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Student Awards: Digital Badges Make a Debut

For about 10 years of my childhood, I was a Girl Scout. I loved earning badges; it was always my goal to have the most of anyone in my troop. I earned them anyway I could, from selling cookies to riding horses to creating a "secret language" with my brother (communications).

Through these experiences, I learned a great deal, in both academic and nonacademic skills. For example, selling cookies required me to break out of my shell and develop at least the beginnings of customer service skills, as well as do basic math and handle money. While some of these skills translated to my grades at school, not all did. Still, I had those badges, which I showed off to my teachers by wearing my sash to school on days we had meetings.

Using Badges to Capture Out-Of-School Learning

Flash forward a couple decades. Out of school learning opportunities are becoming more and more prevalent -- and less and less formal. Organizations like Girl Scouts still exist. So do new learning opportunities. Consider an outstanding high school student who is very interested in architecture, and who is working her way through some of the courses available on MITOpenCourseWare. Or a student who struggles in traditional classes but is interested in video game development, has taken Peer to Peer University courses in programming and game development, and has successfully created his own game.

Do either of those learning experiences "count"? Not formally. Neither is considered in assigning a high school grade or diploma to the learner. While the first could certainly list the courses she took on a college application, she would most likely have to retake similar courses in college. And while building a video game is impressive, the second would be hard-pressed to find an employer or postsecondary training program that would consider him with a low GPA and/or no high school diploma.

As a working paper by the Mozilla Foundation (in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation) puts it, "The time has come to connect self-directed and interest-driven learning to a broader ecosystem of accreditation and recognition to enable each learner to capitalize on the learning experiences that they are already having, or to inspire and help them to seek out new ones, as well as to communicate their achievements and skills to necessary stakeholders. To do so, we must not only recognize that people learn across many contexts in many different ways, but also find a way to capture that learning, collect it across the contexts and communicate it out."

What they propose: digital badges. Much like Girl Scout badges, digital badges would be "a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest." They could be earned in any learning environment, and signal either traditional academic achievements or skills such as collaboration, teamwork and more. They would be compiled and displayed on an individual's online profile, allowing potential employers, teachers and peers to view them.

Badges to Capture the Learning Path

Another possible use for digital badges is what has been termed "capturing the learning path."

To quote the white paper, "a degree or report card tells a limited story about what skills and competencies people have developed along the way."

What if a student earned small badges for each skill she masters, adding up to a larger badge when a body of knowledge is reached? I used to teach math. What if there was a badge for adding fractions? One for subtracting fractions? One for dividing them, for multiplying them, and for converting them to decimals? And so on. Once the student mastered all, she would get a larger badge, representing fractions as a whole.

In addition, consider that if a student ended up with a B in my class, that B did not let the student's next teacher what the student's skills were -- whether he could create a bar graph or subtract decimals, for example. What if there was a badge system that we could look to for an immediate assessment of the student's strengths and weaknesses, to guide our instruction for him?

The Need for a Badge "Ecosystem"

Of course, there are a number of challenges to developing such a badge system - among them, designing the badges themselves and quality assessments to ensure that they actually mean something, as well as developing an infrastructure that allows learners to capture and display these badges. Not to mention finding entities (Schools? Museums? Online communities?) that are willing to issue badges, though one prominent agency has recently stepped to the plate in this regard. NASA is planning to use the emerging digital badge platform to advance interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, focusing on two themes -- robotics and teamwork -- in developing an initial digital badge set for grades 4-12.

To address the challenges associated with digital badges, the 4th Digital Media and Learning Competition has been designed to spur development of the badge "ecosystem" through the creation of high quality individual badges and sets of badges. I was fortunate enough to go to the launch event for this competition last week, which is where I first grew excited about the digital badge concept. I'm excited to see how it progresses over the next few years.

What do you think? Do digital badges have the potential to impact K-12 education? Please share with us your thoughts and ideas!

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Charlie's Desk's picture
Charlie's Desk
Elementary School Computer Lab Teacher

Wow! I have proposed this idea several times to people in my district. So far, noone seems to get how "cool" this would be for middle and high school kids. I think there are several ways to implement this both for academic accomplishment and for behavior-based rewards. One aspect I didn't see in the article that I believe is necessary for this to be successful is a portal for the "display" of these rewards. Recognition needs to be digitally public.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger 2014

Hi Charlie, Great point! There are so many potential uses for this idea. Those involved right now seem focused on a bigger, universal system of accomplishment that would trail one throughout life. But I think that piloting something like this at a school or district level for "internal" purposes would be great as well. You are right - the public digital recognition could really serve as an incentive to get kids engaged (think of all the video games that they play in online communities and the amount of time they spend trying to earn the points/trophies/etc to gain a level of "expertise" in their community!).

LaTonya's picture

I think that digital badges do have the potential to impact the K-12 education. This is a very innovative way for students to document their learning experiences and skills. I also think that employers would like the fact they could screen future employees by using a computer program. This could be done in a very timely and cost efficient manner. As you have stated, this badge system would be very helpful in assisting the next teacher with the students previous academic performance. This would definately be a plus for parents. My one concern would be that teachers and administrators would use this badge system to document a student's negative performance. I think that only strengths and positive learning experiences should be documented. This is a great idea. It is amazing the advances we can achieve in education with technology.

Laurina Isabella Lyle's picture
Laurina Isabella Lyle
Project WET Executive Director

I really like the concept of badges. Teachers and students are learning so much on the internet and that is not being measured. We have a website www.discoverwater.org to teach about water. We'll be adding badges to this site. It's a perfect match.

Ruby's picture
Librarian and Technology Teacher for K-3 Students in Honolulu, HI

You are so right! Digital badges are catching on with students! I'm rewarding students with digital badges for their work. EDMODO has a complete system for educators that offers badges, grade book, assignments and quizzes.

Kristian Berg's picture
Kristian Berg
Fostering STEM through TV, web... any means necessary.

We have a team working on a digital badge system currently entered in the Mozilla/HASTAC/MacArthur "Badges for Lifelong Learning" competition. Its called "STEMScouts" and it has potential to plug in content and badges from myriad sources (we've done a lot of work with NASA). Take a look and tell us what you think or if you would like more info - we've posted a white board animation that pitches the concept - just follow the link!
or go to: www.stemscouts.org

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger 2014

Thanks for the heads-up! I will check it out!

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