Digital Badges Gain Traction in Higher Education

Digital badges are picking up steam since Mozilla introduced the Open Badges project in 2011. This year there was an Open Badges Summit that brought together nearly 300 participants interested in propelling the use of digital badges and legitimizing them.

Digital badges are earned and they document skills learned inside and outside of the classroom. Skills such as computer programming, social media, and even leadership can be proven with a digital badge. They are coming at a time when alternative learning is at an all-time high and people are gaining skills in places beyond the classroom like online courses, workshops, and internships. Digital badges are used for the many non-linear forms of learning we see today and for lifelong learners who want to display their skills to future employers and in online portfolios.

Users can keep these badges in a “backpack” that holds the badges and makes it easy to collect and receive recognition for their skills.  Learners are then able to display their digital badges on social networking sites like Facebook and Linkedin.

Universities are beginning to look into digital badges for their students to show the varied skills students learn that cannot be shown on a diploma. One school that is currently using digital badges is Purdue University in Indiana. Kyle Bowen, the director of informatics in Information Technology told Campus Technology that they developed their own platform for digital badges, “We saw this as an emerging model for alternative credentialing and a means to provide students a way to capture evidence of the work they’ve done and align that with embedded learning outcomes,” Bowen said.

With the incorporation of online courses and MOOCs, a credential system using digital badges makes a lot of sense. These badges don’t just state the accomplishment, but they contain information such as who issued the badge, what the learner can do, and evidence for the achievement.  The information is coded into the file itself.

Badges use free software, which according to Mozilla, means “any organization can create, issue and verify digital badges, and any user can earn, manage and display these badges all across the web.”

In K-12 education, badges can also be used as a motivator. It’s the idea that if you keep playing, you can advance to the next level.  This “gamification” of education has received criticism that adding rewards for tasks will reduce student engagement, according to Education Week.

However, with companies such as NASA, Disney-Pixar, and The Smithsonian beginning to adopt digital badges, the idea is becoming more accepted. It doesn’t hurt that the MacArthur Foundation has been behind the idea of digital badges since its inception and continues to help fund and progress its use. Blackboard and Moodle are even allowing teachers to issue badges as well. With all these heavy hitters backing the idea, it may not be long until digital badges become a universal way of displaying skills.


Photo by Jeff Easter

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.