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How Badges Really Work in Higher Education

Digital badge initiatives at colleges and universities across the country are challenging assumptions about learning and assessment.

In 2011, as the University of California, Davis added a new major in sustainable agriculture and food systems, it sought to create a curriculum that would help students develop competencies for addressing the environmental, social, and economic challenges involving agriculture.

Because much of the work takes place outside the classroom, administrators wanted students to create their own portfolios where they could demonstrate all types of learning and activities. "This seemed to match well with digital badges," says Joanna Normoyle, internship coordinator and undergraduate adviser for UC-Davis' Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI). "We want to help students organize their thinking about their different learning experiences and tell their story. It seemed to us that badges could help take something that is highly abstract and concretize it."

The new major was selected as one of 30 winners of a MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Competition grant. That funding is supporting development of a digital portfolio that helps students build badges they can display on LinkedIn, Facebook, and to future employers. ASI initially worked with some third-party software developers but is now transitioning the badge system in-house. After 18 months of development work, the system is set to launch this fall.

"We want to roll it out carefully in our program," Normoyle says. "We are focused on the individual student experience of building a portfolio and earning badges, and ways that faculty can comment and connect with [students] as they do it."

Badges Get Serious
Digital badges are getting a serious look on many university campuses because they may allow students to demonstrate a greater variety of skills. "A diploma says as much about the institution you attended as it does about you," notes Bill Wisser, instructional designer in the Graduate School of Education (HGSE) at Harvard University (MA). "A portfolio gets more granular, and badges can show individual records of accomplishment."

But badges are only as valuable as the metadata behind them, and that is why the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure is important, he asserts. "The badge image itself means nothing," Wisser says. "But with Mozilla there is something behind it that links back to the issuer, the criteria it was issued under, and evidence verifying the credential."

Wisser, who will give a presentation on digital badges next month at the Campus Technology 2013 conference in Boston, has some experience with badge deployment. Last year, he helped doctoral students at HGSE design a badge program to experiment with alternative credentialing. "They decided to create a badge system to get at the core theories in areas such as urban education and craft pathways to understanding," he explains.

The badges have several layers, Wisser says. While the top level signifies that you completed elements of the coursework, the badges have stripes for other accomplishments such as leading a discussion or teaching peers. "These badges are visible to other students, and if you are struggling in one area, you could turn to someone more accomplished--as shown by their badge--for help. Or if you were strong in a certain area and saw someone else was struggling, you could reach out to that person."

Wisser notes that at Harvard, there is not yet support for badges from upper-level administrators. "It is too early and it just hasn't come onto their radar yet," he says. Digital badge efforts are beginning to bubble up from the middle of universities, agrees Sheryl Grant, director of social networking for the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science. "It's not so much individual faculty members working alone and it's not the top administrators, but alliances of people on campus who are agitating from the middle," she says.

A badge effort may take more than a year to get off the ground. People from different parts of campus may come together and have different problems they want to solve, and that leads to different answers about the infrastructure they need and what types of assessment are required, Grant says. Universities that already embrace a competency-based model of curriculum development and assessment are able to move much faster on badges, she notes.

Adopting badges at the university level will present many challenges to the pioneers who try it, says Dan Hickey, associate professor of learning sciences and research scientist at the Center for Research on Learning and Technology at Indiana University. "People don't know what they are getting into and it touches the whole ecosystem." Hickey is working on a grant from Google to offer a massive open online course (MOOC) that uses badges. "I have to negotiate with the university about whether I am allowed to use 'IU' on the badges I plan to issue with the course," he says. IU is basically telling early adopters to go ahead and innovate, and it will work through any policy issues later, Hickey says. "So they are pleased with our efforts and not hindering us," he adds, "but they see that there are some risks involved."

In his blog posts, Hickey has noted that efforts to implement badges within accredited academic programs could get complicated because changing accountability usually changes assessment, and changing assessment often calls for changes in instruction. One of the challenges, he says, is aligning badges with learning outcomes. "When they go to issue badges, teachers sometimes realize the claims they want to make are not really linked to evidence. They don't have the evidence of the learning outcomes."

