25 Years of EdTech: 2015 – Digital Badges

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Providing digital badges for achievements that can be verified and linked to evidence started with Mozilla’s open badge infrastructure in 2011. They were an idea that had been floating around for a while – that you could earn informal accreditation for online activity. What the Mozilla work provided was a technical infrastructure, so badges could be linked through to evidence and verified. Badges could be awarded for assessment (passing a quiz), but more interestingly for community action, such as contributing to an online forum.

Like many other edtech developments, digital badges had an initial flurry of interest from devotees but then settled into a pattern of more laborious long-term acceptance. They represent a combination of key challenges for educational technology:

  • realizing easy-to-use, scalable technology – the Mozilla specification provides this, and tools such as Credly make creating and distributing badges reasonably straightforward;
  • developing social awareness that gives them currency – badges may be fun, but for them to gain value they need to be recognised by employers and society more widely;
  • and providing the policy and support structures that make them valuable – we have complicated systems and quality control processes around formal recognition. If employers are to start valuing badges then similar structures may need to be in place to give confidence in their value. And then the question may become, what is the point of them if they’re indistinguishable from formal credit?

Of these challenges, only the first relates directly to technology; the more substantial ones relate to awareness and legitimacy. For example, if employers or institutions come to widely accept and value digital badges, then they will gain credence with learners, creating a virtuous circle. There is some movement in this area, particularly with regard to staff development within organizations and often linked with MOOCs. Perhaps more interesting is what happens when educators design for badges, breaking courses down into smaller chunks with associated recognition, and when communities of practice give badges value. Linked with eportfolios, and transferable credit, then badges can provide a way of surfacing the generic skills inherent in much of formal education. Currently, their use is at an indeterminate stage — neither a failed enterprise nor the mainstream adoption once envisaged, but I suspect we’ll see steady growth around specific enterprises.

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