What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities

The Digital Media + Learning Research Hub Report Series on Connected Learning

By: Sheryl Grant

Open digital badges have gained traction since 2011 because they meet needs that are not currently being met, not only for learners ranging from kindergarden through college, but for lifelong learners transitioning from one career to another, or for employees staying current on top of their careers. The patchwork way our learning is currently recognized means that many of our abilities are unevenly recognized or not recognized at all. A veteran who is expert in military logistics must go back to school to get credentials demonstrating proficiency when her skills may surpass what required courses offer. For many learners, acquiring traditional credentials has become more important than the competency, mastery, and proficiency they are intended to represent.

There are legions of people who acquire skills, abilities, and knowledge outside classroom walls who lack the necessary credentials to verify what they know and can do. Students who are highly competent or proficient in skills not taught or assessed in schools lack a standardized way to demonstrate their abilities to others. Employees struggling to shift careers after their companies are downsized can face insurmountable obstacles returning to school as adult learners, and without credentials to communicate their knowledge and skills find themselves unemployed or working in low-paying, unskilled jobs. Many learners have abilities, skills, or qualities that are graded or recognized in traditional classroom settings, but evidence of those strengths disappear into databases and stacks of papers, or accumulate in portfolios that are unwieldy to navigate.

Other learners may acquire some of their most valuable skills online through open educational resources, or through libraries, museums, and after-school programs, and then cobble together résumés based largely on self-promotion. An emerging practice among employers and college admission officers is to use search results and social media sites to comb for clues about prospective candidates. The sum effect is that traditional credentials recognize a narrow spectrum of the full learning pathways many of us chart in our lives. Traditional credentials legitimize certain types of learning, often favoring certain types of learners, subjects, and assessments, and that means a tremendous amount of learning is not being recognized, a juggernaut that open digital badges can address. However, despite the potential for badges to recognize this expanded landscape of learning, designing relevant and impactful badge systems is a considerable challenge.

We know from research in other disciplines such as human-computer interaction and technology mediated social participation that for every Facebook, Wikipedia, or Twitter, there are many more technological platforms that fail. “For all the public and corporate enthusiasm and the proclamations of utopian visionaries, the reality is that many sites fail to retain participants, tagging initiatives go quiet, and online communities become ghost towns” (Preece & Shneiderman, 2009).

Of course, even long-established systems and institutions can fail, particularly those that cease to be relevant, including traditional institutions of learning. This is perhaps the crux of badge system design — identifying what is relevant and meaningful to learners while adapting and preserving our institutions of learning. To be relevant is to have a connection with the subject or issue. A badge system that mimics traditional systems without making any changes to underlying practices will have little transformative impact on learning, engagement, assessment, and opportunities. It may be technically functional, but will lack relevance to learners in other ways that no amount of technology can fix.

Badges for learning do not make learners become engaged if they are otherwise wholly disconnected. “Turning badges on” does not create an instant easy solution to learner engagement. They may create a meaningful bridge between content and learning, however, and help learners develop a sense of personal reward, confidence, and connection to the learning process. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though. Trainers, teachers, and peers can’t be separated from the process and must be incorporated into an overall strategy.

– American Graduate badge system

Relevance can be embodied in the learning content itself, or be manifest in both social and human systems. A privilege or opportunity associated with badges may define a system’s relevance. Learning experiences that are socially engaging and interest-based can make the system relevant. Conversely, a badge system is irrelevant if it is built on assumptions that learners have universal access to technology, particularly systems that are designed to serve populations who do not.

Perhaps most significantly for schools and universities, relevance may be defined by the degree to which students can customize their learning pathways so they are less tethered to more rigid scaffolds. The purpose of the following chapters is to think about the social, academic, and technological relevance that defines badge systems, and the opportunities they can create for the next generation of learners.

The full American Graduate’s Digital Badges: Lessons Learned project Q&A is available online: