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The Many Functions of Digital Badges

One of the first questions we usually receive from organizations first diving into digital badges is “Why do people typically issue digital badges?” The answer is “lots of reasons.”

Just like their real-world counterparts, digital badges serve a wide variety of purposes depending on the issuing body and the individual. For the most part, badges’ functions can be bucketed into one of five categories.

  1. Motivate Participation
  2. Motivate Collaboration
  3. For Recognition and Assessment
  4. Act as Alternative Credentials
  5. Represent Competencies

1. Motivate Participation

This is one of the core functions, to encourage participation by recognizing individual participants. TripAdvisor’s issuing of digital badges to users were meant to recognize their most frequent contributors and encourage others to follow suit. Numerous organizations rely on badges boost participation in employee training and other HR programs.

2. Motivate Collaboration

Most online communities rely on a small number of individuals generating a majority of the content and discussion, which means fewer overall opinions. By using digital badges as rewards to encourage collaboration, a wider variety of voices and perspectives can be elicited, which can in turn help to engage more individuals in discussion or data-sharing. For example, OER Commons uses badges to encourage collaboration among teachers, educators, and more in their online community.

Digital badge collection example.

3. Recognition and Assessment

Digital badges can be used to recognize quality, indicate trust, or represent awards. In the education space they’re often associated with various types of assessments, including summative (evaluation of prior learning), formative (provide guidance and feedback), or transformative (reshape the learning process). Digital badges are most commonly associated with formative assessment where an individual is provided feedback and his or her progress is tracked. This is common with massive open online courses (MOOCs for short) and online assessments. Badges can also be strung together to show various “levels” of mastery obtained over time.

4. Alternative Credentials

Some consider badges a potential threat or challenger to diplomas given the fact that more and more online education programs are adopting badges to mark achievement. However, this notion is hotly contested. It’s more common for individuals and organizations to recognize the modular nature of badges versus the comprehensive nature of a diploma or degree. But again, this is up for debate.

5. Represent Competencies

In most educational programs, traditional time-based assessments provide a single quantitative grade, more often than not on some kind of “pass – fail” scale. Badges provide a more modular and flexible way of showing various levels and combinations of competency or mastery.

After organizations have a better idea of the different ways badges can be utilized, the next questions is usually “how exactly do I go about issuing digital badges?”

How Badges are Issued and Verified

Badges are issued by individual organizations who set criteria for what constitutes earning a badge. They’re most often issued through an online credential or badging platform. These platforms allow organizations to design, issue, and manage the various badges they want to award to individuals.

Most advanced digital badging platforms offer integrations into Learning Management Systems (LMS for short) that automate the issuing process after a course or program is completed (and passed).

The actual issuing of a badge, in practice, is only one of many steps in what can be a much longer process. At a higher level that process may look as follows:

  1. Determine what skill or achievement to recognize
  2. Set the criteria for what constitutes earning the badge
  3. Develop test or course criteria/curriculum
  4. Make the curriculum available to individuals (can be free or paid, online or in-person)
  5. Score or evaluate those who enroll in or complete the course, to determine who will receive the badge
  6. Design and issue the badge via a digital credential platform

As stated before, the purpose of this final step is to award a badge to serve as an indicator of accomplishment or skill that can be displayed, accessed, and verified online. And now that a badge has been issued to an individual, he or she can share it in various formats. These might include social media, personal websites, email signatures, professional profiles (ex: LinkedIn), and resumes.

The Importance of Sharing and Verification

Individuals work to earn digital badges for a specific purpose. Sometimes that’s general self-improvement, but often it’s because they’re trying to show current or potential future employers that they are continuing to grow or have acquired new skills. This means two things:

  1. Individuals will want to share or display their digital badges
  2. Third party “verifiers” will want to be able to verify the badge is legitimate

If an individual can’t share their badge, and if a third party can’t verify it, then the value of the underlying credential is significantly diminished. This is one of the main reasons for the Open Badge standard. Third party verifiers can see the various meta-data associated with the badge to determine if it is valid. According to the standard, this data must include details like:

  • What the badge is called
  • The name of the organization that issued the badge
  • What the badge represents
  • What an individual had to do to earn the badge
  • The name of the person who earned the badge
  • When the badge was issued and if it expires

The end goal is for a third party (such as a current or future employer) to be able to quickly and easily see what the badge represents and verify that it is legitimate.

If you want more information on digital badges then you should grab our in-depth Digital Badges Guide. The free ebook goes into detail on what digital badges are, how they fall into the greater category of digital credentials, their history, how they are used, how they are aggregated, issued, and verified, as well as review common criticisms.