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Digital Badges: Catalyst in the Evolution of Higher Education or “Killer App” for Alternatives?

If higher education institutions adapt to the badging movement, they will cement themselves as indispensible locations of lifelong learning. Otherwise they will continue ther slide into irrelevance. Photo by Clive Darr.

Higher education is out of sync with its rapidly changing environment. Without quick changes, alternatives will emerge and dominate. The deceptively simple “digital badging movement” can act as a catalyst to accelerate critical changes or can demonstrate to the world that higher education is out of touch and that emerging alternatives are becoming superior

The “Badging Movement”

We all understand badges (symbols that represent accomplishments), right? They have been with us since the Middle Ages. How can this old concept change education? Well, there are now “digital badges” that expose the weakness of our current assessments.

Education describes learning minimally and badly. “Letter grades” emerged a century or so ago, before computers, when recordkeeping was a real chore. Yet we still use a single letter (A to F) to represent all that has been learned in a course, and a “yes/no” verdict to represent degree attainment (diploma/no diploma). A transcript gives no indication of what was mastered and what remains to be mastered, and grades are influenced by factors such as attendance and punctuality of assignments, preventing grades from accurately representing what the recipient knows or can do.

Many instructor-developed assessments don’t accurately represent the course objectives and are graded “on the curve,” rather than comparing performance to a specified criterion representing mastery. And most grading systems offer a single, scheduled opportunity to demonstrate mastery, ignoring the fact that students learn at different rates, and that for difficult skills and topics, multiple attempts will be needed.

This system is more effective at sorting learners than supporting learners until they are successful.

Badging, on the other hand, is a form of “micro-credentialing,” representing important accomplishments that are smaller than courses, and within courses, and assessing them well. Digital badging, as it is currently being deployed [1] will embed as meta-data within each badge icon:

  1. A link to the criteria for earning the badge;
  2. A link to a description or actual copies of the assessment tools used to determine whether the criteria were met (if the badge issuer chooses) and the work that the badge holder submitted to earn the badge (if the badge holder allows it).

So, institutions of higher education and private corporations that are serious about assessment and willing to be accountable will publish their criteria and the assessment information as evidence that their badges can be taken seriously.

Organizations that now rank higher education providers based on inputs (external funding, number of faculty, average GRE score, etc.) will be able to examine what students are asked to do and how learning is evaluated, to produce more meaningful assessments of an institution or program’s quality. And, if an feedback system is incorporated, feedback from learners and their employers could also inform rankings and the choices made by learners. The reputations that prestigious institutions have developed over time will be vulnerable as others demonstrate that they are serious about assessment and issue badges accurately representing learning at a more detailed level.

So how will higher education institutions respond to this challenge? Evolution is defined as “a process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change or development.” Well-managed systems, such as higher education, are capable of directing their own evolution, but will the evolution be fast enough to preserve higher education’s privileged place in the educational hierarchy?

We can evolve gradually, conducting business as usual and taking small steps, at a pace not quick enough to keep us from becoming irrelevant. Or, we can take a more revolutionary approach, quickly embracing a few reasonable, long-overdue changes, and become indispensable.

The Path to Relevance

To become indispensable we need to:

Embrace “micro-credentialing” (badging) and adopt a mastery-based approach. Badges will be awarded when the criteria have been met. Multiple attempts to meet the criterion should be expected. Costs may be tied to each assessment, as is the case with the SAT, the Bar Exam, and other certification processes.

  • Understand that most of the content that we have delivered is available in many forms, and that our primary role is now providing high-quality assessments and certifying that learners have acquired knowledge and developed skills, and abilities.
  • Redesign our courses as opportunities for learners to do things that require interaction with others;
  • During that redesign, courses must present opportunities for learners to earn a set of related badges by demonstrating the identified skills and abilities.
  • Create and support “learning communities” appropriate for different learning domains (preparing engineers, teachers, and artists will require different approaches) to add value and provide incentives for students to choose our institutions.


In this era of online information, people expect to be able to determine the quality of the products they buy, and the people they employ and, by extension, trust. Online shopping systems provide detailed product information, specifications, and even users manuals, as well as quality ratings and collections of comments from people who have used the product.

Higher education currently provides minimal and poor quality information about products (skills and knowledge) that are much more important than the products we buy online. This will not continue to be tolerated.

We need to take assessment seriously, embracing the badging movement and setting the bar high, or accept the path to irrelevance.

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[1] For more information on current badging processes, see the Mozilla Open Badges Project or U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Digital Badges for Learning” speech

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