Published on 2016/01/26
Co-Written with Daniel T. Hickey | Professor and Program Coordinator of the Learning Sciences Program in the School of Education, Indiana University and James E. Willis III | Research Associate in the Center for Research on Learning and Technology, Indiana University—

The EvoLLLution | Six Steps to Building High-Quality Open Digital Badges
Badges are gaining steam as a credential to qualify skills and competencies but it’s critical to develop a framework to help manage the badges being conferred by organizations across the education ecosystem.

Open digital badges are changing how individuals’ credentials are recognized as publicly viewable artifacts that not only contain claims to learning, but also provide evidence of that learning.

Used in a myriad of ways to acknowledge achievements, badges can circulate in social networks to transform how learning is achieved, evidenced and distributed in real time. Badges act as a way for us to take a closer look at the skill sets a person has acquired in formal informal and online settings. Learning occurs naturally outside the classroom setting, but rarely is it recognized or valued in the same way that formal learning is. Badges help connect different types of learning settings, locations and experiences.

Though it can be difficult to build high-quality, evidence-rich badges, there are certain affordances that can help streamline the process. Building on an earlier EvoLLLution article, “Recognizing, Supporting, and Attracting Adult Learners with Digital Badges,” which takes a “macro” approach to badging, we now propose a framework to work through the technical aspects of building and supporting badges in a thriving ecosystem. This includes information about the appearance of the badge, what information the badge should contain, and how the contents of the badge should be shared.

This framework emerged from the MacArthur Foundation-funded Open Badges in Higher Education (OBHE) initiative to help organizations and institutions build impactful badges. Though the titles bear names familiar to those already involved in Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) compliance, working through the logic to help build better badges emerged as a product of the OBHE initiative. Included below are a number of hyperlinks to help build better badges. An interactive flow chart of similar information is also available at the OBHE website.

Description: Do you know what you want to badge?

It is important to understand what you hope to achieve by issuing badges: Are you looking to validate learning through an evidence-rich credential? If so, there are a number of resources to help think through what is “badge-able” in learning and how the overall look of a badge should encourage a person to view its contents.

Criteria: What will it require to earn a badge?

The criteria required to receive a badge are important to the overall design and success of a badge system because they make specific claims to learning. Criteria help set parameters that are useful to learners, evaluators, and those viewing the badge after it has been awarded. Establishing the criteria of a badge provides a clear pathway to the learner (i.e. what does the learner have to do?) and establishes a claim of learning with the persons viewing the badge (i.e. the recipient of this badge had to complete these various tasks).

Issuer: What kind of technological resources do you have to work with?

Organizations have varying levels of programming support. Some are looking for “plug-and-play” badges that exist exterior to any learning management system, while others are interested in committing some resources to integrating a LTI-compliant system.

The key considerations here are scale and functionality. Some commercial badge providers work on a “freemium” model with limited functionality and where the number of badge recipients is capped, but the cost is free; additional functionality and badge issuance increase as the cost increases. Other badge providers operate as LTI building blocks that can be added to certain learning management systems.

Evidence: How will you show the criteria have been met?

Robust criteria help establish claims of learning along with specific parameters of that learning; evidence helps substantiate these claims. Evidence is important because it establishes trust between the learner and the badge issuer, and then between the badge recipient and those who view the evidence—which may include employers, schools and others connected through social media networks like LinkedIn. Badge evidence addresses each claim to learning with a persistent, digital artifact that builds a compelling narrative around what the earner has learned.

Dates: How long are the badges valid?

Badges help promote lifelong learning, and they provide pathways of learning that are stackable, customizable, and evidence-rich. Determining how long badges are valid is an important aspect of customizability. For example, in some cases like professional development, badges can be valid for a limited amount of time until more training is needed. For organizations issuing badges that will expire at some point in the future, the email address associated with the badge can be used to notify learners of future training opportunities. In other cases, the learning evidenced in the badge is context-specific and should not expire. For example, if badges are used in a college course to evidence learning, an expiration date would not necessarily make sense.

Examples: What are some similar projects I can examine for ideas?

We have a number of case studies to assist with ideas for future projects. These case studies provide a brief overview, context, examples of criteria and evidence, challenges, and future plans.

To check out the interactive flows chart developed by Open Badges in Higher Ed, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Michelle Hopkins 2016/01/26 at 9:49 am

This is so important, otherwise badges will just be another meaningless piece of paper (digital or otherwise) to gather dust. There’s no point in putting all this effort into developing them if we’re not primarily concerned with ensuring they have real value for the people who earn them, and the people who hire the badge earners.

    Daniel Hickey 2016/02/02 at 9:43 am

    Definitely true Michelle. But we need to keep in mind that OPEN badges gain value in different ways than traditional credentials issued from within the formal accreditation process. Badges can (a) contain specific claims and detailed evidence supporting those claims, (b) contain links to more evidence, (c) comprise “pathways” containing other badges, (d) circulate in social networks, and (e) accrue endorsements (and downvotes) after they are issued. We are finalizing a report from a three year study of 29 badge development projects launched in 2012, and most of the projects whose open badge systems are thriving took advantage of those features.

Billy Gilbert 2016/01/26 at 11:40 am

I think there’s a wide range of applications for badges and part of ensuring their usefulness is ensuring that the right kind of badge is developed for the right application. There’s a balance between the standardization required to make sure everyone is on the same page and the specialization required to make sure each badge serves its purpose well.

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