Hickey is leading the DML Badges Design Principles Documentation project to document the badge design principles that emerge from the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning program. He suggests university officials ask themselves some initial questions about learning when considering using digital badges:

  • What sorts of claims will your badges make about the earners and what evidence will your badges contain to support those claims?
  • What assumptions about learning will frame your consideration and implementation of badges?
  • How will your badges program be introduced? Will it be a centralized effort or pockets of innovation?

Purdue's Passport
One university that has embraced the concept of badges is Purdue (IN), which has developed its own Passport platform for their development. "We saw this as an emerging model for alternative credentialing and a means to provide students a way to capture evidence of the work they've done and align that with embedded learning outcomes," says Kyle Bowen, director of informatics in Information Technology. "We also think faculty can get creative with new forms of assessment."

Purdue has created the technology infrastructure to support badges, including tools to capture evidence, store it, and provide privacy controls. (Purdue's Passport platform integrates with the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, including Mozilla Backpack.)

In one early example of Passport's use, instructors are giving out badges for students who pass an 8-week MOOC-like course in nanotechnology that doesn't have credit attached. In another example, the provost's office has created a badge related to intercultural learning that students can earn for their work in different disciplines and departments. "One key element is the information attached to the badge, including who issued it," Bowen says. "Some of these fields are quite small, so who the instructor is can be important."

The next question for Purdue to explore is how to balance the ad-hoc use of badges as an element in a course or co-curricular activity vs. how they might be officially issued by the university. What would a more official collection of badges look like? "We are working on a way to articulate how evidence is captured and assessed within our core curriculum," Bowen says. "It will take time." 

How to Move Forward?
Nicholas Langlie, director of planning, innovation, and implementation at Longwood University (VA), developed a badge system for use with a MOOC course on post-secondary readiness skills offered to high school students. The first time the course ran, 28 percent of those who signed up worked through 10 individual badges and completed the course. "Students found it engaging," Langlie says. "They can now show up for an interview or a college application with a digital representation [of their skills]. That might make them stand out."

With badges in mind, Longwood is now rethinking its approach to continuing education. "For instance," Langlie adds, "our statisticians in the business college are interested in teaching a class for K-12 teachers. They would get certifications in the form of a badge."

Yet Langlie believes that if you asked most faculty members on his campus, they would say they have no interest in badges. "They might say it is an interesting concept, but they would not be interested in using it in the traditional for-credit environment," he says. "And I think the upper administration is even more worried about assessment and accreditation issues. There needs to be more awareness that this doesn't supplant traditional assessment; it complements it. It would also help if accrediting agencies would express an opinion about digital badges."

Setting aside course credit, some universities are experimenting with digital badges to encourage engagement with the campus to improve student retention. Seton Hall University (NJ) students, for instance, can earn badges for participating in campus events.

There is a diversity of opinions in the badge community about giving badges for participation, says HASTAC's Grant. Some think if the badge system does not demonstrate a level of skill and tangible value, it may water down the concept of badging overall. While IU's Hickey agrees, he is excited by badges' potential role in deep engagement and participatory education. "We need to do a lot of work to understand motivation. The intrinsic/extrinsic motivation model is outdated and too narrow," he says. "The real question is, how does the introduction of the badge transform discourse? Do the students engage more deeply?"

Grant estimates that it may be five years before university presidents and provosts start feeling real pressure to have badge programs. "But I think it is only going to take one university coming up with a scalable model to get the momentum going, and I think one of the land grant universities will do it."

Referring to her own graduate work, Grant notes that if there were two top Ph.D. programs in her field, one that allowed her to work toward badges in defined competencies through a combination of coursework and field experience and another that didn't, "there's no question which one I would choose."

HGSE's Wisser thinks the digital badge movement will stay at the faculty level for a while longer as technology companies and open source consortia work to make badges easier to deploy. "We will see more educational research on their use and impact," he says, "and more buy-in and slow growth as part of the electronic portfolio."

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