Attract and Retain Learners with Digital Badges
Discover how digital badges create a positive experience for your learners.
In this brief essay, Learning Sciences Professor Daniel Hickey of Indiana University speculates about what might become of alternative and complementary credentials by 2025. Dr. Hickey has been studying and using digital badges since they emerged in 2011, in research projects funded by the MacArthur Foundation and Google. He led that Badge Design Principles Documentation Project from 2012 to 2014 and the Open Badges in Higher Education Project from 2014 to 2016.
This EvoLLLution Special Feature highlights the explosion of interest in alternative credentials in postsecondary education. While this has traditionally referred to non-degree certificates, many are now thinking about such credentials as digital “badges.” These are web-enabled credentials that can contain detailed claims and links to digital evidence supporting those claims. These are different than traditional credentials whose credibility rests largely on the reputation and accreditation of the issuing institution.
The credibility of these new digital credentials can be interrogated directly, by examining the claims made by the badge in light of the evidence the badge contains. Thanks to several high-profile badging initiatives and extensive media coverage, many who issue, earn and view credentials now appreciate that badges and other such “evidence-rich” credentials can recognize a much broader range of achievements and learning.
But many stakeholders are just beginning appreciate the broader transformations that might occur when these new credentials also give earners more control over the ways their credentials are curated, annotated and shared. What’s more, when these new credentials circulate widely on social networks where they can gain additional recognition, endorsement and meaning.
Parallels with eCommerce
It seems worth considering the parallels between the development of digital credentials and the development of eCommerce from 1990 to 2005. Five years passed between the invention of the web browser in 1990 and the launch of Amazon.com in 1995. During this early period, intensive efforts took place behind the scenes at the World Wide Web Consortium and elsewhere to define the common standards needed for secure web payments. This lead to the seamless web payment systems that helped inflate the dot-com bubble. The shakeout of 2000 cleared the way for consolidation and encouraged the expansion of multi-point validation systems which made it easier for consumers to assess the credibility of vendors and the relative value of offerings. This led to broad confidence and a sustainable ecosystem by 2005.
Most importantly, a growing pool of diverse educational providers are now offering digital badges to complement or replace traditional credentials. Some initial entrants (e.g., Achievery Inc.) have already folded, and some educational providers have already suspended their badge systems. While I doubt that we will see anything like the dot-com bubble and burst, I believe that we are working towards a shakeout whereby the most effective and appropriate uses of these new credentials will become widely apparent and entrenched. Arguably, we are at the stage where credential issuers who dismissed digital credentials as a “fad” will face the same fate as publishers and retailers who dismissed eCommerce in the mid-90s.
The Potential Alternative Credential Landscape in 2026
Notably, 2025 happens to be the target that the Lumina Foundation has set for having 60 percent of Americans with postsecondary degrees, certificates and other “high-quality credentials.” According to Lumina, 42 percent of Americans ages 25 to 64 currently hold a degree and roughly 5 percent hold a “high-quality” postsecondary certificate.
Lumina defines “high quality” as a credential with transparent learning outcomes that leads to further education and employment. High-quality certificates play an important role in the postsecondary learning ecosystem as well as our economy. They have labor market value beyond a high school education alone and because they are often awarded by postsecondary institutions they carry college credit and thus provide a pathway to further education. As illustrated by the success of the unaccredited coding “bootcamps,” the growing technology sector and increased focus on technology in other sectors is paving the way for these developments. As illustrated by the US Department of Education’s EQUIP Initiative, students in alternative programs will increasingly be able to use Federal aid and loans to earn these alternative credentials. But the continued expansion and improvement of MOOCs and other free or ultra-low-cost learning opportunities will be delivering outcomes that employers and admissions officers will recognize as valuable.
These developments suggest that by 2025, the distinction between for-credit and non-credit credentials will be very blurred. Another speculation is that such alternative credentials will become valuable and common as technology leads to increasingly rapid changes in the workplace, and that smaller schools and the private sector will be able to respond more rapidly. Given concerns regarding employability, it seems likely that many alternative providers will increasingly turn to digital badges to help their earners display specific specialized competencies and so-called soft skills that employers want and that badges can readily recognize. Most importantly, a broad commitment to interoperable and extensible open badges should mean that earners are actively curating their credentials for particular purposes and experiences.
Two other important new developments for open badges are “badgechain” and JSON-LD (“linked data”). Proponents of the former aim to use the public ledger associated with bitcoin technologies to serve as an open registry of badges, while standards for using linked data may make it possible for employers or admissions official to readily locate individuals holding particular combinations of credentials. These both have tremendous potential but are very recent developments.
