etc. who have already decided that badges "work" and want to begin issuing them.  Her post is crucial for helping learning organizations understand the broader implications of how they are approaching badges.  I will return to that below.  But I first want to address the question of whether badges "work."

There are currently just a handful of peer-reviewed empirical studies of digital badges.  These are mostly just explorations.  (But there is a ton of other stuff; check out Carla Casilli's running resource list) Why did the National Science Foundation commission a white paper and a convening of 60 influential researchers this summer?  Why have several major educational consulting firms  been commissioned to write reports on badges?  And why are so many organizations concerned with what to issue badges for if we still don't know if they "work?"  Are badges simply yet another fad?  Another educational flash in the pan?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But as Sheryl and lots of badge "insiders" have pointed out, asking if badges "work" is like asking if grades and transcripts "work."

Grades and transcripts are the glue that holds formal education together. It took a century for them to reach their current status.  But nobody ever really asked if they "work."  For complicated and sometimes contentious reasons, the institutions of education seem to always need a system for recognizing, accruing, and sharing evidence of accomplishments.  Even informal learning outside of schools usually ends up with some means of recognizing what someone has accomplished. As Nora Sabelli quipped in the early 1990s, "education can't forever remain the only information-based industry that is not completely transformed by technology."  It has taken two decades, but hybrid classes, MOOCs, online degree programs, and flipped classrooms are becoming the norm rather than the exception. So at some level, digital badges are simply a coordinated effort help entrenched grading and credentialing systems keep up with these transformations, and help them accomplish society's broader goals for education. Now that MacArthur and Gates have jump-started this process, how do we help newcomers?

Getting Started with Digital Badges
 Last week I was working with my doctoral student, Rebecca Itow, who is leading a workshop on Digital Badges next week at the IUPUI Assessment Institute. We started by asking ourselves what the main points we want people to take away from the workshop.  We decided that our first point and our last point will be the same:  It is not the badges! It's about the learning ecosystem.  Badges are just information.  What really matters is how an organization decides (a) what claims the badges are going to make, (b) what evidence will be gathered to support those claims, and (c) what assessments or other systems will generate that evidence.  This workshop will be our first attempt to use the initial findings from the Design Principles Documentation Project to help newcomers develop digital badge systems.  This project is capturing the design principles that are emerging across the the 30 projects that were funded to develop digital badges in the 2012 competition.

One of the most helpful points in Sheryl's recent blog post comes from her interactions with Lucas Blair of Little Bird Games. His insights led Sheryl to add a fifth class of approaches to building badges systems.  She called it badge-first build, where badges are designed first and the learning content and technological platform are designed around badges.  Sheryl told me she has a lot more to say about this bucket, and I look forward to her future posts.  But in a nutshell, the point here is that for many newcomers it is all about the badges. As Sheryl suggested (and I assume will elaborate), one of of the broader findings from the HASTAC and DPD efforts is that the more projects focused on the badges themselves, the less likely they were to end up issuing badges in an enduring and meaningful fashion.  Sheryl pointed out that this means that organizations who have decided they "want badges" may not be prepared to engage in all the other things that have to happen before they can issue badges in any meaningful way. And they will conclude that "badges don't work."  And that would be a shame. So what should we do?

First Ask the Difficult Questions
Our talk with Sheryl helped us further frame our workshop next week.  We really have no idea who will show up. But after we hammer home our first point, we might start with a set of questions we drafted a year ago that organizations should first ask themselves (a shorter version framed around attracting adult learners is here).

Then we are going to try out a new set of badge system design playing cards that DPD team member Nate Otto is introducing today at MozFest in London.  Nate created cards with the four sets of design principles we uncovered so far: recognizing,  assessingmotivating, and studying learning with digital badges.  We will also try to drive home some other big ideas from the DPD project:

  • The learning that you can recognize with digital badges will be constrained by the existing organization.  (This is why Sheryl's five buckets are so important).
  • Your decisions about recognizing learning will constrain your assessment practices; to some extent your possible assessment practices will constrain your recognition practices.
  • Your recognition-assessment ecosystem will impact the motivational impact of your badges.
  • Your recognition-assessment-motivation ecosystem will impact how you might study learning.  In particular, it will impact the extent to which you can use the evidence contained in badges to study and improve the learning that the ecosystem supports.
We will see how it goes.  Technically speaking, the DPD project is not charged with supporting existing or new projects to use badges.  That is what HASTAC and Mozilla have been asked to do.  But this workshop should help us get a sense of how to make the best use of the knowledge that we are capturing in our efforts.


  1. I am currently taking Dr. Hickey's Educational Assessment BOOC, and was surprised at how excited I was when my badge was issued. I immediately shared it with my family members, and in particular those who are educators. Two days later, my aunt who is a tech integration specialist at a school district in VT posted her own badge she had earned by participating in a Connected Educators activity; she claimed she had to do it in order to keep up with me. I have also used them a handful of times with my own students in the Edmodo software system, and students have indicated that they want to get more badges.

    The motivation potential based on my personal experience this past week is really interesting. As Dr. Hickey notes in this blog post, there is still much to be learned about how badges can be used, saved, shared, etc., and what meaning they will hold. I look forward to seeing how this can change some of our record-keeping activities in education, professional growth evidence, and certification programs.

  2. Sharon--
    Thanks! You made my day. At the moment I am analyzing the data contained in the 79 Assessment Practices Expertise badges that we issued to everybody who completed the units and passed the exam, and the 8 Assessment Practices Leader badges we issued. You earned the leader badge because your classmates promoted more of your wikifolios as "exemplary" (a total of 9) than any other student in the Secondary Educators group. Congratulations. I am so pleased to hear that you shared it with others and I am pleased to see that many of the people who earned the Practices Expertise badge also shared them out over Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. You note perfectly captures what the MacArthur foundation had in mind when they initiated digital badges in 2011.

    I also just learned that the number of comments someone received/made is strongly correlated with the number of times they were promoted (r = .56). But there is a lot more to dig through. My programmer Thomas Smith is awesome

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