Published on 2012/11/20

Recognizing, Supporting, and Attracting Adult Learners with Digital Badges

Through the natural capacity to share digital badges through social media and other online tools, higher education institutions will have the opportunity to reach a wider range of students than they otherwise would and show prospective students real-world learning outcomes simultaneously.

Shifting demographics and workplaces create new needs for non-traditional adult learners. Two responses to these changes have been online learning and certificates. The use of digital badges is another response to these needs that is full of potential.

Digital badges offer new ways to recognize and support learning.[1] This means that they also offer new ways of attracting students. When used appropriately, digital badges contain and present compelling evidence of learning and accomplishment. Students will naturally want to share their badges and the information they contain with their friends and colleagues via social networks, Twitter, or even email. This sharing should help programs and schools connect with previously untapped prospective students. In particular, the sharing of digital badges can help specialized programs gain recognition within whatever networks are associated with that specialization. When done right, this sharing should help busy adults who are not actively considering further education to see the value of a particular program.

If badges are to be useful for attracting students, their evidence of learning and accomplishment needs to be compelling. Fortunately, digital badges have potential to both support learning and provide evidence of that learning. This article presents some useful resources for doing so, and introduces some key questions that programs and schools might ask themselves in this regard.

Digital Badges in Higher Education

The MacArthur/Gates Badges for Lifelong Learning Initiative has generated interest in digital badges. A recent EDUCAUSE brief by Mozilla’s Carla Casilli and Erin Knight described digital badges as:

“Digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue which are awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, to signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.”[2]

Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) lets programs create and issue badges that detail the particular accomplishment being highlighted, and link to additional information and evidence. Learners accumulate these badges in a digital “backpack” where they may choose to display them publically or share them over social networks. Mozilla’s Open Badges website answers many questions about how this is done in general.[3]

A recent post by Sheryl Grant at HASTAC answers some of the questions about digital badges in higher education.[4] Answers to other questions are emerging from the several higher education projects funded by the MacArthur/Gates initiative, school-wide projects like Purdue University’s Passport system, and dozens of other projects now underway.

Digital Badges and Learning in Higher Education

Deciding what to recognize with badges pushes programs to articulate their learning outcomes. Articulating learning outcomes pushes programs to consider their evidence of these outcomes and associated assessment practices. This means that simply replacing grades with badges (as suggested recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education) might enhance outcomes and make evidence of those outcomes more transparent.[5] Yet many educational innovators envision a much more ambitious role for badges. They are using badges to help motivate learners, provide feedback, and keep track of their progress. Some are using peer-awarded badges to recognize the elusive social forms of learning are crucial in personal and professional networks. Some are using badges to transform entire learning ecosystems or even create entirely new ones.

Readers who are experienced with any sort of educational reform know that even a modest introduction of digital badges is likely to get complicated very quickly. I have listed just a few of the questions that programs might wish to ask themselves if they want to use digital badges in ways that enhance learning outcomes and the evidence of those outcomes, along with some further resources to begin answering those questions.

What learning FUNCTIONS will your badges serve?

All badges function to recognize learning; as such, most badging practices also function to assess learning. Recognizing and assessing learning serves to motivate learning. The information in badges means that they can be used to for evaluating and studying learning. Independently of purposes, these functions interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways. The transparency of badges simultaneously introduces additional complexity and visibility.[6]

How will you ASSESS learning?

In addition to summative assessments of prior learning, badges can also be associated with formative assessment practices that provide guidance and feedback. Badges can also function as transformative assessments that shape existing learning systems or allow new ones to be created. These assessment functions will interact with each other in complex ways. In particular, the more salient summative functions can undermine intended formative and transformative functions.[7]

How will you VALIDATE the evidence in your badges?

Value is not inherent in the badge itself but in the assertions made by information the badge contains. Traditional notions of content and construct validity may give way to “unsanctioned” aspects like credibility, face validity, and social validity.[8] Meanwhile, formative assessment functions give new importance to consequential aspects of validity, while transformative functions call attention to emerging notions of systemic validity.

What THEORIES of learning will you embrace?

By pushing the conversation from teaching to learning, badges force programs to surface tacit theories of learning. Many of the summative function of badges can be appreciated with traditional “associationist” theories. But many of the formative functions call for modern “constructivist” theories of learning, while many transformative functions likely require emerging “situative” theories of learning.[9]

How will you INTRODUCE badges?

Will it be a centralized effort or diffuse? Will badges be introduced in academic or non-academic units? Introducing badges in a non-academic program is simpler than replacing grades with badges. Badges may demand new assessments and new assessment may demand new curriculum. How prepared are you for “mission creep” from badges to assessment to instruction?

How are you going to REFINE your badges?

The introduction of badges is likely to be rather chaotic, and you will likely doing some things differently than you initially intended. This means that the search for “best practices” for badges may be quixotic; a more productive question is likely to concern whether particular practices are appropriate in particular contexts. Traditional experimental methods are likely to prove less useful than newer design-based research methods.[10]

How are you going to PROTECT the rights of your earners?