Reimagining Representations of Learning
The existing credentialing system emerged alongside modern admissions and hiring practices over the last century. While it is mostly taken for granted, the system is actually a complex web of relationships and practice. Many of the relationships that make up this “learning recognition network” are tacit and many of its practices are actually quite different than stated policy. This makes the existing system inequitable, inefficient and resistant to change. It is worth noting that it took almost a decade (from 1988 to 1997) for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to establish common standards to allow digital verification of electronic transcripts (which are still analog documents!). And yet, many universities still issue paper transcripts because the revenue stream they generate helps support the registrar’s office.
Despite the intransigence of our existing learning recognition networks, interest in digital badges, experiments with ePortfolio-based “extended transcripts” at Stanford and Elon University, and digital competency-based education in the Comprehensive Student Records project, all point to interest at many levels in using digital technology to reimagine the ways that learning is represented.[3, 4] This was the focus of two recent high-powered meetings in Monterey, CA, on Student Data and Records in the Digital Era. Whether or not digital badges can solve the massive information management challenge that these transformations present remains to be seen. It is not the badges themselves that are important but rather their function. Open badges can bundle claims and evidence in ways that are interoperable (across platforms), “drillable” (viewers can click for more information), extensible (compatible with future platforms), readily sharable, and immediately recognizable. Because of these features, badges can serve as what sociologists call “boundary objects” that can travel across different credentialing contexts without losing their meaning. Thus a badge earned from an informal learning opportunity on the web and shared by the earner on a social network takes on additional meaning when it is liked and commented on by esteemed professional peers. That same badge might be pasted into a learning management system at a school where can be reviewed, graded and awarded course credit. While that badge remains public, the associated instructor feedback and grade become part of the privacy-protected student record.
Explicit Learning Recognition Networks
In many technology sectors, the StackOverflow Q&A site, the GitHub code repository, LinkedIn and other networks form an explicit learning recognition network that is crucial for many job seekers.
Several recent developments suggest that more explicit Learning Recognition Networks (LRNs) that combine the functions of ePortfolios and digital badges could be established in many sectors by 2025. One development was the introduction of STEM Premier in 2013. This platform allows students to display their GPA, test scores, specialized skills, and badges to schools, employers, scholarships and programs, while helping those institutions find the best applicants. STEM Premier’s recent partnership with ACT Testing is the sort of integration that should lead to expanded use of explicit LRNs. Similar efforts are underway with the Credential Registry within the Credential Transparency Initiative to allow registry users to build customized directories and more seamlessly help connect employers with specific credential earners.
Another important development is the addition of open badges to existing ePortfolios platforms, as in the recent pilots at Notre Dame using Credly and Digication. Indeed, Chalk & Wire coined the term Learning Recognition Network when it introduced its MyMantl platform in July 2016. While MyMantl is still in development, its seamless integration of open digital badges promises to break new ground in this regard. The potential for synergy between ePortfolios and open badges was confirmed at a meeting of the leaders in both communities at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning in August 2016. All of these developments leave me convinced that 2026 will see a thriving network of interconnected LRNs built around the platforms, standards and practices that are now taking root. My guess is that the existing formal credentialing system will remain largely unchanged, and that GPAs and degrees will still have to be manually entered into LRNs.
In closing, I will note that eCommerce only represented 2.5 percent of the US retail economy by 2005; while we will never be able to quantify conventional and alternative credentials this neatly, I am confident that these new alternatives will represent at least that large a share of the credentialing landscape by 2025.
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 Lumina Foundation, “Goal 2025.” Accessed at https://www.luminafoundation.org/goal_2025
 FACT SHEET: Department of Education Launches Education Quality though Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) Experiment to Provide Low-Income Students with Access to New Models of Education and Training. US Department of Education, October 14, 2015. Accessed at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/fact-sheet-department-education-launches-educational-quality-through-innovative-partnerships-equip-experiment-provide-low-income-students-access-new-models-education-and-training
 Katherine Mangan, “Making Transcripts More Than ‘a Record of Everything the Student Has Forgotten’,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 15, 2015. Accessed at http://chronicle.com/article/Making-Transcripts-More-Than/231595
 AACRAO and NASPA, “Comprehensive Student Records Fact Sheet.” Accessed at http://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/Lumina/csr-fact-sheet-4_2016.pdf?sfvrsn=0
 Meg Lloyd, “Paring E-Portfolios With Badges To Document Informal Learning,” Campus Technology. July 29, 2015. Accessed at https://campustechnology.com/articles/2015/07/29/pairing-e-portfolios-with-badges-to-document-informal-learning.aspx
Discover how digital badges create a positive experience for your learners.
Author Perspective: Educator