Programs will be tempted to use the evidence of learning that they accumulate as they issue digital badges to convince potential students of their value. Currently the attorneys at Mozilla Foundation have mostly been focusing on the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act COPPA) which has serious implications for using badges with children up to age 13. But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) places significant restrictions on the use of student information.[11] Most of the ways that programs will want to use badges to evaluate and research learning will require the oversight of a Human Subjects Committee and many will require informed consent from individual learners.

This document was produced with the support of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, via its support for Indiana University’s DML Design Principles Documentation project. Project members Elyse Buffenbarger, Rebecca Itow, and Andrea Rehak contributed to this brief. This document reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the MacArthur Foundation or Indiana University.



[1] Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, “Open Badges for Lifelong Learning: Working Document,” available from

[2]Carla Casilli and Erin Knight, “7 Things You Should Know About Badges,” EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, available from

[3] Mozilla Open Badges, “What Are Open Badges?,”

[4] Sheryl Grant, “Questions about badges in higher ed,” HASTAC, May 5, 2012, available from

[5] Jeffrey R. Young, “Grades Out, Badges In,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 14, 2012, available from

[6] Daniel Hickey, “Intended Purposes Versus Actual Functions of Digital Badges,” Re-Mediating Assessment, September 9, 2012, available from

[7] Daniel Hickey, “Some Things about Assessment that Badge Developers Might Find Helpful,” HASTAC March 18, 2012, available from

[8] Carla Casilli, “Badge System Design: what we talk about when we talk about validity,” Persona, May 21, 2012 available from

[9] Daniel Hickey, “Some Things about Assessment that Badge Developers Might Find Helpful,” Re-Mediating Assessment, March 18, 2012 available from

[10] Carla Casilli, “Badge System Design: standardization, formalization and uniqueness,” Persona, April 27, 2012, available from

[11] Carla Casilli, “Mozilla Open Badges Legal and Privacy Considerations,” Persona, April 24, 2012 available from

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Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges

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Readers Comments

Tina Nunez 2012/11/20 at 11:07 am

Many of these questions related to the use and the development of digital badges have not been debated at my institution and we’re looking at developing this technology further. Especially the one related to protecting students’ privacy.

Thanks for this, Dan!

    Dan Hickey 2012/11/26 at 8:22 am

    You are welcome Tina. There are resources at on the privacy issue that you are likely to find useful. My understanding is that the stipulation that OBI-compatible badges will remain private until somebody chooses to share them out (e.g., by posting them to facebook or making a section of you badges backpack public) that universities will be well within FERPA regulations. COPPA is a whole different story, because badges contain personally identifiable information the are really not meant for children 12 and under.

Greg Allan 2012/11/20 at 11:32 am

I agree that badges are particularly suited to the needs of adult learners. I think for many adult learners, the concept of grades is outdated and irrelevant in relation to their goals and expectations of the program or course they are entering. Adult learners in general are better suited to a “flipped” classroom, or at least not the traditional distribution of authority, with the instructor as all-knowing and the learners as his/her disciple. And I think grades are linked to this traditional distribution of authority–a declaration from on-high of the value of your work.

Badges appeal because they show you those outcomes you desire; they are concrete, and represent skill sets you came here to gain; and they are participatory (they may be awarded to you from outside, but it is easy to understand how they are achieved), and beyond their awarding, they are shareable with friends, colleagues, and potential employers.

I think they are far more empowering than grades and symbolically important to mark the turn away from the traditional classroom and the traditional academy’s monopoly on knowledge.

    Dan Hickey 2012/11/27 at 10:14 am

    Thanks Greg–
    I think you are right on all fronts, though I suspect that in some cases the ways badges are used will not accomplish these expectations. We have been thinking a lot about badges and flipped classrooms. I am skeptical about some of the flipping that is happening. A video recording can be just as or more decontextualized as a lecture, but for different reasons. What I worry about is teachers assigning an expository video to watch as homework. They then have an “interactive discussion” which is really just a reiteration of the content (or a “lecture about a lecture”). Then they give student’s a classroom assessment that closely matches the content of the video and the discussion and assume that the students who do well on the assessment have learned something that will transfer to some other context.

    In some of the examples I have seen, the more experienced students (the ones who had enough relevant experience to make sense out of the video) appear successful. The student who is struggling (because they lack the experience needed to easily make sense of the video) will watch it over and over and memorized it well enough to do well on the assessment—so long as they are highly motivated. Most struggling students (the real “learners) just give up, or try to memorize the key points during the lecture so they can parrot enough of them back to get a passing score.

    As for badges, I worry that people are going to add badges when they decide to do a simple-minded flip, and then blame badges (and lazy learners) when it does not seem to work. My students and I are currently adding badges to a different approach to flipping that is based on situative theories of learning and so far it seems pretty promising. Here is a link to a blog post about our different approach: Love to hear what you think.


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